There was a lot to be discouraged by in 2016. There was also a lot to cheer. And here, below, are those career-defining performances and workplace developments from the past year I found to be most deserving of our cheers.
Best Performance by an Athlete That Showed How Important It Is to Meet Your Hero and Have Your Picture Taken with Him
This past summer in Rio, all eyes were on American swimmer Michael Phelps. And he didn't disappoint. Phelps won five gold medals and a silver, which brought his total gold medal count to an insane 23 and his overall medal count to an unbelievable 28. However, perhaps the bigger story, and certainly the story of the future, was the man who beat Phelps in Brazil: Joseph Schooling, the young swimmer from Singapore who touched the wall just before Phelps in the 100-meter butterfly, handing Phelps his sole silver of the Rio Games. Thanks to that victory, we learned that Schooling and Phelps met for the first time not in competition but when Schooling was 13 years old and Phelps was about to compete in his third Olympics. Phelps visited Schooling's swimming club in 2008 in Beijing, and Schooling had his picture taken with Phelps. Schooling kept that photo, and after he beat his idol in Rio he was quoted as saying, "If it wasn't for Michael, I don't think I could have gotten to this point. I wanted to be like him as a kid."
Best Sign That All That Reading of Shakespeare and Tolstoy You Did in High School and College Might Actually Pay off Pretty Well Someday
Contrary to popular parental opinion, a couple of studies this year showed that majoring in liberal arts and other humanities might actually lead to very handsome salaries as opposed to minimum-wage jobs. One study found that "computer science’s stars rang up lifetime earnings of at least $3.2 million," which was impressive but "not as impressive as philosophy majors’ $3.46 million or history majors’ $3.75 million." Another study found that "pay for liberal arts graduates rose sharply for the class of 2015, moving closer to business graduates’ starting pay." In fact, 2015 graduates with degrees in English earned starting salaries that were 14.3 percent higher than 2014 grads with English degrees. There was plenty of qualitative data to back up these trends, too. The head of talent acquisition at investment-research firm Morningstar, which has hired an unusually large number of humanities and social-sciences majors, was quoted as saying, after the results of the former study, "It’s easier to hire people who can write—and teach them how to read financial statements—rather than hire accountants in hopes of teaching them to be strong writers."
Best Podcast for Finding Out Why You're Not Running Your Own Company (Or Doing What You Really Want to Do) But How You Could Be Very Soon
Best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell is on a mission to uncover the secrets to greatness. He's also on a mission to help each of us uncover our own greatness. And this year, the author of Blink, Outliers, and David and Goliath unveiled a new project: a podcast entitled Revisionist History. In each of RH's episodes, Gladwell "goes back and reinterprets something from the past: an event, a person, an idea. Something overlooked. Something misunderstood." And several of these podcasts gave us a lot of insight into why someone or some idea has earned a great deal of success, insight we could easily apply to our own work and careers. Two episodes are not to be missed: 1) The Big Man Can't Shoot, which goes back to March 2, 1962, when NBA Hall of Fame basketball player Wilt "the Stilt" Chamberlain scored 100 points in a single game, explaining why Wilt was so great in 1962 but faltered in subsequent seasons; and 2) Hallelujah, which looks at how creativity works through the lens of Leonard Cohen's great song of the same name, discovering along the way that greatness often takes a very windy path, not to mention a very long time to achieve.
Best Book By a Former Female Wall Street Banker About the Grueling Life of a Banker That Proved There's Life After Banking
This past spring, former Lehman Brothers CFO Erin Callan Montella published Full Circle: A memoir of leaning in too far and the journey back. Callan Montella, who said her book is "not intended to be self-help or advice," famously shot up the Wall Street ladder and became the CFO of Lehman in her early 40s but infamously held the post for just a few months before Lehman went bankrupt. Afterward, she left Wall Street altogether, survived a suicide attempt, went into hiding, married a retired New York City firefighter, then resurfaced a changed woman. All of which she writes about in "Full Circle," a book Fortune called "stunning," Bloomberg called "powerful," and I called a worthwhile cautionary tale for any young person about to begin a career on Wall Street, or in Silicon Valley, or in any other industry for that matter.
Best Book By a Former Male Wall Street Banker About the Grueling Life of a Banker That Proved There's Life After Banking
In July, Sam Polk, a former head trader at a hedge fund who walked away from his several-million-dollar-a-year job at the age of 30, published a memoir called For the Love of Money. In advance of the book's release, Polk also wrote a much talked about New York Times op-ed on "Bro Talk" (and a couple years ago he also wrote a widely read Times op-ed on wealth addiction). Here's Polk in an interview with Salon just after his book was published: "People sort of assume that I hate Wall Street, but I don’t. There were so many things that I loved about Wall Street, like how competitive it was, and how smart the people were, and how fun it was to basically play this huge video game for a living. But at the end of the day, the driving value system behind all of it was accumulating money for yourself. My fundamental realization on Wall Street was that, if that was the primary goal in my life, then I would never feel—call it what you will—'fulfilled,' 'balanced,' or really, I would never feel like I had spent my brief years in the world wisely."
Best Use of a Pregnancy by a Very Funny Working Mother to Give Her Career a Major Bump
Standup comic and actor Ali Wong famously recorded her one-woman Netflix comedy special "Baby Cobra" while seven-and-a-half-months pregnant. In the special, most of Wong's jokes revolve around her child in utero as well as the journey toward pregnancy: dating, sex, getting married. Which is to say Wong used her pregnancy to her advantage rather than letting it derail her work. And it ended up serving her well. Her special, which premiered this past spring, received rave reviews. She also received The New Yorker treatment—a long and glowing profile in the magazine. Here's Wong, from that profile, on the decision to record her standup special while with child: "I thought that if I did it when I was pregnant then I would always associate the baby with a break if I got it … A couple of female standup comics I know refer to their kids as their Little Career Killers ... It sounds crazy, but if it wasn’t for [my daughter] and doing that special when I was pregnant with her, I could see how very easily I would have slowed down, and stopped."
Best Performance by an Award-Winning Artist That Proved It's Okay to Stop in the Middle of an Interview or Presentation to Apologize and Say That You're Nervous
If you haven't seen and heard Patti Smith's performance of Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall" during the ceremony in which Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, I urge you to stop reading to watch it and listen to it here ... Okay, now that you're back (or if you've already seen and listened to it), let me point out the obvious: It was one of the most moving, if not the most moving musical performances of the year. And the moment in which Smith was overcome with emotion and lost her place in the song and had to stop and apologize before continuing brought all of us mere mortals who fear performing in front of large audiences such comfort because if Smith, who is right up there with Dylan when it comes to ability to write and perform, could rebound so nobly from a mistake at the Nobel ceremony, then certainly we could rebound from smaller mistakes under smaller circumstances (like in interviews, for example). In any case, here's Smith, in her own words, on what went down in Sweden in early December:
The opening chords of the song were introduced, and I heard myself singing. The first verse was passable, a bit shaky, but I was certain I would settle. But instead I was struck with a plethora of emotions, avalanching with such intensity that I was unable to negotiate them. From the corner of my eye, I could see the the huge boom stand of the television camera, and all the dignitaries upon the stage and the people beyond. Unaccustomed to such an overwhelming case of nerves, I was unable to continue. I hadn't forgotten the words that were now a part of me. I was simply unable to draw them out.
This strange phenomenon did not diminish or pass but stayed cruelly with me. I was obliged to stop and ask pardon and then attempt again while in this state and sang with all my being, yet still stumbling. It was not lost on me that the narrative of the song begins with the words "I stumbled alongside of twelve misty mountains," and ends with the line "And I'll know my song well before I start singing." As I took my seat, I felt the humiliating sting of failure, but also the strange realization that I had somehow entered and truly lived the world of the lyrics.
What's also important to point out, and to remember, is that a mistake can sometimes be a beautiful thing.
Follow me Twitter.
Follow Vault on Instagram.
Want to be found by top employers? Upload Your Resume
Join Gold to Unlock Company Reviews