Harvard researchers studied 9 million people to discover the surprising secret to career success

By Arianne Cohen

A Harvard study has pinpointed the secret to career success: choosing the right coworkers. The researchers looked at everyone in Sweden (then nine million people) over 10 years, tracing their educations, jobs, and coworker histories. They found that coworkers with complementary skills and education earned higher wages, and that those wages rose even further for workers with teammates who had few skills similar to their own. “The value of what a person knows depends on whom that person works with,” write the researchers. “Having coworkers with qualifications similar to one’s own is costly.”

This is kind of a big deal! The study sheds light on questions like why wages are higher in cities and larger organizations, and why people’s outcomes with the same educational degrees vary so wildly. It’s because wages don’t reward individuals’ value. They reward their value in the context in which they’re working. 

You’ve seen this throughout the labor market: an anesthesiologist, for example, is highly paid, and surrounded by a surgical team with complementary skills. Cleaners are low paid, with coworkers whose skills can easily substitute for their own. There are exceptions: A painter, for example, might work on a specialized construction team with a masoner and carpenter—and, likely, earn more because of it.

The study has big implications for your career path: Education mostly pays off for individuals who will be on teams with peers who are equally educated in complementary fields. And on your next job hunt, opt for a role where you won’t be working in a mob of similar peers. Because at the end of the day, your paycheck will reflect not your skills but the skills you can mobilize through your colleagues.


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