These 150 People Are Ridiculously Successful and All Have the Same Career Path: None

Originally published on on Sep 8, 2015 By Zachary Karabell
People love lists. Sometimes those lists are just simple fun:These 150 People Are Ridiculously Successful and All Have the Same Career Path.img.2 “Top Ten Hideaway Hotels” or “Best Pizza in New York and LA.” On occasion, they are vital reminders: “The Five Greatest Global Threats.” Often, they are educational: “Seven Things You Should Do in a Job Interview.” But in the case of LinkedIn’s list of the Next Wave of young professionals who are about to inscribe their passion on the arc of the future, lists can also illuminate powerful trends at work in the world and connect dots that can appear random and scattered but are not.
Having scoured through hundreds of thousands of profiles, the editors at LinkedIn have found 150 unique individuals across 15 fields. They include the “you must be kidding me” profiles such as Danielle Fong, the CEO and founder of the innovative energy storage company LightSail Energy, who graduated college at 17 and then went on to dabble in nuclear physics at Princeton before launching a startup. Or health care entrepreneurs like Danielle Cojuangco who is at the nexus of digital technology and health care tools, and Halle Tecco who scours the start-up world for prime opportunities. They also count among their members social entrepreneurs who are motivated by how much impact they can have on the commons: Deray McKesson, who was so troubled by the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri that he formed We the Protestors to document police killings and help protestors be heard; and Sam Chaudhary, whose ClassDojo is connecting students, teachers and parents on a powerful digital platform.
Just as people love lists, we love as well to find patterns and common themes. One appeal of the Next Wave is that it potentially provides a template for meaningful and potent careers. And the resumes of these 150 will surely be scrutinized for hints as to what works, and what doesn’t. Here, however, the real lesson is not some shared attribute that contributes to career success. The lesson is that for these 150, and surely for the hundreds of others who could also have joined this list, what matters is personal passion and vision, not some paint-by-numbers guide. In fact, few if any of these individuals followed a familiar playbook, and that might just be the real key.
What, for instance, would a career coach have told Payal Kadakia, the CEO and founder of ClassPass? She quit her consulting job when she became too busy to attend dance classes. Then in 2013, she founded ClassPass, a site that lets users sign up for unlimited sessions at hundreds of fitness and dance studies. “I admire studio owners who quit their jobs in order to follow their passions to build amazing businesses,” she told LinkedIn. What would an H.R. counselor have told Whitney Wolfe, (pictured above) the former Tinder co-founder who sued her boss for sexual harassment and then left to lead a new company, Bumble, that requires women to make the first dating move? What would that counselor have said to Justin Myers, the first-ever automation editor at the Associated Press, whose mandate is to see what stories can meaningfully be composed by robots and artificial-intelligence programs? (“Justin, you should go into the media business and tell your bosses that you are going to make it less necessary to hire actual people…”). And what about Taro Fukuyama, who’s AnyPerk helps companies reward and cultivate their workers? Not to mention Chris Valasek, who spent years helping auto companies with security protocols, hacked into a Jeep’s operating system, and last week got hired by Uber to design the best-in-breed secure platform. (“Chris, you should focus on showing how ineptly companies manage their own security.”)
Certainly, some of these 150 did follow more conventional career paths. Chris Zahner has essentially been at Schwab since graduating college and is now helping the on-line brokerage firm develop its own brand of automated financial advice. Carlos Gomez Uribe went from a few crucial years at Google to become the man who is the man behind the curtain for Netflix’s recommendation algorithms (thanks Carlos for telling me to watch Bloodlines, but Marco Polo, not so much, though some mighty fine costumes). And Lisa Seacat Deluca, who has been the most prolific female inventor in the history of IBM, with over 370 patent applications, has spent the bulk of her career embedded in Big Blue.
Yet even those conventional career paths have been marked by work in unconventional areas. Almost none of these 150 stayed in traditional core areas of their business; almost all pursued risky new strategies where the outcome was (and in many cases still is) uncertain. These paths are the opposite of “tried and true,” and would be better served by the moniker “untested and often false.” Failure may not have been an option for many of this talented group, but it was nonetheless often the outcome. Career changes abound, as do different paths within the same organization. None of the 150 has remained still, cultivating one narrow skill; they have instead shifted gears, moved divisions, veered off beaten paths and into uncharted territory.
And you can be certain that for each one of their stories of fruition, thousands of others met roadblocks. Luck, timing, and fortuitous convergence of forces beyond their control, mentors and boosters – all play a role. Fortune may favor the bold, but not always. But what fortune most certainly favors are passion and vision and the will and skill to implement those.
So if there is a career lesson in these stories, it is this: the greatest success does not come from lists. It does not come from an easy to digest set of points to emulate. It does not stem from doing the right things and following the conventional wisdom established by others for times gone by.
No, the greatest success comes from the indelible marriage of a unique idea with an uncommon individual addressing needs that are widely shared. This Next Wave may find their futures bright, and they may encounter more turbulence as they flow into the next stage of their careers. But all of them are addressing real needs that someone will address and solve if not them and if not now. We can thank our collective lucky stars that for all the troubles that swirl through the world, so many are striving with such determination, vision and skill to improve the collective us.
It’s enough to give one hope about the years ahead, and it should.
See the list, read the stories and view more on the Next Wave here.