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5 Extraordinary Pieces of Career Advice from the World’s Top CEOs


Summary: Effective management means thinking in practical yet innovative ways inside the workplace.

5 Extraordinary Pieces of Career Advice from the World’s Top CEOs
  • Being a learn-it-all means that you learn from everybody, those above you and those below you, never hiding behind your status as an “expert.”
  • Celebrate failure means honoring you for having taken a risk and failed. This will change your attitude from fear to excitement.
  • Having the optimism to know that world problems can be solved will teach you how to love your work.
  • Keep moving forward in your goals and ambitions, or you will start to decay.

Once upon a time, in ancient India, students subordinated themselves to their gurus so thoroughly that they would even drink the masters’ bath water – and would follow them everywhere and pretty much do whatever was asked of them. In today’s tweet culture, we prefer our life lessons in little nuggets of wisdom that we can set upon, like a Zen Buddhist on his koan, and mine for wisdom. Let these golden nuggets of career advice, culled from the top CEOs in the world, give you food for thought: each is succinct enough to be memorized, yet deep enough to never be exhausted by reflection.

1. Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella says “Don’t be a Know-it-All. Be a Learn-it-All.”

Satya took over as CEO a bare three years ago and since has ramped up the importance of Microsoft – were such a thing possible. He references Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s best-selling book for his muse on team-building at Microsoft, as reported on

“I was reading it not in the context of business or work culture,” explained Satya, “but in the context of my children’s education. The author describes the simple metaphor of kids at school. One of them is a ‘know-it-all,’ and the other is a ‘learn-it-all,’ and the ‘learn-it-all,’ always will do better than the other one even if the ‘know-it-all’ kid starts with much more innate capability.

Going back to business: If that applies to boys and girls at school, I think it also applies to CEOs like me, and entire organizations like Microsoft.”

A title such as expert stultifies a scholar, leads to the temptation of “resting on your laurels,” and, in today’s ever-changing world, makes little sense. You can’t possibly know it all. It changes every day. The Renaissance artist, Michelangelo, the most famous sculptor of all time, had every reason to brag and retire, yet he kept working on new projects until his death in his 90s. His motto was Ancora imparo, “I still learn,” and he wore his student’s backpack even as an elderly man.

Be Students of Life, ever learning, ever inquisitive. Wisdom rejoices in rebuke, so if somebody proves you wrong, thank them! You’ve learned something.

When Edison was asked whether he felt discouraged after failing to find a filament to work for a light bulb, he laughed and said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Of course, he persisted and discovered a filament that did work, inventing the light bulb. Persistence is success.

Socrates too, the “wisest man in the world,” according to the Oracle, simply asked questions, exposing the ignorance of the self-proclaimed experts by asking them to explain themselves. This ancient wisdom still inspires the greatest minds in the business, such as Satya Nadella: be a student, learn in all things. If you can learn from a mistake, you are never defeated.

“Some people can call it rapid experimentation,” said Nadella,” but more importantly, we call it, ‘hypothesis testing.’ Instead of saying ‘I have an idea,’ what if you said ‘I have a new hypothesis, let’s go test it, see if it’s valid, and ask how quickly we can validate it. And if it’s not valid, move on to the next one.”

“There’s no harm in claiming failure, if the hypothesis doesn’t work. To me, being able to come up with the new ways of doing things, new ways of framing what is a failure and what is a success, how does one achieve success – it’s through a series of failures, a series of hypothesis testing. That’s in some sense the real pursuit.”

Attempt and fail. Attempt again. Fail better. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Let me remind the reader that I am only an experimenter. Do not set the least value on what I do, or the least discredit on what I do not, as if I pretended to settle anything as true or false. I unsettle all things. No facts are to me sacred; none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker, with no Past at my back.”
2. Billionaire CEO Sara Blakely gives herself a high five for what she failed at that week.

In the same vein as Satya Nadella, with his Learn-it-all attitude, and his willingness to try a hypothesis and fail, Sara Blakely credits her failures as to what made her astronomically successful.

Sara founded Spanx while in her late twenties, earning $4 million in sales the first year, $10 million the second, winding up named in 2012 by Forbes as the youngest self-made female billionaire in the world. The secret of her success; failure!

As reports, her father would sit her down in the dining room each week and ask her, “What did you fail at this week?” Not what goal did she win, what test did she ace, but what did she fail at. When she recounted a failure, her father gave Blakely a high-five.

In an interview for Fortune, Blakely explained, “I didn’t realize at the time how much this advice would define not only my future, but my definition of failure. I have realized as an entrepreneur that so many people don’t pursue their idea because they were scared or afraid of what could happen. My dad taught me that failing simply just leads you to the next great thing.”

Oh yeah? Like how? Well, Blakely failed at the LSAT’s twice before going on to the next big thing: Spanx. “It was one of the many tests that showed me how some of the biggest failures in our lives just nudge us into another path.”

Consider young Nietzsche, budding philosopher and wannabe musician. He shared some of his music with Hans von Bülow, music director at the time, and received this in return, “Once again—no offense intended—you yourself describe your music as ‘horrible’— it is, actually, more horrible than you realize, not in a way that is harmful to the common interest, but worse than that: harmful to you, who cannot more wickedly beat to death your excess of leisure than in this kind of rape of Euterpe[the Muse of music].” As discouraging as this and the remainder of that cruel letter were, they nevertheless nudged Nietzsche into the direction of becoming a world-famous philosopher.

So know how to turn your stumbling blocks into stepping stones: Try. Fail. Try again. Fail better.

3. Bill Gates says, “We face Serious Problems and they can be solved.”

Bill Gates, the richest man in the world, founder of Microsoft, being a philanthropist at heart, shares some of his success wisdom now and again, and, in this instance, in the easily digestible forms of personal Tweets. In a series of 13 Tweets addressed to New College Grads, he offered this:
“AI, energy, and biosciences are promising fields where you can make a huge impact. It’s what I would do if starting today….Looking back on when I left college, there are some things I wish I had known….E.g. Intelligence takes many different forms. It is not one-dimensional. And not as important as I used to think…..I also have on big regret: When I left school, I knew little about the world’s worst inequities. Took me decades to learn….You know more than I did when I was your age. You can start fighting inequity, whether down the street or around the world, sooner….Meanwhile, surround yourself with people who challenge you, teach you, and push you to be your best self as @MelindaGates does for me…. Like @WarrenBuffett I measure my happiness by whether people close to me are happy and love me, & by the differences I make for others. … If I could give each of you a graduation present, it would be this – the most inspiring book I’ve ever read [The Better Angels of Our Nature, by Steven Pinker]. … @SAPinker shows how the world is getting better. Sounds crazy, but it’s true. This is the most peaceful time in human history. … That matters because if you think the world is getting better, you want to spread the progress to more people and places. .. It doesn’t mean you ignore the serious problems we face. It just means you believe they can be solved. …This is the core of my worldview. It sustains me in tough times and is the reason I love my work. I think it can do the same for you.”

Certainly his conscientious advice to realize “inequities,” sounds quaint coming from the richest man, founder of a mercilessly combative technology firm – and anybody can turn philanthropist once they are rich. Yet there is something to his advice, which amounts to this: be optimistic. That is, optimistic in the most Emerson-like sense, who redefined it as “believing good will win in the end.”

Surrounding yourself with people who “challenge you, teach you, push you,” and judging your success not by intelligence, but “by whether people close to you are happy and love you,” sounds the sort of wisdom best learned before we sell our soul to money.

That the world is better than it’s ever been might strike us, fed on disaster-blaster news feeds, as ridiculous. Yet the sentiment keeps Gates working, and happy to work.” It doesn’t mean you just ignore the serious problems we face. It just means you believe they can be solved.”

4. Elon Musk quips his career advice “Keep Moving Forward.”

In his recent TED interview, serial entrepreneur Elon Musk explains the secret to his success.

“People are mistaken when they think that technology just automatically improves. It does not automatically improve. It only improves if a lot of people work very hard to make it better, and actually it will, I think, by itself, degrade, actually.

“You look at great civilizations like Ancient Egypt, and they were able to make the pyramids, and they forgot how to do that. And then the Romans, they built these incredible aqueducts. They forgot how to do that.”

What does this mean? Once you stop living, you start dying. As Emerson said, “All power lies in the moment of transition … Life only avails, not the having lived. Power ceases in the instant of repose; it resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state.”

To enact this perennial wisdom, Musk says we must “Resist needlessly dwelling on mistakes. Instead, identify lessons learned and move on; continue to set challenging yet reachable goals – especially after scoring big.

5. Sheryl Sandberg, says, “Always seek new challenges.”

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, one of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women, offers this advice, as reported in “Always seek new challenges – even if you are not sure you are completely ready.”

If we keep putting off trying for the right moment, it will never come. Someday never comes. Don’t wait for opportunity, make your opportunity. It is only by getting in over our head that we learn to swim. So long as we hide in the shallows, we never discover our true potential.

To this, we add the wisdom of Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube, Google / Alphabet: “Speak up. Don’t be afraid to say what’s on your mind or ask for what you want.” Dare to be wrong. Anybody can have confidence when they know the right answer. Take the risk of being wrong, and state your beliefs even if the world disagrees. That confidence is magnetic. As Nietzsche said, “The errors of great people are more fruitful than the truths of little people.” So what makes a great person?
  • Self-reliance
  • Confidence
  • Audacity
  • Power

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