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Jim VandeHei was, in his own description, “remarkably unremarkable” at school and his first job, carrying bricks for a bricklayer. But he found a passion – political journalism – and took notes of what successful people do, eventually rising to the helm of two media organizations he co-founded, Politico and Axios.

“Every person, even in the crappiest of circumstances, has the potential to do great things,” he writes in Just the Good Stuff: No-BS Secrets to Success (No Matter What Life Throws at You). “Too often, people use circumstances as a crutch.”

Graduating in the bottom third of his high school class motivated him as he tackled real life. He realized that you can’t fix the past. But you control you and can change the future by deciding what matters most to you and doing the hard daily work to make it a reality.

Your grades in school no longer matter when you hit the real world. What counts is forward motion: What are you doing now? What can you do next?

Ideally, pick work that you would do for free because you love it. Then steal from those smarter than you. “Be a student of those crushing what you want to crush. And copy their best habits or moves,” he says. Read and listen to podcasts to learn. Call or email people you admire; he says you will be shocked at how many will be generous about sharing their wisdom.

Find people who make you better and make you feel better. “Stop justifying bad bosses, friends or partners. Glue yourself to people you admire and soak up their smarts,” he advises.

He has thousands of pages in Word documents and iPhone Notes that capture words, sayings, goals, significant encounters and unforgettable stories. You can’t be nonchalant about career success. He insists you have to work at it.

It started – conscious he had blown off most of school – by jotting down fancy words that befuddled him, like lachrymose and verisimilitude, and then he extended the practice to memorable sayings or complex concepts. “The mere act of writing things down helps sharpen your thinking,” he notes. You can also begin to see patterns as you review notes of your life and career.

Luck counts in our careers. He says we all have stories of being in the right place for luck to strike. We don’t make our luck, but it helps to take chances, talk to others, throw yourself into opportunities and when something seems like fate grabbing it.

Insecurity also helps. Ever since arriving for his first job in Washington, where he was surrounded by people with fancy pedigrees and degrees, he has found himself consciously or subconsciously trying to prove he not only can belong but can thrive. “None of us wants to be insecure. But never underestimate the power your insecurity can generate if you are aware of it and exploit it healthily,” he writes. And, he adds, rest assured that few sane people are as confident as they seem – only the narcissists.

He and his wife value grit in their children, believing it’s crucial to success. At the same time, he urges you to be a quitter.

“The hardest – and often best and most important – decisions are what we stop doing. We all need to be better quitters. We often keep doing stuff because we think we have to or we worry about what others will think,” he writes. “If a person or job or habit is routinely sucking the life out of you, bolt.”

A prime rule: Ditch jerks fast, whether at work or beyond. He warns that self-centred, egotistical folks are cancerous; their badness spreads and can infect you. He regrets the many years he spent wallowing in bitterness toward others and thinking of how to exact revenge. Instead, do good things with good people. Choose your friends and main interactions to avoid jerks. He advises you to bluntly tell others when they are jerks or unacceptably negative, drawing boundaries.

It’s your life. Be remarkably remarkable.

Quick hits

  • Practise for job interviews with artificial intelligence. Aaron Case, of CV Genius, notes you can tell ChatGPT to act as an interviewer in your industry and ask it to critique your answers. Wizco is an interview-trained chatbot and InterviewFocus evaluates your eye contact, engagement and more.
  • Career coach Shari Harley says you can ask for help when overwhelmed by giving your boss a list of what’s on your plate and asking them to rate each item as an A, B or C from their perspective. Usually they don’t see everything as equally important so why suffer in silence?
  • Atomic Habits author James Clear observes if you feel resistance before you begin something, it’s usually procrastination and you need to get started. If you feel resistance after you start, it’s usually feedback and you need to make adjustments.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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