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What Is A Careerist? Check These 10 Awesome Careerists In History and What We Can Learn From Them

by Yvette McKenzie
Posted: January 26, 2015

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So, what exactly is a "careerist"? The concept of careers is a modern one. Before the industrial revolution, people had jobs, titles, vocations and passions. They didn’t talk about “climbing the corporate ladder” and “putting in a 9 to 5”.

People have always achieved things. “Careerists” have always strived to advance and to make a difference. There are some men and women who stand out. These are people who have had great success in various vocations, making a real difference to the world. It doesn’t always come down to having wealth or multiple university degrees; these are people who have not only identified their passion, but who have seized it, owned it and really made a distinction. These are men and women we can learn from. If you want a brilliant career you often need to think outside the square, work very hard and identify gaps. Take a look at this list of Top 10 Go-Getters from History and heed some of their advice.

1. William Lever

You may think that you don’t know this name – but you probably started your day with him in a very intimate way. Bathroom soap: it used to be made of tallow (rendered beef fat) but thankfully William Lever came along and changed the formula, using palm oil, glycerine and vegetable oils.

William Lever - Soap recipe innovator - Careerist

William Lever’s greatest strength was promoting his brand: in fact many historians credit him with inventing “the brand”. He came up with “Lux soap” taking over sales from his greatest competitor, “Pears Soap”. He did this by embarking on a marketing and advertising campaign that was well beyond its time in America; eventually spreading his brands globally, including to Australia. His soap brands often used cheeky imagery and cartoons to get attention. It is said that Lever used some elements of Freemasonry (of which he was a follower) when working out the structures of his companies. He continued to expand his brand and buy land and build factories across the globe, often in ways that were ethically questionable by today’s standards. However, the Lever Brothers was one of only a few British companies that took an interest in the welfare of its employees, often developing cheap housing near factory sites to house the workers there. William Lever has been credited with the famous saying, "I know half my advertising isn't working, I just don't know which half."

  • Good careerist for: Improving a product that we all know and use. Standing up for the rights of his country’s workers.
  • What we can learn from him: Create an image and a brand for your product. Think outside the square when you are coming up with marketing ideas.
  • How to be William Lever: Expand your empire proudly and get the public on your side. Set structures up around your companies’ systems and make sure you hire people that are passionate about your brand and image.

2. Marie Curie

A bright spark from teenager-hood, Curie became involved in a student’s organisation that had some very revolutionary ideas, proving that she was different to her shy, female peers. Gifted in science, she eventually took over her husband’s role as Head of the Physics Laboratory at the Sorbonne, and she gained her Doctor of Science degree in 1903. At a time when many women were not given a decent education, she found herself rewarded when she became Professor of General Physics in the Faculty of Sciences, making her the first ever chick to hold the title. She discovered the elements of polonium and radium and was considered to be one of the most influential people for establishing a radioactivity laboratory in her native city. Known for her gentle manner, she was also an author who received many honorary degrees as well as memberships of learned societies throughout the world. Eventually she was given the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903, for her study into spontaneous radiation. In 1911 she received a second Nobel Prize, this time for Chemistry. Working around toxic substances for most of her life, she was in a constant state of ill health, and eventually passed away from overexposure to radiation.

  • Good careerist for: Sticking with her passion. Continuing on her life’s work through difficult circumstances. Being calm, measured and sensible.
  • What we can learn from her: There could be new discoveries just around the corner. When your career gets tough, don’t give up, but don’t let your passion for your career affect your health!
  • How to be Marie Curie: Work hard and consider finding a great working partner who shares your interest - where you have mutual respect and understanding. Continue your work no matter what and don’t give up until you have made your important contribution to the world. Don’t bow down to society’s ideas of what you should be doing. Run your own show.

3. Dick Smith

An Aussie innovator, Smith founded Dick Smith Electronics in the late 60s. By the early 80s, he’d made millions by selling the business to Woolworths, keeping his name in the title as part of the deal. In the late 90s Smith decided to formulate a marketing crusade against foreign-owned products, launching his own brand of Australian-made and Australian owned products covering everything from matches to jam. This, and his services to communities and charity, earned him the Order of Australia. Never one to shy away from controversy, Smith donated 60 grand towards a campaign to secure a fair trial for (then) Australian terrorism suspect David Hicks. As well as this, Smith also financially assisted Australian Greens leader Senator Bob Brown after he was left with a $240,000 anti-logging court bill after losing a case he brought against Forestry Tasmania. For the last couple of years, Smith has been devoting himself to the serious subjects of overpopulation and alternatives to an endless economic growth economy, publishing his book Dick Smith's Population Crisis: The dangers of unsustainable growth for Australia.

  • Good careerist for: Being proud of who he is and what he stands for. Taking a chance.
  • What we can learn from him: Share the love, support those you believe in. Speak your mind.
  • How to be Dick Smith: When something seems unfair, stand up for your rights. Don’t be afraid to tackle the big guys, or big corporations. Have multiple interests and don’t let your life be all about your work. When you find a person or cause that you are passionate about – support them.

4. Oprah Winfrey

Oprah Winfrey - Careerist

Coming from a poor family, Oprah was taught to read by her loving grandmother, and by age three she was able to recite bible verses in her local church. At age 17 she won the Miss Black Tennessee beauty pageant and was offered an on-air job at a radio station serving the African American community in Nashville, as well as a full scholarship to university. After graduating, she landed a dream job at a Baltimore radio station, eventually moving into TV. She was eventually given her own show which was such a success that its format was copied by others such as Donahue and Sally Jesse Raphael. Winfrey became the first woman in history to own and produce her own talk show. Over the years she expanded her Harpo empire into film projects and in 2003 she became the first African-American woman to become a billionaire. Winfrey is now the highest-paid performer on television, and the richest self-made woman in America. Winfrey has had a profound influence over the way so many people think, act and behave and has interviewed many people of influence and notoriety, as well as being involved in countless community and charity projects.

  • Good careerist for: Supporting other women. Helping people to achieve their goals.
  • What we can learn from her: Everyone can achieve – they have to believe they can and put the hard work in.
  • How to Be Oprah Winfrey: Work hard to achieve your dreams. Never let anyone tell you that you can’t get where you want to be. Look for the next opportunity and when a plum job comes up, make it your own. Use your name and brand yourself in a way so that people remember you. Surround yourself with positive people that want you to achieve.

5. Johannes Gutenberg

A fellow with many strings to his bow, Johannes Gutenberg was a German blacksmith, goldsmith, printer, and publisher who lived in the fifteenth century. From a relatively humble background, he ended up changing the way the world runs – by inventing the mechanical movable type printing press. Before this, books had to be copied by hand. Gutenberg’s invention now meant that the little letters could be re-arranged and multiple copies of a single document could be made. Some credit this invention with the development of the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment. His invention brought learning to the masses. Gutenberg was a true careerist and innovator; he not only invented a process for mass-producing movable type but the use of oil-based ink; and the use of a wooden printing press similar to the agricultural screw presses of the period. Many scholars believe that his press was the most important and influential invention of the modern world, yet few of us would remember his name. Gutenberg didn’t stop with his invention; he decided to contribute in the best way he knew how: he wanted to print a very special book for the masses. He ended up printing what became known as the 42 line Bible, or the Gutenberg Bible. Although printed in Latin, the book has been revered for its high quality and beauty. 48 copies of his Bible still remain today and they are amongst the most valuable documents on earth.

Careerists - Holy Bible - Johannes Gutenberg
  • Good careerist for: Capitalising on a great idea and improving it.
  • What we can learn from him: Innovate, innovate, innovate!
  • How to be Johannes Gutenberg: Look around you to see what needs to be improved. When you settle on a target, throw your heart and soul into a project until you get it right and make a difference. When this is done, don’t stop. Continue to think of ways that you can contribute to society and reach out to people that are listening to you.

6. Dr Elizabeth Blackburn

A great Aussie careerist for her contributions to society and culture, Professor Elizabeth Blackburn, studied the telomere, which is the structure at the end of chromosomes that protects them. Blackburn also co-discovered the telomerase which is the enzyme that replenishes the telomere. It may sound like small fry to most of us, but for her work, Blackburn was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Perhaps her greatest contribution is in medical ethics – and area of great importance. She was even controversially fired from the President's Council on Bioethics. Going against the Bush administration in the United States, Blackburn also supported human embryonic cell research, eventually having her Council terms terminated by the White House. This outraged many of her peers as well as members of the general public – many people thought that politics and medical ethics should not mix. Not giving up, Blackburn is now on the Science Advisory Board of the Genetics Policy Institute, where she continues her work in medical ethics.

  • Good careerist for: Thinking outside the square. Getting back up after being knocked down.
  • What we can learn from her: Stand up for your beliefs.
  • How to be Elizabeth Blackburn: Challenge the ideas that many people take as read. Stick with your guns and if you get knocked down, just get back up again. If people find your work outrageous or controversial, consider that you might in fact be on the right track, and realise that it may be society that has to change.

7. Steve Jobs

We all know who this man is; without him and his vision we might still all be carrying Nokias.  Steve Jobs, was of course the American businessman and technology visionary who is best known as the co-founder, chairman, and chief executive officer of Apple Inc.

Steve Jobs - Careerists - Apple Inc - iPhone

His adoptive father started him off young by showing him how to tinker with electronics in the garage at home. Jobs became so interested in this; he developed a love of pulling things apart and putting them back together. His parents struggled to send him to university, but he dropped out after just six months. Deciding instead to focus on his passion, he created a company he called Apple (after a stint where he was a practicing fruitarian – a type of vegetarian who only eats matter that has fallen from a tree, rather than being picked). His innovations changed the world of computers, despite a drop in sales in the 90s and early 2000s. Many people also forget that Jobs also co-founded and served as chief executive of Pixar Animation Studios; eventually ending up on the board of directors of The Walt Disney Company in 2006. Jobs passed away in 2011, leaving a massive empire and successful legacy.

  • Good careerist for: Focusing on his strengths, learning what he was good at
  • What we can learn from him: University may not be everything. There are many paths to success. Explore all your options, but focus on what you’re passionate about.
  • How to be Steve Jobs: If university doesn’t suit you, think of other study options in areas that you are passionate about. It doesn’t need to be computers, but it does have to be something you can devote time and energy to. Open Colleges has over a hundred courses in various areas of interest, no university lectures included! Think outside the square.

8. Dorothea Mackeller

Another great Aussie careerist, Mackeller was born in Sydney in 1885. She was raised in the city by a professional family who gave her a great appreciation for learning and education. She often managed to get away to the country, as her brothers had farms near Gunnedah where she used to take holidays. She loved the country so much that she started to write poetry. When she was only 19, she wrote a piece called My Country while she was at home in England, thinking of Australia. Her poem was so good, it was published in the London Spectator in 1908. We all know the poem (this is actually verse two): “I love a sunburnt country/ A land of sweeping plains / Of ragged mountain ranges/ Of droughts and flooding rains.” Having achieved quite a lot by her early twenties, Mackeller went on to write and publish several books and novels. Her writing was so beloved that at the New Year's Day Honours of 1968, she was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for her contribution to Australian literature. She’s an interesting person and a bit of an anti-careerist – never calling herself a poet and using her imagination rather than her experience to write. She had lots of talent, but some say she never discovered her full potential.

  • Good careerist for: Showing her passion to others. Using her imagination
  • What we can learn from her: Write and speak from the heart. If you find something you’re passionate about – share it.
  • How to be Dorothea Mackeller: Don’t let your location hold you back. Use your imagination to get over hurdles. Learn to express yourself in ways that people respond to, but make sure that you believe in yourself and allow yourself to discover your full potential.

 9. Dolores Huerta

You may not have heard of this feisty careerist, but Huerta is a labour leader and civil rights activist who co-founded the National Farm-workers Association in the United States. Fighting her whole life for immigrants’, workers’ and women’s rights, she was a true role model to the Latin community. After leaving school, she finished a teaching degree and started work as a primary school teacher. This is where she realised that many of the kids she taught didn’t have enough food to eat or clothes to wear as they were the children of poor local farmers. This is where she began her activism, starting several foundations to support the needs of the disadvantaged community groups she was surrounded by. Her aim was to improve the social and economic conditions for farm workers and to fight against discrimination. In the late 90s, Huerta was named one of the three most important women of the year and a decade later she was awarded an honorary degree for being a lifetime champion of social justice.

  • Good careerist for: Speaking up for people who were not represented. Combating injustice. Rising above her social standing to a position of influence.
  • What we can learn from her: If something seems wrong, it may well be. Discrimination is harmful to prosperity. Listen to people.
  • How to be Dolores Huerta: When you see a problem, act on it. When you see someone who is disadvantaged, do something. Speak your mind and challenge societal norms. Use your voice and don’t shy away from controversy.

 10. Peter Singer

Perhaps not a careerist in the traditional sense, Singer is often lauded as the best known modern philosopher, famous for his controversial stance on animal liberation, abortion, euthanasia, and ethics. He was born in Australia but studied at Princeton, and is the author of 25 books on ethics. Diversifying his career portfolio, he has held positions as Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and has served as Chair of Philosophy at Monash University, where he founded its Centre for Human Bioethics. In the mid 90s he also ran unsuccessfully as a Green candidate for the Australian Senate. He is most famous for his opinions and studies in applied ethics. He tends to approach ethical issues from a secular, preference utilitarian perspective, meaning that his philosophy should be understood and comprehended by ‘the everyman’ rather than just other philosophers and professors. In 2006, Singer was voted one of Australia's ten most influential public intellectuals. Many people have disagreed with things that he has said, and he has been loudly protested against in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria, and is the subject of intense debate and protest in the United States.

  • Good careerist for: Bravely challenging perceptions
  • What we can learn from him: Work out your own ethical code.
  • How to be Peter Singer: If you have a different way of seeing things, don’t apologise – speak your mind. Challenge people and if they protest against what you have to say, explain your opinions in a clear and concise way. Not everyone is going to like you, but make sure you are firm on your morals.

What Can We Learn from These Careerists?

Careers come in many shapes and sizes, many vocations and passions. The thing that all these achievers have in common is that they discovered things they were good at and stuck with them, often against controversy, personal hardships and opponents who didn’t believe in them. One thing is guaranteed – the world will continue to produce successful careerists – who will be next? What will they do? What areas of society currently need to be revamped, challenged and changed? Where can you create change in your life – what around you needs fixing, improving, attending-to? Think big, but focus on your area of speciality. That’s what a true careerist does.



Yvette has over a decade of professional experience at some of Australia’s largest media corporations, including Southern Cross Austereo and the Macquarie Media Network. With a degree in Communications (majoring in Journalism), she covers stories on education, new knowledge technologies and independent learning.

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