Three career principles I learned from Shyam Sankar.

@March 25, 2022

I like to think that the value of a writer is measured not in how many people see the article once but in how often we come back to what it is that they write. By that measure, Shyam Sankar (COO of Palantir) is probably one of the top writers in my life. He is a deep thinker about the way the world works and how we should accordingly craft our plans and expectations to best make impact. I look to him for guidance and inspiration on how to think about my life’s work.

I’m sharing a simple guide to his thinking and commandments for those looking to maximize the meaningfulness of their work and career.

This is a distillation of his thoughts, not a reflection. Read this and decide carefully how the lessons apply to your own life.

Avoid the career ladder at all costs. It creates complacency. Choose greatness.

The career ladder is a cynical representation of progress designed for companies, not for you.

Career ladders are important because they help standardize compensation and staffing/recruiting, not because they accurately represent your growth ability.

Don’t fall prey to the illusion of growth promoted by the corporate ladder. It’s a crutch as much as a way up (and tech roles/companies are NOT immune - if you see Software Engineer I, Software Engineer II, etc, that’s a ladder). The ladder can be partially explained by convenience, or convention, but ultimately it’s there to assuage your fears – not only of not reaching your potential, but of incubating a potential that doesn’t fit the bounds. While on the ladder, you can only fall so low or climb so high. It's a false frame, not only because hierarchy is such a poor proxy for impact, but especially for lulling you into thinking achievement falls within a standard distribution.—Shyam Sankar

By focusing too much on the career ladder, you sacrifice your unique potential to chart a new, potentially massively valuable trajectory.

Just recognize that in choosing the ladder you’re explicitly shorting your potential and putting protecting your ego ahead of your outcome.

Rather than optimizing for the career ladder, take the risk and uncertainty that comes with reaching for greatness. Greatness in this case means “uniquely outstanding”. There is no external competition for greatness; it’s a race against yourself. This race is scary, generative, and random. It requires patience and fortitude.

So what does growth for greatness look like? It begins with accepting unevenness, and reaches its potential through a conscious nurturing of extremes. But introspection and diligence are not enough.  Real growth is scary, hard, periodic, and responsive to your environment. The  gamma ray might seem like an extreme metaphor for catalyzing growth, but if you want to truly achieve greatness, it’s much closer to the reality than the safe, comfortable models we're taught to accept.—Shyam Sankar

The process of focusing on outcome instead of career ladder is, of course, painful and risky.

It would be disingenuous not to acknowledge that becoming a mutant is not all upside. Make no mistake, gamma radiation can hurt you. There is always the risk of failure, and win or lose, there will be scar tissue.—Shyam Sankar

Challenge, autonomy, and mentorship are some of the greatest aids in your process to reach for greatness and avoid complacency (like the career ladder race). Seek them out.

The work-life balance dichotomy is dumb; focus on owning your future.

Note: The debate about work-life balance is interminable. I wrote my own piece about it here:
What work life balance means to me.

Work-life balance is a misnomer and a false dichotomy that conversationally forestalls a much greater discussion: what life it is you want to lead today and tomorrow.

Given my journey, you can imagine my first reaction to questions of work-life balance is fairly unsympathetic. I want to protest that, by legitimizing such a false dichotomy, you’re pre-empting a much more meaningful conversation. But I suspect that conversation is closer to the heart of this anxiety than most people realize.—Shyam Sankar

The core of the work-life balance discussion is really about the role of work in your life. Your future is dictated by how you approach defining this role.

I’m willing to bet that what you’re really worried about is someone else owning your most precious possession: your future.

In this construct, roles that work you too little are equally as bad as roles that work you too hard.

Staring into the abyss of companies that glorify triple-digit hours (never mind the substance of the work), this makes intuitive sense. But having surveyed the landscape of high-tech hiring, I’m convinced you should be just as concerned about jobs that promise high stimulation and total comfort. When you let yourself be sold on easy hours, outrageous perks, and glib assurances about the project you’ll join and the technologies you’ll get to play with, you’ve just agreed to let your future become someone else’s.

So what’s the right approach? It starts with understanding that nothing worth having is easy. Having a rewarding life filled with meaningful work is worth it; therefore, it is definitionally not easy to achieve.

I hate the construct of work-life balance for the same reason I love engineering: the reality is dynamic and generative, not zero-sum. It’s about transcending the constraints of simplistic calculations. Creating the life and the work you want are by no means easy challenges, but they are absolutely attainable. What’s not realistic is thinking you can own your future and be comfortable at the same time.

Rather than focusing on idle iterations of work-life balance, dramatically refocus on owning your future and using your purpose to motivate you along the way. Knowing your purpose will allow you to do better work than any kind of tangible inducement.

I can state categorically that the purpose you discover, with all the sacrifice that entails, will be more motivating and meaningful than the one handed to you in the form of some glamorous project that, realistically, will succeed or fail regardless of your involvement.

All this said, purpose isn’t easy to find or maintain. Keep working to unearth your purpose through introspection, diligence, and sheer hard work.

True purpose doesn’t sit around waiting to be discovered. It requires constant pursuit.

In summary, if work is an area of your life you seek meaning, working hard is incredibly meaningful. Thus, if you don't work hard, you're giving up on finding meaning and your potential. Purpose, not money or fame, is the key ingredient to making this sustainable. Purpose isn't just lying around; it's actively shaped and created. We create purpose, we don't just discover it.

Growth only happens at times of discomfort. There’s no way around it.

If the previous section is strategy, let’s now move to tactics. While we’ve reframed the problem of “work-life balance” from a local optimization of “balance” to a global optimization of “purpose”, we still need to reckon with the nature of the work.

The pace of your work should be uncomfortably fast. Your work should be hard, difficult, uncomfortable, and the right level of painful.

It’s like a great workout right at the 37 minute mark out of 60 minutes. Your muscles are tired, the sweat is dripping, but your commitment to the last 23 minutes is what will build your strength. Your knowledge of this pushes you through to the end. This is how your work and your purpose interact in your life.

Shyam uses a similar exercise analogy.

Studies show that marathoners/endurance runners do tons of self-talk to push past the pain. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint” is a well-worn cliché, but it’s striking how often it’s invoked to rationalize comfort as opposed to promoting sustained excellence. Don’t think for a second that elite marathoners have trained to the point that a sub-six-minute mile pace is comfortable. It’s incredibly painful. What separates the truly elite is having found a purpose that makes the sacrifice acceptable.

There will be those who seek to sell you complacency disguised as sustainability. Avoid them at all costs, the same way you would avoid the shill you tells you need to work out only 10 minutes once a week to be fit.

Sacrificing your potential to comfort isn’t a hedge against an early death – it IS an early death. As Emerson wrote in Self-Reliance, "Life only avails, not the having lived. Power ceases in the instant of repose; it resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state, in the shooting of the gulf, in the darting to an aim.”

Take comfort not from repose, but from knowing that your work gives you meaning and is an expression of your purpose.

We’ve been told over and over to choose life over work in order to achieve balance. I’m urging you, especially at the dawn of your career, to  instead choose life over balance, and make the work so meaningful that you wouldn’t want it to exist as a distinct concept. This is how you ensure that your future remains yours.

This is how you win your future and build the life you seek to live: one holistically full of meaning, autonomy, purpose, success, and fulfillment.


I use this post to periodically remind myself of some of Shyam’s best insights for my career and how work fits into my life.

I want to conclude this with a significant observation: None of what is in this piece discusses the role of our personal lives and how it intersects with work.

This article is not an excuse to sacrifice crucial elements of our personal lives, such as love, family, and friends, for your work. Rather, it is a discussion on how to frame the role of work in our life, separate from other considerations, and approach it with the mindset and discipline to make it a meaningful part of our lives and not merely a slog.

How you reconcile your personal and professional lives is up to you. Having the clarity around your approach to work helps tremendously.

Other Great Reads

  1. https://shyamsankar.com/know-thyself
  2. https://shyamsankar.com/dont-let-techno-hedonism-waste-your-potential
  3. https://shyamsankar.com/you-have-to-engage-with-the-world-to-change-it
  4. https://shyamsankar.com/focus-on-the-first-derivative
  5. https://shyamsankar.com/position-and-portfolio
  6. https://shyamsankar.com/do-important-things