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What American Express can teach us about changing directions…

Last Updated:

June 13, 2024

Table of Contents

Welcome to Edition #55 of Did You Know? (DYK), the weekly newsletter by Gorick Ng, Harvard career adviser and Wall Street Journal Bestselling Author of The Unspoken Rules, where we deconstruct the untold story of how someone (or something) became successful—and what you can do to follow in their footsteps.

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Did You Know? Where you start doesn’t have to dictate where you end up!

(1) A story from the past

Did you know? American Express was in the freight and travel business for 108 years before it became a credit card company.

The year is 1850. Three businessmen in the transportation industry—Henry Wells, William G. Fargo, and John Warren Butterfield—joined forces to create a freight-forwarding business. 

(If Henry Wells and William G. Fargo sound like familiar names, that’s because they would go on to create Wells Fargo & Co.)

Over a century later (108 years to be exact), the company known as American Express would release its first “Charge Card.” Previously, individuals needed to carry pre-paid “traveler’s cheques” or large sums of cash in foreign currency when traveling abroad. As the “first credit card accepted internationally”, people could travel anywhere in the world without fearing they would either run out of or risk losing their money.

But how did American Express (AmEx) go from shipping goods to becoming the second-largest credit card company by purchase volume?

Here’s what AmEx did:

  • 1850: AmEx was founded as a freight-forwarding company to help people safely transport their goods and valuables.
  • 1883: Upon realizing that immigrants in the U.S. needed a safe way to send money back home, AmEx developed the money order. Since few families had checking accounts, this service also became popular for paying household bills.
  • 1891: AmEx introduced the Travelers Cheque, which could “convert U.S. dollars into foreign currency anywhere in the world.” The cheque helped customers safely and effectively manage their money while abroad. It also helped AmEx transition from a simple package courier to a trusted financial services provider.
  • 1915: With a foothold in the international finance service industry, AmEx did the next logical thing: It entered other aspects of the travel business. These services included helping customers plan for trips, book trip tickets, and book international lodging.
  • 1918: The U.S. began managing all express companies due to World War I. AmEx exited freight forwarding but remained in the travel and financial business.
  • 1958: AmEx took advantage of its international presence thanks to the Travelers Cheque and introduced its first Charge Card (credit card) for the U.S. and Canada. Due to customer demand, AmEx issued 250,000 Charge Cards before its official release.
  • 1966: The first card for corporations was introduced. This corporate-only card enabled companies to manage and control spending at all business levels. 
  • 1995: AmEx introduced a cobranded card with Hilton. This partnership marked the beginning of AmEx’s partnerships with retail stores, airlines, and more—which helps customers save and earn rewards today with every swipe.
  • 2024: Nearly two centuries after its initial foray into freight forwarding, AmEx is hailed as the 8th most admired company in the world by Fortune and was named the number one most innovative personal finance company of 2023 by Fast Company.

So, the next time you find yourself stressing over the question of “What do I want to do with my career or life?” remember American Express—which picked a path, went with it, changed its mind, and still became (and remained) successful.

The first “Charge Card” by American Express. This card marked a global shift in personal financial management and also concretized American Express’ new identity as a leading financial services company (image via History of Information).

(2) A strategy for your future

Did you know? Taking small steps in the right direction will pay off in the long run.

Stressed over what you should do with your life?

It’s helpful to have an idea of where you want to be at the pinnacle of your career because then you can figure out “who you want to impress and what they will be impressed by.” 

But, if you’re not sure, don’t stress over the question, “What do I want to do in the future?” Instead, consider asking yourself: “What’s my best next step?”

Try filling in these blanks:

  1. “My goal is to ______.”
  • E.g., “My goal is to have a stable financial future and do work that excites me.”  
  1. “I’m wrestling with [path A] versus [path B] versus [path C].”
  • E.g., “I’m wrestling with going back to school to get my master’s degree versus applying for a new job versus staying at my current company.”
  1. “______ may not be the ‘best’ step since ______, but it’s at least the ‘best next step’ because ______, ______, and ______.”
  • E.g., “Applying for a new job may not be the ‘best step’ since I’m not sure yet what will excite me, but it’s at least the ‘best next step’ because I won’t be accumulating more student debt (if I went back to school) and won’t have to do work I don’t enjoy (if I stayed in my current job). And I will be able to make the same amount of money or more plus try something new.”

Life isn’t a series of decisions we map out one day and then follow to a T. Even when we think we know where we’re going, there is still plenty that is outside our control. The uncertainty can lead to a ton of analysis paralysis! Picking the “best next step” over the “absolute best path” can get you moving—and progress is progress.

I know it because I’ve experienced it: When I was in business school, I was in the depths of “analysis paralysis” on what to do with my life: Start a startup—and specifically an “ed tech” startup? If so, which one?

It felt like a big commitment to make a decision I’d have to live with for the rest of my life. But, when I took a step back, I realized it didn’t matter what path I pursued because they’d all benefit from me writing down what I had learned.

So, I got writing. I’m grateful my efforts helped me uncover a new and exciting career path as an author, but, even if I hadn’t pursued a book, I knew I would have still made progress.

Pursue your “best next step”!


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