8 Ways to Improve Your Career, Get Ahead, and Become Upwardly Mobile


A recent research study shows that the odds of a child moving to a higher socioeconomic bracket as an adult have remained relatively stable over the past 20 years. But the study also showed that a significant factor determining where a child winds up on the earnings ladder is where they start. Rich kids are more likely to wind up rich than poor kids are. We have to be careful when we hear this kind of headline because by nature these studies with very large samples sizes are looking for trends in broad strokes. They are based on averages across thousands of data points and they don't examine individual cases.

As individuals, we don't need to "regress to the mean." There are many things that we can do to improve our chances of upward mobility. Here are eight. (See also: How to Be Upwardly Mobile)

1. Invest in Higher Education

Many people see education as a cost rather as an investment. A cost is a payment we make that we never get back. An investment is a payment we make that provides a return over time. Despite the many news stories about the soaring cost of higher education and whether or not it's worth the expense, the data shows that a college degree has a significant impact on future earnings. Those with only a high school education earn less, are more likely to be unemployed, and are more likely to be adversely effected in an economic downturn than those with a college education. (See also: 6 Ways to Save on Tuition)

2. Keep Your Skills Sharp and Add New Ones

For those who are employed, it's imperative to keep skills sharp and add new skills to the repertoire. There are a number of ways to do this and many of them don't cost a dime. They do require time, effort, and dedication. Free massive open online courses (MOOCs), volunteering, and taking on a side gig (paid or volunteer) help us stay up-to-date in our chosen fields and give us the chance to cultivate new interests and opportunities. (See also: Free Ways to Learn Something New)

3. Make or Take a Side Gig

A voluntary or paid side gig is one way to sharpen existing skills and develop new ones. Another option is to create a side gig. I recently learned about Steve Chou from Greg Go's recent Wise Bread article about people who have built successful online stores. Steve and his wife started an online store and after a year of long hours, his wife quit a job she hated to run their online store that makes over $100,000+ per year in profit. That sounds like self-made upward mobility to me!

4. Put Yourself Out There

Networking gets a bad rap. Don't think of it as people angling to get something from one another. It's really a series of active conversations that teach us something. You tell me what interests you and I tell you what interests me. Maybe there's a chance for us to work together. Maybe we each know someone who would benefit from our respective skills and interests. Maybe we learn something new from each other that we didn't know before we met. There are plenty of low-pressure ways to network that cost very little, if anything at all. Meetup is a great resource as are alumni groups and volunteer programs. (See also: 15 Networking Tricks)

5. Be Open to Opportunity

People meet and strike up relationships in all sorts of ways. They go to a friend's party, the gym, a lecture or event, and simply grab dinner or a drink with friends. Social media is another great avenue where people can meet, learn, and share. These interactions can spark relationships that evolve in the wildest ways. Keep your eyes and ears open so you can recognize how to help others and how they might be able to help you.

6. Fill the Three Buckets of Long-Term Savings

Our wealth comes not from the amount of money we earn, but rather the amount of money we save. Put your long-term savings into three buckets:

  • An emergency fund to be used if you get sick and can't work, have an unexpected emergency bill, or a month when your revenue is lower than expected;

  • Non-retirement savings that you use to meet goals such as taking a class or training that helps your career and launching your online store or side business;

  • Retirement savings that you invest in a 401K, IRA, or other investment account .

7. Grab that 401(k) Match and Compound It

I left my corporate job almost two years ago to work for myself full-time. I just finished doing my taxes and was pleasantly surprised to see that the money I had put away in my 401(k) increased substantially over the last year without me lifting a finger. This is the power of grabbing your employer's 401(k) match benefit (if they offer that) and compounding. I invested my money in a time-specific plan. I set the age when I wanted to retire. In response, the 401(k) managers invest it accordingly, taking more risk when I'm young and have time to recover losses and lowering the risk as I age. The results? A double-digit percentage increase in my account balance year-over-year.

8. Raise Your Hand and Learn on Your Company's Dime

I worked in financial services during a turbulent time in our economy. Rather than keep my head down and try to stay out of the line of fire, I raised my hand and volunteered for new projects that were far outside my comfort zone. This course of action helped me learn new skills that I wouldn't have been able to attain so easily, and it made me more valuable to my employer at a time when they needed people they could turn to for new projects. These new skills helped me launch my business once the economy improved.

Even though the market isn't as rocky as it was a few years ago, plenty of industries and companies are still in turmoil. Take a look around your company and see what needs to be done that most others won't do. You'll improve your own lot and the company's at the same time, and that's good for both of you — and your bank account.

The most interesting part about data isn't the data itself. It's the narrative around the data and the learning we can draw from it that inform changes in our creative direction, behavior, and thought processes. Take a long hard look at the social mobility study mention above and then think about ways you can help yourself improve your circumstances.

What are you doing to to get ahead? Please share in comments!

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