Zak's Top 5 Habits for Success

I recently wrote a letter to my brothers, who were graduating high school, outlining the 5 habits I've found to be the most important for succeeding in careers, relationships, and life. It ended up taking a while to write, and I thought others might find it useful, so I've decided to share with a more public audience. Enjoy!

Hey [brother],

Congrats on graduating! Along with some cash from [wife] and me, I wanted to share a few things I've learned that have helped me in my career. Since graduating high school, I've found there are a few simple skills and mindsets that will put you miles ahead of others without too much effort. These are all things I wish I would have known when I graduated high school.

But you're graduating and probably getting lots of random advice from family members about how to live your life and what to do. So why listen to me?

I've done extremely well over the past decade. Since starting in the software industry, I’ve consistently received the highest performance reviews on my teams at work, which has led to a significant promotion or pay increase every year. I am being paid significantly more today than I was 7 years ago, and it’s helped us pay off $100,000 in debt and live a happy, comfortable lifestyle.

I’m not saying any of this to brag, but to emphasize that I’ve found successful, reliable methods that continue to advance my career year after year. The principles I’m describing in this letter are deceptively simple, but they've helped me succeed in every situation as I rose up through 4 different roles on 5 different teams at 2 different companies. I genuinely think the advice in this letter will help you become a happier, more successful person in your career and in your personal life. This is the first time I’ve shared these collective tips, so I hope you find them useful!

1. Seek first to understand, then to be understood

If you only take one thing from this letter, make it this one: Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

In your life, you will come across many people and situations you disagree with. Your boss will make seemingly dumb decisions, your significant other will get upset about things that seem unimportant to you, you'll meet people with completely different political and religious views that sound absurd to you, and you'll have to follow processes at work that look like they were created by a complete idiot. It's natural to immediately write off contradicting opinions to your own as "wrong" or "dumb". Do not do this. Ever. Instead, get curious.

Everyone has their own opinions and motivations, and for the most part, nobody is actively trying to make bad decisions. That dumb decision your boss made might have been the best thing they could do, given requirements you didn't know about from their boss. That thing your significant other is upset about might be related to a deeper concern about your relationship. That person who has crazy political views might have had years of indoctrination, or they might have some information or perspective you don't have. That dumb process at work might have come from years of reworking former “smarter” processes that have failed in the past. In any case, you are going to have a hard time making any of these situations better without first understanding the reasoning behind them.

When you come across a situation that makes you unhappy or someone you disagree with, get curious and ask questions. What led to things being this way? Why do people think this is a good idea? Do you understand why they think that or how they got to their conclusions? Ask specific questions and get specific answers. As long as you're coming from a place of genuine curiosity (not criticism), people will generally be more than willing to explain the context that you don’t have. And always keep in mind that no matter how confident you are about something, you could be wrong. The only way you're going to find out if you're wrong (or have the best information about why you're right) is to find out more from the people who disagree with you.

When you take time to listen to what other people have to say before inserting your own opinions, you also build trust and understanding. Active listening is a huge influencer, and people will be much more willing to listen to what you have to say if you've listened to them first. And by listening first, you'll also have better context and information to make sound decisions going forward.

2. Assume positive intent

This goes hand-in-hand with seeking first to understand. As you are seeking to understand others, it's important to not assume malice, and instead assume positive intent. One of the biggest blockers I've seen to progress and communication is when people assume the other person in a relationship (professional or otherwise) is intentionally screwing them over. When you don't get what you want, it can be easy to take it personally and assume the other person is targeting you or just being lazy. This is a toxic mindset that creates unnecessary stress and stops all useful conversations. Why even try to fix the situation or find out more when you “know” the other side is doing it on purpose or isn't willing to change?

Even if someone is trying to take advantage of you, the only productive way to continue a conversation is to assume they’re doing their best to work with you. This gives you a way to talk about why you're upset with their actions or ask them why things turned out differently than you expected. And if they continually act this way, it gives you a way to talk about it and plan for further contradictory behavior in the future.

Too many people assume bad intent and never follow up, which halts all progress and leaves them in a bitter state. I've seen days, weeks, and months wasted on projects all because people just didn't want to address a difference in expectations with someone. In most cases, it was just a lack of understanding that could have been cleared up with a simple question.

Assuming positive intent is great for your mental health, too. When I started practicing this several years ago, I realized how many small pointless grudges I was holding and how nice it was to let them go. For years I'd get upset when someone cut me off in traffic, or when a client wouldn't give me all the information I asked for, or when someone on my team at work didn't complete a task. All these unaddressed negative thoughts built up and added unneeded stress to my life with absolutely no benefits or promise of resolution. Assuming positive intent allows you to focus on the facts and not waste mental energy on negative thoughts that serve no purpose other than to make you madder. It forces you to actually think of solutions rather than pointing fingers and giving up.

On the opposite end of this, beware the chronic complainers. At most jobs, you will find negative people who make a habit of assuming bad intent. You'll often find them in groups, talking about how horrible everything is, how nothing will change, and how they're victims of their circumstances. In the short term, it's much easier to sit and complain like this. In the long term, these people find themselves stuck, unhappy, and unable to make any progress until they quit and find a new job where they find new things to complain about. Stay away from these types of people and mindsets if you want to grow and not be miserable. There are healthier ways to deal with stress.

3. Have a system for getting things done

You'd be amazed how many professionals far into their careers cannot reliably complete simple routine tasks. Too many people overcommit and don't keep track of their obligations, leaving their boss and coworkers constantly following up with them.

Know the minimum requirements of your job, and do them. If you have a weekly timesheet you need to submit, or a monthly report you have to do, make sure you have a system in place to remind you to get these done. These are probably some of the easiest and least important responsibilities you have, but not doing them will lose trust with your colleagues quickly. Being able to regularly complete simple routine tasks is an easy way to show you're reliable when compared to your coworkers who have to constantly be reminded by your manager every week.

Having a system to track everything you need to do also gives you a way to take your mind off unimportant tasks while focusing on the more important ones. Set up systems that make it easy to do the minimum requirements for the parts of your job you don't enjoy so you can use your energy to excel at the parts you actually do enjoy.

For effective tips in setting up a system for tracking tasks, I highly recommend reading "Getting Things Done" (or listening to the audiobook). This is the very first career advice book I read. It changed the way I thought about work, and I attribute a lot of my career growth to practices I learned from that book.

4. Have a budget

It's important to have a budget so you can know where your money is going and plan for unexpected expenses. This becomes especially important if you're paying off debt such as student and car loans. You should know how much money you have compared to how much debt you have, and you should make sure that your net worth continues to trend upward. This is very difficult to track without a budget.

A budget doesn't restrict the money you spend; it gives you a realistic picture of your spending. As your bank account grows, you need to know how much of that money you need to hold onto to pay for infrequent, expected expenses like replacing car tires or unexpected expenses like emergency medical procedures. Having a realistic view of your true expenses will give you a better idea of how much money you actually have and how much you can comfortably spend on more fun, frivolous things. Living within your means also makes it easier to focus on building your career, skills, and network without being hyperfocused on the size of your paycheck.

[Wife] and I have tracked every single expense we've made over the past 10 years. We've gone from more than $100,000 in debt to having a higher net worth than most people our age, and our budget has guided us in keeping in the right direction every step of the way.

There are a lot of budgeting programs out there, and you should pick one that you'll use and that works for you. I personally recommend a program called YNAB (short for "You Need A Budget"). They offer a free month and have a lot of great online training to help you manage your money.

5. Read

One of the more surprising tools I’ve used to improve myself and advance in my career is books. When I graduated high school, I had heard of popular self-help books and career advice books, but I didn't think they'd be useful. I figured they were just feel-good fluff motivational books without much to offer. It wasn't until I read "Getting Things Done" early in my career that I realized how helpful books can be in giving advice for navigating life, relationships, and communicating with others. Most of what's in this letter is a combination of what I've learned from these books and found to be the most useful. Today, I always have an e-book or audiobook that I'm reading or listening to, and often return to my favorites for more insight.

Here are the top books I’ve read so far that have had the biggest impact on me:

  • Getting Things Done – The first productivity book I read, which shapes a lot about how I live my life and succeed in my career today
  • The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – Great advice on how to work effectively and handle relationships
  • How to Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age – A modernized version of the classic "How to Win Friends and Influence People", this book gives a lot of surprising insight into building relationships with others. This changed my way of thinking about the effort needed to get to know people, helping me realize that building relationships is mostly just being interested in other people.
  • Radical Candor – Great advice on how to talk to people and have difficult conversations
  • The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck – This book gives a good perspective on how to live life a little more stress-free and focus on the things that matter.
  • Getting to Yes and Never Split the Difference – These are two great books about negotiation that give tips for handling tough conversations in all parts of your life (not just for negotiating purchases and business deals).
  • Atomic Habits – Nobody becomes a success overnight. Most successful people got to where they are by setting up systems and making small, incremental improvements every day over an extended period of time. Atomic Habits is a great guide to setting yourself up for success with focused habits.
  • Never Eat Alone – A helpful book about making connections with others and the powerful impact a good network can have on your career.

I hope some of this advice helps! You're at an exciting point at the start of your adult life where you can head in any direction. If you focus on getting a little better each day in your career and relationships, you can have a happy, successful life. Feel free to text me any time for life advice, career advice, or whatever. Congrats, again!


Continue the conversation

Did this help you? Do you have other thoughts? Let's continue the discussion on Twitter! If you'd like to show your support, feel free to buy me a coffee. Thanks for reading!

Zak Laughton

Written by Zak Laughton, a full stack developer building tools to make life a little easier. Huge fan of JavaScript, React, GraphQL, and testing code.