National Press Club

New York Times economics writer Neil Irwin gives career advice for the new economy

June 28, 2019 | By Mark Krikorian |

New York Times economic correspondent Neil Irwin offered observations gleaned from interviews with executives at large and small companies in his book "How to Win in a Winner-Take-All World" at a National Press Club Headliners event on June 26.

New York Times economic correspondent Neil Irwin offered observations gleaned from interviews with executives at large and small companies in his book "How to Win in a Winner-Take-All World" at a National Press Club Headliners event on June 26.

Photo/Image: Alan Kotok

"A career now is not a marriage, it's a series of hook-ups."

That's how Neil Irwin describes the underlying reality of the modern workplace. To provide advice on how to thrive in such an environment, Irwin, senior economics correspondent at The New York Times, has written "How to Win in a Winner-Take-All World: The Definitive Guide to Adapting and Succeeding in High-Performance Careers," which was the topic of a National Press Club Headliners Book Rap on June 26.

In a discussion led by former Club President Mark Hamrick, Washington bureau chief for Bankrate, Irwin described the old, industrial model of the economy.

"It wasn't just the work that was linear then – it was also careers," he said. He noted that when he started his newspaper career at The Washington Post, he "looked around I saw people who'd been doing the same job for 20 years, pretty much the same way."

To find out how successful people navigated their careers "in this world where the ground underneath our feet is shifting all the time," Irwin talked to academics and consultants and also examined the available data.

But, he said, he wanted to connect with those companies that are successful now and that he expects will exist in the future. He approached Wal-Mart, Microsoft, Goldman Sachs and others, asking, "what does it take to do well at this company today, to have a career that doesn't just give you a job for a couple of years but enables you to have ongoing success and an ongoing ability to thrive."

Among his conclusions: Being good at a technical skill will only get you in the door. Real success comes to people who work well in a team of people with different types of technical skills.

"There are people who get in a conference room with people with lots of different skills and they just want to focus on their own thing, they only speak their own language, and they don't do as well," Irwin said. "People who do well are those who, maybe you're a finance person, but you understand how the software engineer does their job, you understand how the bigger picture of how what you do fits in."

In the media business, that would mean a reporter must understand and appreciate the work of other members of a team, such as audio and software engineers, business-side people, and graphic artists.

"If you're the writer who treats the software developer like garbage, or doesn't understand what they're saying, or doesn't try to make sure you're able to collaborate together, you're really not doing your job very well," he said. "You're not going to be as successful as somebody who can make sure the team is creating a great product."

Another of Irwin's conclusions is that there needs to be reciprocity and honesty with regard to diminished employer loyalty.

"You're not a family, it's an arrangement," he said, an arrangement that the employer can end at any time, unlike the lifetime tenure that may have been possible in the past. As such, employees should think in terms of what LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman calls a "tour of duty" – undertaking a project, and "after that," Irwin said, "when the company needs something completely different, all bets are off."

Irwin identifies a "three-year itch" – "the first year, you're just trying to learn how to do this job well, the second year you're getting better, that's when you're hitting your stride…by the third year, it's time to start thinking about the next thing."

At that point, Irwin said, you need to ask, "what is the next step that can enable me to become, wiser, smarter, better, have a more versatile set of skills."

That doesn't necessarily mean you have to change employers on a three-year schedule. Rather than a magic number of years you should remain with one employer, Irwin said you need to ask, "Is this employer giving me what I need to keep evolving, to keep developing as an employee, as a worker, as a person?"

Also imperative is understanding your employer's and industry's economic landscape. As an example, he noted how classified ads used to undergird the business of newspapers; when the Internet eliminated that source of revenue, the news business changed radically.

"Understanding more about how the economics of media were shifting enabled some people, through that wrenching change, to see where the puck was going, and what the opportunities were likely to look like a few years down the road, and position themselves to take advantage of those opportunities…and not to be a victim of them," Irwin said.

Irwin said the book is not intended as a how-to for succeeding in any specific employer or industry, but rather to identify "an approach to working, an approach to cultivating your own skills, your own adaptability, that's really urgent and essential no matter what type of employer you actually end up with."