How to be successful? Ignore most advice

Gaduates and jobseekers should focus on their own values, not ‘key’ traits

Sometimes, well-meaning advice on the traits you’re supposed to have can feel like you’re being packaged into a misshapen box and sent off to be a good little worker drone. And if you just can’t fit into the box, it can be a blow to your self-esteem.

But the idea of “successful” people having key “traits” doesn’t hold water, says career psychologist Sinéad Brady. “Research around ‘trait’ was done in labs and primarily with men, especially relatively privileged men. The research has been debunked, and the idea that you must have certain traits to be a leader or do a particular job don’t hold water.”

The research doesn’t fit the lived experience of most people, Brady says. On an intuitive level, this makes sense: we know people who have reached the top of their career who are kind, empathetic and supportive bosses; we also know some who are thoroughly impossible, manipulative bullies.

Instead of focusing on fitting yourself into a pop psychological idea of what a successful person looks like, Brady suggests that graduates and jobseekers should focus on their own values.

“We often hear of the importance of ‘resilience’, but it can be a plastic term to get people to bend themselves into hoops. You need to be dedicated and willing to do hard work, but that doesn’t mean you have to be available day and night, though you should be able to deliver on time, pay attention to detail, communicate the work you have done to others, be respectful, negotiate and navigate difficulties and put up your hand if you have free time. What people value are human characteristics and behaviours; someone who is willing to help.”

The biggest 'win' a graduate can actually find is having a job that fits your values, capabilities and personality – and having the discretion to make that decision

Dr Mary Collins is a chartered psychologist, professional executive coach and author of Recruiting Talented People published by Chartered Accountants Ireland. She is working with healthcare leaders in the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland to develop leadership and management skills, and she has specialist expertise in the multi-generational workplace. She agrees that a focus on "traits" is misplaced.

“The question is too generic,” she says. “If you Google it, you get samey, stereotyped advice that’s generally oriented towards middle-class commerce graduates. It doesn’t reflect the diversity of skills that employers need. If you take diversity in the broadest sense of the word, this also means a workplace with different personalities and different approaches. The biggest ‘win’ a graduate can actually find is having a job that fits your values, capabilities and personality – and having the discretion to make that decision.”

But what are these “values” and do we need to cultivate them?

“Your values are core and personal to you,” says Collins. “Maybe it is that there’s a really positive and collegial workplace culture and you value respect, recognition and creativity. Or maybe you value competition and a deadline-driven culture. A lot of people don’t really know what their values are, and one of the surgeons I worked with say they didn’t really understand their values until they completed a clinical leadership programme.”

Brady says some values can make graduates more appealing and that you can develop these. “The big ‘traits’ and Myers-Briggs personality tests: if they give you some insight and language, they can be useful for you, but they have no more academic rigour than a Buzzfeed test and I cannot over-emphasise that they should not be used to direct you to a particular career. Graduates can make themselves open to learning, be willing to ask for help, engage, communicate, ask curious questions, be open to learn and understand that nobody is ever right all of the time.”

Have conversations with yourself and critical friends to find the role that suits you and your personality

For Collins, having a “growth mindset” can help, but this often needs to be cultivated and developed. “This is about seeing failure as a learning opportunity. If, for instance, you’ve bombed in an interview, a person with a growth mindset asks what went wrong and how they can do it differently next time.”

Understanding yourself matters too. “Having awareness of what energises and de-energises you means that if you know you’re not a great people person and not great with empathy, you might prefer more analytical roles, although empathy is a muscle that needs exercise to develop. Have conversations with yourself and critical friends to find the role that suits you and your personality.”

There are many online quizzes and tests you can take to help delve into and understand what you value most, but Collins recommends a free online strengths profile called This journalist completed the profile and I've listed some of my key values in the panel.

Join professional groups and attend events to build contacts

“People who engage with their strengths every day, whether in work or life, tend to be more successful and fulfilled because they can find a career that matches their strengths,” says Collins. “Ultimately it is about how well you know yourself.”

Collins says each context is different and in Ireland, a lot of jobs are secured not through ads but through networks and contacts. She advises graduates to use LinkedIn but also to join professional groups and attend events to build contacts, as well as finding a mentor – ideally someone more senior and not your direct boss – who can see your potential and have conversations with you every month or two.

During her time as head of talent and learning with Deloitte, Collins says the company looked for transferable skills and balanced personalities. "So a 2.1 graduate who's been involved in clubs and societies and developed good interpersonal and conflict management skills might be preferable to a first class honours graduate with top marks in the Leaving Cert but who has little else to show for it."

How do you know if your values are a good fit for a company? “Ask at interviews what they value. Competition or teamwork? Creativity and risk, or getting an assigned job done? Seek out people who have worked there. And if you can, get experience there, whether through workplace experience or an internship.” Peter’s signature strengths

1. Love
Valuing close relations with others, in particular those in which sharing and caring are reciprocated; being close to people.

2. Curiosity
Taking an interest in ongoing experience for its own sake; finding subjects and topics fascinating; exploring and discovering.

3. Social Intelligence
Being aware of the motives/feelings of others and oneself; knowing what to do to fit into different social situations; knowing what makes other people tick.

4. Kindness
Doing favours and good deeds for others; helping them; taking care of them.

5. Creativity
Thinking of novel and productive ways to conceptualise and do things; includes artistic achievement but is not limited to it.