Did You Know? with Gorick is the official newsletter of Gorick Ng, Harvard career adviser and Wall Street Journal Bestselling Author of The Unspoken Rules. Each week, you’ll receive one story from the past, one study from the present, and one strategy for your future.
My goal: to give you—in the time it takes to finish on the toilet—one piece of practical career wisdom you can apply today, no matter if you’re a student or a seasoned professional.
Did You Know? It's time to collab!
A story from the past
It’s 2008 and a red-haired 17-year-old named Ed Sheeran is sleeping on the London subway. The prior night, he slept outside Buckingham Palace. What was he doing? Chasing a dream he had had since the age of 13 to “make enough money to pay the rent and sell 100 CDs.”
Fast forward, and Sheeran hasn’t only sold 100 CDs. His music has been streamed over 3,000,000,000 (3 billion!) times on Spotify—and that’s just for one song (“Shape of You”). Nor does he still sleep outside Buckingham Palace. (He’s now performed there twice.)
How did he do it?
Some might say luck; others might say skill. I believe that he created his own luck. How? By taking the strategy of opportunistic collaboration.
Here’s Ed Sheeran’s timeline over 15 years:
- 2008 (April): Sheeran followed the one-hit wonder Nizpoli from gig to gig until they offered him a position as a guitar technician (“OK, do you want a job?”). The summer after, he convinced the band to let him open in Norwich, England.
- 2009 (November): Hip-hop and top-20 chart artist Just Jack offers Sheeran the opening act. They tour together. Sheeran also collaborates with pop artist Leddra Chapman, who uploaded traction-gathering duets to YouTube.
- 2010 (February): Sheeran goes viral on Jamal Edwards’ R&B and hip-hop channel, SB.TV, “racking up 20,000 views in 3 weeks.” UK-based rapper Example invites Sheeran to open his tour.
- 2010 (April): Aware of the growing wind at his back, Sheeran flies to Los Angeles, where he sings at a nightclub. It earns him an invitation from Jamie Foxx to use his recording studio—Sheeran even sleeps on his couch. Still, he has no record deal.
- 2011 (January): Sheeran independently releases No. 5 Collaborations, an 8-track album featuring 10 grime artists (i.e., British rap) such as Ghetts and Jme. It rises to the No. 2 spot on iTunes.
- 2011 (April): Sheeran signs his first record deal. His debut album + (“plus”) is released that fall, selling over 100,000 copies in its first week.
- 2023 (Today): Fifteen years later, Sheeran is one of the best-selling musicians of the 20th century. He continues to collaborate far and wide, from Taylor Swift to Eminem.
So, the next time you hear Sheeran’s voice from the car radio or coffee shop speakers, remember: He may have never found such mainstream success had he not persisted in his partnerships with others.
A study of the present
As it turns out, you don’t need to be a musician seeking a record deal to benefit from collaboration. “Collabing” is a useful strategy for all of us—even if you’re in academia. Last winter, researchers at the University of Tsukuba found that…
- Academic researchers in their early career (e.g., under the age of 40) who co-authored papers with later-career researchers received 1.5x more years of funding than those who did not, and
- By the 10-year mark, early-career academics who had co-published research with more seasoned academics received double and even quadruple the research funding of their non-collaborative counterparts.
So what? Finding success in your career—whether it’s signing to a record label or receiving significant research funding—doesn’t have to be a solo journey. In fact, you may actually find your good fortune doubling or even quadrupling by partnering with others!
A strategy for your future
Collaboration can come in all shapes and sizes. Like Sheeran, your most successful partnerships may come from someone in a totally different domain! Interested in a “collab”? Try this:
(1) Think of someone you know at work, school, or an extracurricular who has skills, interests, or networks that don’t seem to overlap with any of your skills, interests, or networks—at least at first glance.
(2) Try to finish this sentence: “What are all the ways that merging ______ (my world) with ______ (this other person’s world) might allow us to create something new and different?”
(3) Try to finish this sentence: “What would I get out of this collab? What would this person get out of this collab?”
(4) Then, reach out: “I was thinking about how helpful / productive / fun it could be to merge ______ with ______ so that we could ______. Do you have any interest in partnering / collaborating / trying ______ together?”
Of course, not every person—or project—will be the collaboration you’re looking for. At worst? Someone says “no” or your idea fizzles out. At best? You find your own “big break”—and your collab partner does, too.
I know it because I’ve experienced it: Had I not “collabed” with my business school professor on an independent project during my MBA, The Unspoken Rules would have never become a book!
Keep working together!