Think in Waves

You can’t do it all at once—that much is obvious. But a trap that many talented professionals fall into is they pick one activity or type of activity that they’re good at, and they simply keep doing it forever. It feels productive, and to a certain extent, it is.

But eventually, they get frustrated: Why isn’t their career moving faster? Why do they feel like they’ve hit a plateau? Often, it’s because they’ve overplayed their strength and ignored areas where they’re weak, or they feel uninterested, or in which they’re afraid to take a chance.

For instance, it’s easy for a writer to just crank out book after book. He knows the process of researching and putting thoughts to paper, so he does more of it, assuming that’s the winning formula. Instead, he’d have far more success if he took the time to market each book by doing podcast interviews, webinars, speeches, and guest articles. That seems obvious, but so many of us are caught in our own version of that mistake.

The secret is understanding where you are in the process, and making strategic choices about when to go all in and when to shift focus. We’ll talk about how to do that next, but I’ve developed a free self-assessment to help you think this through. You can access it at https://dorieclark.com/toolkit.

Strategically Overindex

It’s often the case that you can make the most progress by focusing disproportionately on one key goal, rather than spreading yourself thin across several. So it’s important to ask yourself: “Where can I get the greatest return on investment right now, and how can I do as much of it as possible?” It’s easy to set yourself apart when you overindex.

That was my strategy when I started attending the ideas conference Renaissance Weekend. Not to be confused with medieval-themed Renaissance faires, Renaissance Weekend was founded in 1981 by Phil and Linda Lader as a convivial gathering of their friends over New Year’s. As their professional fortunes rose—Phil became the ambassador to the United Kingdom1 during the Clinton administration—the event grew. Eventually it attracted more than one thousand high-level attendees, as well as breathless media speculation about the off-the-record meetings that President Clinton and other luminaries regularly attended. As a politics-obsessed teenager growing up in small-town North Carolina, even I heard about it, and I wanted in. I wasn’t sure how I was going to get there—my parents were far from connected—but I set my intention.

More than a decade later, I still didn’t know anyone who could get me in. It said clearly on the website: “invitation only.” But I decided to try anyway. I wrote a heartfelt letter, explaining my credentials (not many at age twenty-nine) and my long-standing desire to attend, and asking if they’d admit me. A couple of months later, to my amazement, a card arrived in the mail. There wasn’t an explanation or a cover letter; it was just a listing of the next four gatherings and a registration form. I was only two years into running my business, and money was still tight. But I was more than a little fearful that they’d rescind my invitation—and I decided it would be harder for them to do so if they’d already accepted my money. So I checked the boxes and, sight unseen, signed up for every single upcoming gathering, to the tune of well over $10,000, if you include hotel and airfare.

It wasn’t quite a leap of faith, because that phrase implies risk and uncertainty. I had done my research well enough to know that building a high-level network of interesting people was my top priority at the time, and that this was the right place to do it.

The first event, sure enough, wasn’t easy. There seemed to be a crowd of regulars, and I didn’t know any of them. I felt overloaded, meeting hundreds of new people at once and trying to intuit the norms of this new community. But there was no backing out: I’d registered for three more. And over the course of the next year, I became comfortable in that environment. By my third event, I felt like the mayor, greeting old friends and making introductions. I don’t go nearly as often now, but the benefits of that early overindexing linger every time I see someone I met during that period, or get introduced to someone they brought along.

The same principle was at play in early 2012, when I began writing for Forbes. By that point, I’d started writing for Harvard Business Review, which sharply limits how much it publishes: only about five new articles per day online, and far fewer in the print magazine. I knew that content creation would be critical to building my brand and my business—but I’d need to do a lot more of it. I needed another venue to share my ideas.

I started by making a list of more than two dozen media outlets—national papers, regional dailies, cable television, even some prominent foreign press—and finding out whether they accepted online articles from people, like me, who weren’t their employees. I reached out to every plausible publication, offering to write for free … and only three wrote back. I responded with story ideas and pitches, but two publications quickly dropped off, and I never heard from them again. But one, Forbes, was just ramping up its roster of contributors and wanted to know if I could come on board immediately. Within ten days, I had published my first piece.

I had a choice: write for Forbes occasionally for free, or commit to writing at least five articles per month and become a paid contributor. I opted for the latter, not because I was desperate for the money (it was modest, to say the least), but because it served to focus me. With a contract in hand, I had to prioritize content creation, which was my stated goal anyway.

Over the next few years, I wrote more than 250 articles for Forbes—sometimes as many as ten in a month—and leveraged it to dramatically grow my name recognition, my following, and my network. (It helped that for most pieces I interviewed an author or corporate leader.) Some people in similar positions might say, “I’m busy, so why don’t I do the bare minimum necessary to say I write for Forbes?” And depending on where you are in your career, that might be the right strategy. But sometimes, if the opportunity in front of you lines up perfectly with your goals, you might want to strategically overinvest.

Heads Up, Heads Down

Another framework that’s been useful to me as I’ve learned to navigate responsibilities and determine where to focus is heads-up and heads-down. I first heard it articulated by Jared Kleinert, an Atlanta-based entrepreneur and an editor of 2 Billion Under 20: How Millennials Are Breaking Down Age Barriers and Changing the World.

I was interviewing Jared for my book Entrepreneurial You, and he started talking about “shiny object syndrome” and how hard it is for many entrepreneurs—and frankly, many people—to stop themselves from chasing the next big thing. It’s the ultimate in short-term thinking, because jumping from one thing to another never allows any idea, no matter how wonderful, the time it needs to flourish. “It’s really hard to identify what the number one thing you should be working on is, because you can only really figure that out in hindsight,” Jared told me. You might have a reasonably successful project, “but is that the real thing? Do I stay and figure it out? Do I try other things and see if they work?”

Jared told me there’s no shame in trying other things, “but only if you’re in a heads-up mode. If you’re in a heads-down mode, and you’ve identified what’s working, then stick to it.”

According to Jared, there’s a time for each mode, and it’s essential to know which one you should be in. “You can be in a heads-up mode, where you look for new opportunities, or you can be in a heads-down mode, just executing and focusing.” Confusing the two—constantly scouting for something better when you should be doubling down on what’s working, or doubling down on something when you haven’t sufficiently vetted the possibilities—only leads to heartache.

In the years since, I’ve adopted Jared’s credo. I’ll set aside blocks of time—typically three to six months—in an explicit heads-up or heads-down mode. In the former, I’ll merrily set up dinners, calls, and meetings to network, and accept interviews and podcast invitations to promote my work. But all that changes when heads-down mode rolls around. I’ll turn down all but the most urgent requests, and spend hours at a time immersed in deep work on projects like developing a new online course or writing a book. This approach enables me to focus when needed, cluster similar tasks (to lessen the cognitive load of multitasking), and stay refreshed by changing up my routines.

In exercise, you’re not supposed to lift weights every day; your muscles need time to recover, heal, and grow back stronger. You’re more effective when you work in cycles than if you slog forward, repeating the same tasks every day. Switching between heads-up and heads-down enables you to leverage the power of focus to your advantage. And on a broader level, that’s the idea behind a concept I developed called Career Waves.

Thinking in Waves

When it comes to making smart choices about where to allocate your time, I’ve come to believe in thinking in waves. There are four key Career Waves in becoming a recognized expert in your field: Learning, Creating, Connecting, and Reaping. Like ocean tides, we need to learn to ride each wave, and then transition into the next. Trying to hold on to a wave for too long leads to frustration and stagnation. But when you can absorb the lessons of each and then gracefully shift, it enables you to keep growing, developing, and moving forward.


In the mid-2000s, I was the executive director of a bicycling advocacy nonprofit. I like to think it was noble work: we pushed for more bike lanes, bike racks on buses, the development of rail-trail corridors, and more. It was also the most high-stress job I’d ever held. Saying that felt strange—my previous role had been running press for a presidential campaign, where I worked seven days a week and was chronically sleep-deprived. But at the nonprofit, I was almost single-handedly responsible for our finances, and the burden of keeping myself and our two staffers employed was on me. My predecessor had landed a big government grant a few years prior, but it expired just as he left. I had to raise $150,000 a year, almost from scratch, or we’d go out of business.

For two years, I did it, and even managed to double the size of our membership base. But partway through my tenure, a thought struck me: I wasn’t just running a nonprofit—I was running a six-figure business. And I realized I could do the same for myself. I had never thought about becoming an entrepreneur before. Many people think going into business for yourself is risky. But for me, earning $36,000 a year and waking at least twice a week in a sweat about the future of our little organization, starting my own consulting practice seemed lucrative in comparison. If the bar was $3,000 a month, I was sure I could find a way to beat that.

I just didn’t know where to start. I had plenty of skills: I’d been a reporter and a political campaign operative; I could write and speak well. But I’d never had to land business or win a client. Some of what I was learning at the nonprofit was transferable—simple web design and databases and the like. But the rest of entrepreneurship was a black box. So I decided to learn.

For a full year, I committed myself to studying. I made a list of all the things I didn’t know that I suspected I needed to. On Saturdays, I took daylong courses at the local adult education center on things like writing a business plan, designing better PowerPoint slides, and basic bookkeeping. I convinced my employer to pay—it wasn’t much—because the skills would help me at the nonprofit. But even an $89 course felt like a lot at the time.

And I became my local library’s best patron, picking up an armful of books with each visit. I’d spend evenings reading through classics of business literature, from Michael Gerber’s The E-Myth Revisited to Keith Ferrazzi’s Never Eat Alone to Jim Collins’s Good to Great. I’d note what was referenced in the footnotes of one book, then follow the trail backward to see what else I should be reading and build up my cultural literacy.

I knew I had to immerse myself in learning before I built my business, because if I didn’t, who would take me seriously? That wasn’t a lack of self-esteem—it was a fact. I didn’t have an MBA or a PhD in business; I had never even worked in a corporation. I was a philosophy major as an undergrad and had a graduate degree in theology. Those are solid credentials, but not necessarily a compelling reason for corporate executives to listen to my counsel. Given my background and approach, I suspected I’d probably break a few conventions once I started my business—and that’s a great way to differentiate yourself. But you have to do it consciously, and understand what convention looks like in the first place. Otherwise, it’s just ignorance.

Part of playing the long game is understanding that you can’t always immediately jump into the ring. Moving slow may feel like wasting time. But every moment you spend understanding the nature of the game, and how it works, makes you stronger once you do get in.

Of course, there are limits. I once had to stage an intervention with a friend who complained constantly that her business wasn’t growing the way she wanted it to. After a cursory round of questions, the reason became clear: instead of doing things that might actually generate clients, like asking for referrals or writing articles to generate publicity, she kept signing up for new courses and certifications. She had spent untold sums of money searching for the training that would magically enable business to drop into her lap. But learning doesn’t generate income on its own. It’s one important step in the journey, but it’s only the first wave. Once you’ve familiarized yourself with the basic frameworks and ideas in your field, and have begun formulating your own perspective, it’s time to create and share your ideas.


It started with inviting a few friends over. It was 2016, and Kara Cutruzzula had left her job as a magazine editor to become a freelance journalist. “Not having coworkers is great in some respects,” she recalls, but she found it a little lonely. So once a month, she’d hold a party. She called it a “Brass Ring Summit,” and she’d invite some friends to her apartment to catch up and kibitz. But Kara wanted her gatherings to be useful, so she had folks go around in a circle and share tips about products or services they loved, things they could offer, or things they were looking for (advice, consulting gigs, a new roommate). Kara would take the minutes and share them afterward, and eventually someone suggested: Why not turn them into a newsletter?

When writing is your day job, the idea of starting an unpaid newsletter may sound like a busman’s holiday. But Kara suspected the regular writing practice could help her hone her literary voice and stay sharp as a writer. And it could serve as an antidote to the up-and-down nature of being a freelancer. “You’re dependent on other people to set deadlines and give you assignments,” she says, “and this felt like something that was totally in my control. So even if I had no other assignments, it felt like I was producing something.”

She started the Brass Ring Daily with a subscriber base of thirty: the invite list for her monthly house parties. Almost every weekday for the past few years, she’s released a newsletter. Her reader list has grown significantly (it now numbers more than four thousand), but it’s still a relatively small audience, and the newsletter doesn’t directly generate any income. So why does she bother?

It turns out that the newsletter has a hidden benefit that she didn’t realize when she launched it several years ago. Some of the editors she works with have subscribed, and “it’s become a way for me to get more work, because they see my name in their inbox every single day,” she says. By sharing articles she’s written, or simply ones she’s found interesting, she helps editors get a sense of the topics where she excels. “It’s almost in a subliminal way—they know I’m around, and they see other things I’m working on and that I’m available [for assignments].”

In her biggest coup, a book editor cold emailed her. As Kara recalls, the editor said, “I’m working on a motivational journal, and I kept thinking about all the things that you write about in Brass Ring Daily. And then I thought to myself, ‘Why don’t I just see if Kara wants to write it?’” Kara signed the deal for her first book, called Do It for Yourself. Thanks to the newsletter, “it felt like she already knew my work. It was perfectly aligned.”

Learning your craft is an essential first step, but if you want people to recognize you and the unique contribution you can make, at a certain point, you have to begin the second wave: Creating. You’ve absorbed others’ perspectives and ideas, and have learned enough to evaluate them. Some ideas will resonate, and others will seem flat-out wrong, and you’ll stir and sift them into your own point of view. Creating is how you can make a contribution to your field and attract like-minded people to you and your business.

Creating content and sharing your ideas can be a small step, like with Kara and her thirty initial subscribers. But it’s powerful nonetheless, because it gives others—like the book editor who approached Kara—a way to discover you. Writing is one method for sharing your ideas, but it’s not the only one; you can give speeches, or conduct webinars, or host a podcast, or create online video tutorials. The key is to make yourself “findable” by the people you’d most like to do business with.

That involves just a little bit of bravery. Maybe it’s putting a link to your email newsletter in the bio of articles you write, as Kara does, or applying to present at a conference, or posting an article you wrote on the company intranet. Creating and sharing your ideas is a crucial part of the wave, and so is what comes next: playing on a bigger stage and leveling up your connections.


As Kara’s example shows, your reach can grow over time if you’re consistent. But especially in the early days, it can be challenging to keep up the momentum. The first month is fun and novel, and enthusiasm can push you through months two, three, and four.

But what happens when you’re six months in, and still talking to thirty people? Even if you’ve reached sixty or one hundred, you may begin to wonder: Is all this effort worth it? That’s especially true if you’re working in an area where you don’t have much expertise or have doubts about your abilities. What can get you through—both by growing your audience and by helping you obtain the support and encouragement to keep going—is the third wave: Connecting. That’s how it worked for Albert DiBernardo.

Al had spent more than forty years as an engineer and was working as the executive vice president at a major New York City firm when he announced his plan to step down once he turned sixty-five. He wasn’t entirely sure what his next move would be, but he knew he didn’t want a traditional retirement of sitting on the beach.

And that’s when he logged in to Facebook. He saw a post announcing that a friend had just become a certified coach—a career Al didn’t even know existed. But he was intrigued. “I took the train out to Newark, I took him to lunch, and I go, ‘What’s with coaching?’ I was immediately drawn to it. He sat there and he explained the whole thing to me, and then I got that ‘aha,’ that epiphany.”

Over the years, the part of Al’s work that he’d enjoyed the most was advising younger leaders on how to develop their skills—and this was a chance to do it full time. He jumped into the Learning wave with abandon, joining my Recognized Expert program as well as other trainings and certifications, from health and nutritional coaching to emotional intelligence. “I went through this phase and paved lower Broadway with coaching certifications and degrees,” he jokes.

But unlike my friend who wouldn’t stop taking classes as a way to avoid building her business, Al didn’t stop there. The trainings taught him methodologies to complement his intuitive sense of how to coach others. But the most important part of joining those communities, he says, was the connections he made. It was the connection with his friend in Newark, after all, that showed him the path to coaching in the first place. And as he progressed in his exploration of coaching, his new relationships kept him going.

He knew what could happen otherwise: “I saw enough people retire from the [engineering] profession. All those quasi-relationships fall away, because they were just situational.” He’d seen others spiral into depression and loss of meaning when they left their jobs. Instead, he developed a raft of new friends and colleagues. “I was being fueled by the new relationships that I was getting. It was like a miracle drug for me.”

Al didn’t yet know how to be a coach or how to build a practice, but he surrounded himself with people he could learn from. “Just jump into communities of people,” he says, “and you might not even know who your like-minded people are at this time, but you’ll likely find someone within that community who [qualifies]. If you wait until you know, you’ll never get there.” It could be a learning community, like the courses Al joined. It could be meetups or professional associations or industry conferences. There are plenty of ways to do it. But if you’re hoping to establish yourself in a given field, making an effort to get to know that world is key.

If you’re a sworn introvert or lone wolf, connecting with others may seem frivolous—a needless diversion from your “real work.” And you can get away with ignoring it for a while. But eventually, having a tiny network becomes a roadblock. You won’t be exposed to new ideas (Al never would have discovered coaching if he hadn’t stumbled upon his friend’s announcement). Your ideas won’t get the traction they deserve (because there’s no one to amplify them). You’ll be in the dark when it comes to pricing or other sensitive topics (because strangers don’t disclose that—only friends and close colleagues do). And you won’t get the opportunities you’d otherwise qualify for (because you need someone to suggest you, but you’re not on anyone’s radar).

Taking the time to connect with others and immerse yourself in new communities, as Al’s example shows, can be a powerful way to set yourself up for success. Within a year of launching his retirement coaching business, he’d reached six figures in revenue.

As with everything in life, there’s always the possibility of having too much of a good thing. One colleague I know is a sensational networker, who seems to know everyone and is constantly making connections. That’s a great skill and a wonderful asset. But it’s almost the only thing he does. He spends so much time making connections that he neglects almost every other part of his business, and his limited revenue reflects that. Thinking in waves means you can’t focus exclusively on the parts of the process you enjoy. You have to keep moving and growing.


Now you’re in the final wave: Reaping. It wasn’t easy getting here. You started out not knowing anything. You had to immerse yourself and learn—an especially humbling experience for midcareer or senior professionals who are used to being excellent at what they do. But you did it.

You began creating and sharing your ideas, and honestly, in the early days, they probably weren’t very good. You look back now with a twinge of embarrassment. But you had to start somewhere, and you did.

You got to know people over time—colleagues, clients, industry leaders. You built relationships based on mutual respect and trust. They referred business to you, and you did the same. You built a name for yourself, and over time, a career.

You surfed those waves, and now it’s time for the fourth wave: Reaping. This is where it gets fun.

You’ve achieved a degree of mastery in what you do. You’re confident; you know you can help people and make a difference. By now, the world agrees with you. The rewards—financial, reputational—are starting to become evident.

This is also where it becomes dangerous.

It was the late 1970s, and Marshall Goldsmith was a young college professor. One day, his mentor, an organizational behavior consultant named Paul Hersey, found himself double-booked. “He says, ‘Can you do what I do?’” Marshall recalls. “I said, ‘I don’t know.’ He said, ‘I’ll pay you $1,000 for a day.’” At the time, Marshall was making $15,000 a year, so for that price, he decided to figure it out. Before long, he was raking in six figures.

But Hersey was concerned. Not that Marshall wasn’t good—he was. And not that the clients weren’t pleased—they were. But as Marshall’s mentor, Hersey had other things on his mind. “One day he called me,” Marshall recalls, “and he said, ‘You’re too successful. You’re making too much money, and you’re never going to be who you could be. This is not bad. You have happy customers. You’re doing a good job and you’ll do OK, but you’ll never be the person that you could be. You’re not writing. You’re not thinking. You’re not investing in your future. You’re just running around like a chicken with your head cut off, selling days.’ And I have to say, for eight years he was right. I didn’t change.”

Marshall, deservedly, was reaping the rewards that came with being excellent at his craft. Earning a lot of money pays for mortgages, college, health care, savings—all important and worthwhile goals. But Hersey, in his warning, identified a crucial problem: Marshall hadn’t sufficiently immersed himself in the Creating phase. Hersey believed Marshall should develop his own unique intellectual property that could distinguish him in the marketplace.

“It’s very hard, when things are going well, to challenge yourself,” Marshall says. “You’re making a nice living. You have a house, maybe a mortgage, and comfort. And if you’re not careful, the years pass very quickly and that’s it. You don’t want to look back on your life and experience regret.”

Eventually he began to turn his attention to creating and sharing his own ideas more widely. Not everything hit; some books did better than others. But a few, like his bestsellers Triggers and What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, have become classics in the field and helped established him as the number one executive coach of all time.2

It’s crucial to realize: Reaping isn’t a final destination. And by the time he’d reached his late sixties, Marshall felt it viscerally. “You can’t ever be happy in life with a thing that used to be,” he says. “[People will say] ‘I used to be the CEO, I used to be the football star.’ And what happens is, when the profession disappears, our identity disappears. We have no identity.” Reaping has an expiration date: you have to create something new and start again.

Around the time he was grappling with these thoughts, he attended a workshop called “Design the Life You Love,” which was organized by Ayse Birsel, a noted industrial designer who was named one of Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People in 2017. She asked participants to write a list of their heroes, and Marshall wrote down his professional mentors: Hersey; Frances Hesselbein, the former CEO of Girl Scouts of the USA; and Peter Drucker, the famed management thinker. “They never charged me money,” Marshall recalls. “They were always nice to me. They were kind. I was nobody, they were big deals, yet they were being nice to me.” Ayse’s advice to him was crisp and clear: “Be like them.”

Before the workshop was over, he’d hatched a plan: he’d identify fifteen up-and-coming executive coaches and offer to mentor them and “teach them everything I know.” The response to his concept was so overwhelming—he received more than seventeen thousand applications—he decided to expand the initiative, now known as Marshall Goldsmith 100 Coaches, or MG100. (I joined the community in the summer of 2017.) Through the program, he’s intent on creating a culture of giving back. Reflecting on Hersey and his other mentors, he says, “The same way they helped me, my job is to help others.” Indeed, the only rule of MG100 is that one day, “when we get old,” we’ll each create our own pay-it-forward initiatives.

Of course, Marshall gets something important out of his involvement as well. He’s seen firsthand among colleagues and clients that telling tales about your past glory without learning or doing anything new is a recipe for depression: “You can’t just go from being a CEO to playing crappy golf with old men at the country club, while eating chicken salad sandwiches and discussing gallbladder surgery,” he says. MG100, in many ways, is the antidote: “It’s really focused on achieving meaning for me now.”

Marshall Goldsmith became the biggest name in his field: a multimillionaire, a bestselling author, a member of the Thinkers50 Hall of Fame, and a friend of CEOs and celebrities. You could excuse him, now in his early seventies, if he wanted to coast. But he refuses. As the Bible (and Bob Dylan) famously said, there is a time to reap. But it doesn’t go on forever. The most successful people enjoy their success, then recognize: it’s time to move on and learn something new.

“Right now, I’m working on a project where I have fifty people and we talk every weekend,” Marshall says. “We’re developing a whole new coaching process based on what [former Ford CEO] Alan Mulally taught me. I would say I would not have learned any of these things if [MG100] hadn’t happened. So this has really been instrumental in reshaping my career, and reinventing myself again.”

No matter how good you are, you can’t win any game by doing the same thing all the time. You could be amazing at shooting three-pointers in basketball, but sometimes you have to play defense or sink a free throw. We all have strengths, but too many of us overplay them, and then get bitter when we don’t get the results we want or expect. Playing the long game means understanding where you are in the game and what skill is necessary to deploy at what point. When you learn to think in waves, you’ll choose your tool to suit the moment, and ensure that you don’t stop and don’t stagnate. That’s how you win.

And now that we’re focused on the right things, it’s time to think about leverage. How can we double down on what’s working to elicit even more-dramatic results in our lives?


  • To get more done, alternate between heads-up and heads-down modes. During the former, you’re actively seeking connections and exploring new possibilities. During the latter, it’s time to focus and execute.
  • You can’t do it all—at least, not all at once. Instead, follow the Career Waves, in which you sequence between:

Learning. Study your field so you become knowledgeable.

Creating. Now that you have experience, give back by creating and sharing what you’ve learned.

Connecting. Begin leveling up your connections with others in your field, so you can learn from them and contribute as part of the community.

Reaping. You’re at the top of your field, and it’s time to enjoy the benefits of your hard work.

  • Remember: don’t stop learning. Soon, it’ll be time to start the cycle over again so you don’t stagnate.
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