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To Excel, Just Suck!

Lots of people write advice for young people about how to do well in your career. Thinking beyond the usual, I think it’s fun to think of how you should suck when you want to do well.

Suck Up Knowledge

That is, be eager to learn. Shadow people who seem to do jobs that interest you. Conduct informational interviews with them, too. Get online and search for whatever interests you – it’s amazing the amount of free knowledge that’s out there. Not just obvious places like Wikipedia, but things like business school journals, marketing blogs, government websites, etc.

Don’t limit yourself to just things that are directly relevant, either. I’m constantly running into things related to social media but only marginally connected to government that rattle around in my head for years before popping out as something useful.

Here’s one example: several years ago, I saw a gmail video that Google put out where their little icon flew across the screen. Google then invited people to submit their own short clips of the icon doing the same thing in interesting ways, and then created a compilation. Now I can’t find that video, but the idea stuck with me.

A couple of years ago, we were looking for an a way to get people to own the environment. That is, we wanted them to understand that protecting the environment is a partnership between agencies like EPA and individual people. Thinking back to the Gmail video, we decided to have people pass a sign saying “It’s My Environment” in various languages across the screen, while also saying the words and showing themselves doing something for the environment. My favorite clip was some Guatemalan kids speaking Mayan! We made several compilations. Here’s the first:

Suck it Up

No one owes you anything. Especially not at the beginning of your career, but even later, it’s best not to act as if you’re entitled. But the best way to get people to want to give you things, opportunities, projects, etc. is to excel at everything you do. It doesn’t matter how small the task, you can either blow it out of the water or you can just get by.

Put yourself into it full-bore. Find a better way to do it. Do it early and under budget. Whatever you do, no matter how trivial, do it well.

And when the chips are down late in the day, try to find a way to stick around to help. You’d be amazed at how long people remember the folks who put in more than what was required to help them out.

My examples here are endless, but probably the best ones relate to emergency communications. I’ve spent many hours in our Emergency Operations Center working on responses to 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the BP oil spill, and the Japanese nuclear incident (where radiation came over to the US). I can tell you that it matters whose number shows up when I’m 10 seconds from leaving at the end of the day. If it’s one of those folks I worked so closely with, and who helped me out so many times, I pick up.

Suck Up

Okay, no one likes a brown-noser. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t manage up, which I define as “meeting your own needs while meeting your manager’s needs.” Want to be trusted? Deliver information to your boss in the way she needs it. Want to be included in meetings where you wouldn’t normally? Ask your boss for advice and for help thinking about how you can broaden your understanding of your organization’s mission. And don’t forget that sometimes, even people above you in the command chain sometimes need to vent or ask advice.

I don’t mean to give false compliments here. I mean recognize your boss, and other leaders around you, as bringing value to their efforts. Show them you respect them and want to learn from them, and more than likely, they’ll bring you into stuff you never would’ve heard about otherwise.

No specific examples here, but I can tell you that managing up has brought me excellent, trusting relationships with every manager I’ve had.


No, don’t deliberately make mistakes. But do go beyond the norm and try new things. You’re bound to make mistakes along the way, and those can provide some of the best learning.

This is one of the more popular pieces of advice, so I won’t belabor it. But it’s real.

I used to teach rockclimbing, and we’d say that if you weren’t falling, you weren’t improving. Of course, we were always on a rope. So find a situation where there’s room to make mistakes, and then push boundaries. There are few better learning opportunities out there.


Got any other ways to suck to excel? Share in the comments!

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Marian Henderson

This article is good advice no matter where you are in your career: Do your best, be a team player, go above and beyond what’s expected of you, don’t be afraid to take risks.

Elliot Volkman

Clever draw in, but a well thought out piece. Education is something that should never cease, even if you have completed the degree(s) that you set out to receive. Learning does not simply happen in the classroom alone, but from experienced coworkers and superiors. I believe Govloop’s mentor program is a great example of this.

Jessica Orquina

It’s important to remember it’s okay to make mistakes – and then learn from them. If you are afraid of making mistakes it is impossible to do your best!

Alycia Piazza

someone I respect, who has been a mentor to me, told me recently – “you can’t always be perfect, it’s humanizing to make mistakes every once in a while” – I like it 🙂

Kathryn Mooney

Great hook and sage advice! I particularly appreciate towing the line between “sucking up” and supporting your boss in an appropriate way.

Sandra Lopez

Jeff, well stated advice..the one that resonates with me personally is the suck up all of the knowledge you can..knowledge will always lead you, guide you and open opportunities that might not have been in your path had you not “sucked it up” so to speak.