It boils down to being known for something valuable.

By Syvia —

Rose Alley, April 2016 —

Assume you are a white collar professional working in a prestigious commercial company where fierce competition is faced everyday. On average, you invest 10 hours a day at your cubical, drawing PowerPoint slides, analyzing data and preparing for client meetings. Sometime during weekends when you finally get to forget the alarm clock, your manager pulled you into this 8AM morning meeting with clients. You jump onto the call in your PJs, warmly greet everyone, voicing exuberant enthusiasm.

You get an annual salary package with highly elastic bonus, which the authority tells you is closely tied to your performance. The annual review season comes. This year, you are also aiming at promotion, for which you have been working so hard year round. However, your boss later makes the announcement that one of the apparently less hardworking co-workers is getting promoted, not you. Nor did you get the fat bonus check you wished for, it feels like being punched on the nose.

Why? You go to your boss, friends, mentors and family. Things you hear are various, all seemingly legit. Some say you haven’t demonstrated enough abilities, some say you haven’t ‘networked’ enough, others suggest your boss has an attention span of a poodle and just can’t see your contribution. It suddenly looks like you’ve done wrong on EVERYTHING and you don’t even know what to fix first. You don’t realize that it is not everything but ONE thing that you have done wrong, which killed everything.

TIME. You’ve simply spent your time on the wrong things.

To further my point, let me introduce the concept of ‘scalability’ first.

There are mainly two types of efforts – the scalable and non-scalable.

The non-scalable type of work resembles an hourly paid assignment where your reward is mainly tied to the time you spend.

The opposite is the scalable type, where one hour of investment can generate arbitrarily large return.

By working hard and fulfilling your day-to-day duties, you are showing the company that keeping you in their workforce is not a losing deal because for every hour they pay for, you provide equivalent services. Your value is mainly tagged to your work hours here and to the HRs and senior management of the firm, you are termed a “FTE” (full-time equivalent) – a number on their spreadsheet, for which your name doesn’t matter.

However, there seems to be a wide expectation gap here. You think you deserve more because you’ve been investing so much time. But it only works to prove your worthiness for a position, and the firm is returning you the courtesy to keep you.

Many think differently, arguing “let’s just accept the fact that the firms are not always fair and the workplace is full of competition.”

I agree, and this is exactly why you need to scale your presence and impact to stand out, by investing time on the right thing.

One example of that is to be really good at something useful (and even better, advanced) and practice it to the extent of mastery – this gives you your personal brand and competitive advantage. It’s about establishing your reputation, making your name important (vs. a number). Your knowledge will benefit as many people as possible, and your value is no longer restricted to voluminous labor, but multiplied by knowledge and visibility.

I still remember years ago when the new wave of data science technology first started to gain momentum in the Financial Services Industry, one of my consultant colleague made a smart and brave move to immerse herself in 4 consecutive large, highly complicated and risky projects in this area. She then became one of the first most experienced young consultants in this practice, and within only 3 years, she was promoted to manager from her initial level, which usually takes others 6-7 years of experience. Instead of hardworking, she focused on developing the right expertise and knowledge, both are highly scalable and impactful.

It boils down to being known for something valuable. Furthermore, scalable activities are not confined to learning. Relationship is another thing. Bonding with someone at the workplace can bring you trust that leads to visibility, opportunities and support in future.

To entrepreneurs this is even more apparent. The shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis who later married Jacqueline Kennedy was known for his non-serious work style. Managing a shipping conglomerate across the western world, he never had an office. He didn’t have a 9-5 work schedule, most of the deals were made on the dinner and wine table and if he were to seek legal counsel from his lawyers, he met him at 2AM in the night club.

The trick is about knowing how to spend his time – on meeting key people and decisions that are to have long-run highly scalable impact.

However, this is not to say that working long hours should be taboo. If you can work 12 hours on highly scalable activities a day, your reward will be tenfold or even more. Read Quora and you’ll see a very diverse set of opinions given by the entrepreneurs. But for those who claim they are working 24/7, their company, at least for now, hasn’t taken off yet.

Often time, spending long time and being seemingly busy give us the feeling of security. This is one thing you can readily defend yourself with (“I’ve been a hard worker”) when things are working in your disfavor. And most likely, your friends, family, coworkers and mentors who give you insights on why you didn’t get that bonus or promotion will not accuse you for being hardworking. The general reasons they give you are not wrong, but once you’ve figured out how to strategically spend your time on scalable matters and successfully navigate your efforts accordingly, these problems should silently evaporate.