This article appeared in Forbes in February 2022.
The new year always brings life-changing questions. This year the focus seems to be on career aspirations, with the Great Resignation and Great Reshuffle dominating the mindshare of most professionals and employers. And while plenty of resources and articles cover the topic of career growth, I believe my experience provides a useful path for many.
My professional path looks like an hourglass, the sand representing experiences and encounters, the glass delineating my focus. This path started with a wide area that constricted before expanding again. I find this constricting-expanding process has been the most conducive to success.
Growing up I wanted to be a lawyer like my father, yet my college journey led me to medicine. Medical school led to residencies, which led to fellowships. My interest quickly solidified in becoming a surgeon, but my specialization eluded me for a time. First general surgery, then plastics and reconstruction, then orthopedic hand and upper extremity. What I liked about operating on the hand was twofold. I could see more patients than any other specialty. And they wouldn’t be constricted to a single demographic, but include people of every age, sex, ethnicity, etc. — perfect for someone who likes people and appreciates diversity in interaction, thought, perspective and experience. The road was winding, but because of its many bends and turns, I found where I could most succeed.
Years went by as a surgeon. During the week, I honed my practice toiling in the clinic and operating rooms and spent the weekends traversing New Orleans and rushing to emergency rooms where I remained on call. I hustled. I developed relationships with many, most importantly the pillars of the community. I established myself as the most available, affable and able hand surgeon in the Big Easy. In other words, I specialized. And it proved worth every early morning and late night.
Eventually, I found an opportunity to become more than a hand surgeon and I took it. I bought a hospital with 12 other physicians and staked my livelihood on my ability to lead: I became CEO. Within the first year of operation, we distributed tens of millions of dollars to the physician owners. My success with Omega Hospital led to the company that bears my initials. Additional wins soon followed, because I did not remain restricted to a career as a hand surgeon, but rather saw my profession as a platform for expanding my growth. Hence the widening base of the hourglass.
Assuming my experience can prove a universal model, the question of how to succeed in a career seems simple: I owe my success to focusing on one profession and using it to launch into another.
As a leader of people, I offer advice to those looking to maximize their career potential. It’s beneficial to start large, then focus, then branch out. Find what you can become the best in the world at doing. Do it. Then find where it takes you. While this path is more complex and difficult than a series of imperative statements, it’s the road to success.
This path provides you with three important benefits.
1. Specialization gives you a professional foothold.
Specialization leads to expertise, and expertise remains the requirement of employers looking to add top talent. The more knowledge you accumulate in a niche, the more likely you can find the career to which you aspire. You can’t help your employer or your clients if you don’t understand your specialty inside and out. According to a recent study from Harvard Business School, more than a third of employers identified work experience as the most important qualification for evaluating candidates; another 24% considered it the second-most important.
The more you understand your specialty, the more value you provide, and the more value you provide, the more opportunities you gain. Surgery taught me to run a surgical hospital effectively and efficiently, which proved vital later.
2. Specialization helps you earn a living that affords you options.
If you focus on the profession where you can become the best, you make yourself priceless. That strengthens your job security and earnings, whether you choose to stay in that position or strike out on your own. Research shows that top performers receive more than their peers in reward incentives.
3. Specialization establishes important connections.
Don’t be fooled: Relationships matter far more than talent. In fact, research proves work relationships produce a host of beneficial results for organizations and professionals. Yet talent often leads to better relationships. So, if you become the best at what you do, you can accumulate the relationships needed to help you do incredible things in your line of business. Omega Hospital didn’t fall in my lap; the chance to buy it was presented by a mentor, who had seen my devotion and ability over the years.
If you want to increase your chances of success in your career, find what you can become the best in the world at, where interest and exceptional performance intersect. Once you discover the path, apply yourself completely. Stay patient and dedicated. Soon enough your life, which may seem to constrict your talents, will expand. And once it expands, you will appreciate the journey. You will thank it for what it taught you.
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