Career | Dialogue with Professor Rob Carroll

Recently, wide debates on the 996 work culture in China have arisen from the death of a young worker at Pinduoduo. We asked professor Rob Carroll to share his views on the following questions:

  1. Due to the “996” culture (work from 9am to 9pm, 6 days/week), many Chinese people want to quit their jobs but fear for the financial loss. What would you say to them?
  2. Should I choose a job that pays well or that I enjoy?
  3. Why working hard can’t get me promoted?
  4. What is your definition of “success” and what are the key to your vision of “success”?

Professor Rob Carroll

Rob is a Director of Catapult Ventures and chairs Catapult’s four Investment Committees. Catapult is a Venture Capital Fund Manager with assets under management of £130m. He previously worked at 3i plc in Leicester and London and ECI in the Midlands.

Rob is Chairman of Replay Limited in Newark a Non-Executive Director of Open Go Sim in Nottingham. He is also an angel investor in Ekkosense Ltd. He has lectured at Nottingham University Business School since 2011 in Venture Capital and Private Equity and was appointed Honorary Professor in August 2013 and Professor of Practice in July 2016.


Q1. Due to the “996” culture (work from 9am to 9pm, 6 days/week), many Chinese people want to quit their jobs but fear for the financial loss. What would you say to them?

It’s easier to work hard if you’re working for a business with purposes. It’s quite difficult to work hard for a business where you don’t know what the purpose of the business is, or you’re disconnected from the senior leadership of the business. Short-term financial stability is important but having a longer-term or medium-term plan is also important.

If you just spend some time to visualise the future – what is your 1, 3, 5 year-plan; what is you 5, 10 year-plan? Literally visualising yourself in the future doing what you want to do. By doing that, what you in fact do is instruct your subconscious brain to work, night and day, to help you deliver that vision. Our conscious brain is a very small part of the brain, whereas the subconscious brain is enormous. The best terminology I heard is – your brain is a warehouse full of machines that work well. It’s dark and there is no light on. You are wondering around with a torch. You look around and see all the machines are working. Your conscious brain is the light so you can constantly look at those machines. But your unconscious brain is all the rest of the factory in the dark, working perfectly as well. If you literally talk to yourself and say “I’m instructing myself to go and find opportunities for me because this is where I want to go, from A to B. I’m instructing my subconscious brain to help me get to B”. It’s amazing how your brain delivers for you. If you don’t instruct your subconscious brain to work for you, you would end up wondering around and just doing your job. Then your subconscious brain may say, “you’ve got to look at this! You’ve got to look at this machine because this is going to help you Mr. Brain, get to where you want to go”. And then you start to recognize small opportunities that will help you find where your destination is.

Q2. What is your view on the following questions?

Q2.1. Should I choose a job that pays well or that I enjoy doing?

In the short-term, doing a job that pays well is fine, because you might need to pay the mortgage. However, I don’t think you can fool yourself forever. You can do something that is a bit painful, for a short period of time, if it achieves your financial objectives. But if you want to be happy, you can’t let that go on for too long. That’s ok in the short-term as long as it’s leading you somewhere meaningful. For example, “I don’t mind working hard in my final year of degree even though I hate it, because I get a 2:1 and a good job”.

I think the way to manage that is to plan the future: where do I want to be in 1 year? Where do I want to be in 5 years and 10 years? You must have a plan and be aware that the plan can change. Every year, when it’s Christmas or new year, I will sit down and plan my objectives for the next year and update my objectives in 5 years’ time, 10 years’ time. There is a saying that “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up somewhere else”. If you are going from A to B, you need to know where B is. Otherwise, you end up in D or F, G. Certainly your plan can change, but the it is very helpful if you know where your destination is.

To sum up, I think it’s fine to do a job that pays well in the short-term, as long as it ends up achieving your medium-term objective which is something you should enjoy. 

Q2.2. Why working hard can’t get me promoted?

I will give you a formular here: Achievement = Ability x Effort. Your success is a combination of your ability as a person and the effort you put in. I’ve come across people who have massive ability but don’t put the effort in, therefore they don’t achieve what they should have achieved. There are also people who have lower ability but put a lot of effort in and still manage to achieve their objectives. Sometimes, if you’re not getting promoted, then something has to change. What could change is, for instance, you could have a conversation with your boss and ask “why aren’t I getting promoted? Am I doing something wrong? What do I need to do to get promoted? How long if I do these things will I get promoted?” If you can secure a “moral contract” between you and your boss that should prompt a helpful future conversation:

  • “you haven’t been promoted this year, but if you do A, B and C, you’ll get promoted.”
  • “If I do A, B and C will I get promoted?”
  • “Yes.”

Talk to your boss, get some feedback and then secure a moral contract that if you do A, B and C you’ll get promoted. If you do deliver but still can’t get promoted, then it’s probably time to move on to find a different job.

In the UK we have an expression, and you may find an equivalent in Chinese one along the same lines, “the devil you know is sometimes better than the devil you don’t know”. If you work for a big organisation, it’s familiar, you know the people, you’ve got some credibility, people take you seriously, all of those things take time to develop. I’ve always given the employer I work for the chance to deliver for me. It is sometimes the easiest way to get promoted because you’re familiar with the company and its culture. If the organisation can’t give you the chance of promotion, give them the first opportunity before looking elsewhere. Remember you may have worked  for this organisation for 2-3 years. People there know you well and have a view of you. They know what the organisation thinks of you and will give you good feedbacks. That’s a really important source of information to manage your career. What people do sometimes is they get fed up with work and they don’t have this conversation with their boss, or the organisation. They just leave. What a waste of information that is! By forcing the issue and having challenging conversations with your existing employer who knows you best, you can get so much information about what they think of you, which then informs where you go next.

Q3. What is your definition of “success” and what are the key to your vision of “success”?

Before answering this question directly, I just want to make a separate point: having a successful life probably boils down to 5 or 6 key decisions you take in life. These decisions may include: which school did you go to? What grades did you get? What course did you choose to do? What university you chose to go to? What job you chose? Who you marry/who is your partner in life? If you get most of these decisions right, say 4 out of 5, you’re probably going to be successful and happy. If you only get 1 of them right, your life is going to be quite difficult. One of the lessons that I learnt is allocating the appropriate amount of time for decision-making based on the relative importance of each decision. If a really important decision is coming up, give it loads of time. Some people make important decisions in a rush. If they do this then they may make the wrong decisions. So, if it’s a really important decision, try to allocate sufficient time and research to make that correct decision. If it’s not an important decision, then don’t waste too much time. In short, in your life, if you get most of the important decisions right, you are more likely to be successful.

Now coming back to the question. My definition of success is — number one, having a successful family. Then, developing people and allowing them to achieve their success. If you are a leader, an entrepreneur or a businessperson, or you have a team, then if you concentrate on developing your people to enable them to be successful, by default you end up being successful yourself. If you put a lot of effort and time into developing people, they want to work really hard for you. If they work really hard for you, you end up being successful. When you focus on developing your people, the rest takes care of itself.

Concluding Remarks

I’ve always been interested in the key to success and happiness. What intrigues me is why people take on different life paths, some seeking for breakthroughs regardless of constraints in resources whereas others feeling trapped in life? Through the conversation with Professor Carroll, I realised an important factor: way of thinking/mindset.

When facing a problem, he didn’t focus merely on the problem itself but stepped outside the box, analysing it from a broader and long-term perspective. Very often, we look for quick fixes that fail to address the underlying problems. When we do go search deeper for them, we would normally find that the real problem lies in ourselves, in our incomprehension of true pursuits. We all, at some point in life, felt or are still feeling purposeless, uncertain and anxious about future. The situation won’t get better if we simply follow A, B or C. It requires a profound knowledge of the self and our goals. Sometimes, I wonder, what decides how far a person could go is not necessarily getting the best cards in life but the depth of one’s self-exploration and the width of his/her vision.      


Chinese translation: 一聊人文

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