The Index Card Summary of “Unapologetically Ambitious”

Shellye Archambeau is one of Silicon Valley’s first female African American CEOs. She shares her life’s story and every decision-making principle that has guided it in: “Unapologetically Ambitious: Take Risks, Break Barriers, and Create Success on Your Own Terms.”

Her book is rich with 39 chapters of life decisions and insights. Across it, three key themes stood out:

  1. Master your mindset
  2. Prepare for opportunity
  3. Learn from others

The Index Card Summary

Your professional success, Archambeau argues, depends on three self-guided processes:

1. Master your mindset

Archambeau believes three feeling are prerequisites to professional confidence: competence, autonomy, and relatedness. Competence is the ability to handle yourself no matter what arises. Autonomy is the confidence to make your own choices. And relatedness is feeling like you fit in. If you are missing any one of these three, you are more likely to withdraw from challenges. But if you have all three, you will feel prepared to set goals and reach them.

To feel competent, you must accept your circumstances while owning your agency. To feel autonomous, you need to know your values. Naming your values will give you a standard for decision-making. And to feel relatedness, you must feel empathy towards your teams while earning their respect and building alliances.

Your personal and professional cheerleaders can bolster all three elements. Cheerleaders can especially build your confidence in your own decision-making.

2. Prepare for opportunity

Once you’ve got the right mindset for taking action, you can set goals according to what you want and need, and make a plan to achieve them. But how does one make a robust plan with a good chance of success? Archambeau focuses on identifying patterns associated with power.

Archambeau knew in high school she wanted to be a CEO. She then made choices that minimized the friction for achieving her goal. She picked a growth industry — technology — that would offer more opportunities. And she looked for patterns to decode how her industry and roles worked. When she noted that executives are all great speakers, she joined Toastmasters. Throughout her whole career, she acquired skills and experiences common to top candidates. She also time-boxed her plans. If promotions were slow to come, even with her top performance, she looked for opportunities outside of her company.

But you can’t prepare for every possible workplace situation, and you can’t plan for the macroeconomic environment. So how does this advice jive with managing the unexpected? Archambeau recommends identifying worst-case scenarios based on the current environment. Validate your plan based on a clear fact base. After that, there’s no time for second thoughts! Once you begin to act, you can adapt to changing circumstances with creative problem-solving. To move with conviction, you must accept that your choices mean saying yes to one path and no to another.

3. Learn from others

There’s almost nothing new under the sun. So you might as well learn from someone who’s done what you’re trying to do. Ask someone who’s achieved what you’re trying to achieve for advice. Then following up on how that advice worked out. This is the simplest way to attract a mentor: make your ask small and share what the mentor’s advice yielded.

You will need to do the upfront work of networking to find the right people to ask for advice. At the same time, don’t limit your thinking about who can help support you in achieving your goals. Tell everyone you know what you’re trying to accomplish. Broadcast your intentions. This will keep you top of mind when opportunities appear.

Learning from others also includes learning from your team. Ask for help when you need it. And be willing to delegate. Embracing your limits will empower your team to take the lead when they are better placed to do so.

Requisites and truths

Each of the three key themes holds underlying requisites. Mastering your mindset requires you to know yourself — one of the hardest things to do for most people. This, for me, felt especially hard when I had limited work experience. Preparing for opportunity presupposes you buy into the institutions that dominate your industry. Archambeau recommends ‘finding the current’ of power and jumping in it. But if you disagree with the system, it will be hard to position yourself to move with it. And learning from others can be hard to balance against confidence in your own decisions. Not all advice is good advice, so how do you filter in only the good advice? In addition, garnering advice in the first place will be difficult if you haven’t learned how to network in a way that suits you.

Still, none of these caveats reduces the wisdom of Archambeau’s advice. Once you have your own inner foundation firm, decision-making will become easier. Preparing for the future you want can only aid you in achieving your ambitions. And finding sources of advice and support will put the wind at your back. This includes ‘micro-mentors’ — people willing to give timely advice — and supportive teammates.

Success, Archambeau notes, is a continuous process. If you’re moving in the right direction, every day is a success.

The Index Card Summary of “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”

Cal Newport incisively speaks to the millenial heart that has been somewhat misguided by the role models of our day with the prompt to “follow your passion”. We’re told to just identify something we like doing, that we’re good at, and that people are willing to pay for. Simple, right? But if it were simple, college kids would not be picking up every single leaflet at every job fair. There would not be nearly so many applying to strategy consulting jobs. We’d all be on “a mission from God,” Blues Brothers style.

The “happy place” in the middle is what popular guidance tells us to seek…

In fact, it seems to be the vast minority of people who have charted out a specific interest from a young age and don’t miss a beat on the way to med school or engineering. The secret truth is, most of the highly successful people we know didn’t experience the ven diagram above simultaneously, but sequentially. The order is 1) Develop a talent, 2) Prove out market demand, then 3) Experience the passion that comes from being skilled and the autonomy that comes with carving out a market niche. Here is how Cal Newport breaks it down.

  1. Passion comes from being good at something, not the other way around

  2. Being good at something – which we’ll call having “career capital” – comes from deliberate practice

  3. Deliberate practice requires continuous feedback, clear standards and goals, and stretching beyond your current abilities

  4. The Law of Financial Viability: Your skills must be something people are willing to pay for

  5. Think small, act big: have a mission, and identify “the adjacent possible” to push boundaries and inject meaning into your work

  6. Know your market: success requires that you knowing what kind of “game” you’re playing – is it an auction market, or winner-take-all?

Once you achieve exceptional skill, you can then command more autonomy, an essential element to satisfying work. Unfortunately Cal Newport observed in his research that this is typically they point when employers push back on unique demands from the highly skilled, since it means ceding more of the value generated by the employee to the employee. But the uber-skilled seem to win out in the end.

So the moral of the story, as Lin Manuel Miranda attributed his success to, is to pick a lane and start running ahead of everyone else.

Ready? Set? Go!