Brandeis International Business School

045: Finding Your Competitive Advantages

Jordan Harbinger is a Wall Street lawyer turned interview talk show host, as well as a communications and social dynamics expert. Jordan has hosted a top 50 iTunes podcast for over 12 years and receives over 6 million downloads per month, making the Jordan Harbinger Show one of the most popular podcasts in the world.

On the Jordan Harbinger Show, Jordan deconstructs the playbooks of the most successful people on earth and shares their strategies, perspectives and practical insights with the rest of us. Jordan spent several years abroad in Europe earlier in his career and in the developing world, including South America, Eastern Europe, Asia and the Middle East. His entire career path, from school to where he is now, is incredibly fascinating and full of insightful advice.

From the Dorm Room

Jordan didn’t know what he wanted to do when he “grew up,” and so going to college became the default. In his parent’s generation people would go to college to train to do a specific job, but today people go to college because they don't know what else to do with themselves. And that was definitely the reason Jordan went.

In college, nothing quite fit right. He started studying languages because that’s what he liked, having been an exchange student in Germany in the late '90s, and he was good at it. He thought it might help round out his GPA.

He realized though that every major was full of unnecessary courses that didn’t really feed into what you would do outside of college. He talked to his advisor and told him he wanted to study languages, but he didn’t want to be a German major. Maybe tie it all together with economics and political science. But there was no degree like that.

His advisor told him that every year a few people could petition to create their own degree, and said that Jordan had a good shot at doing it if he did something really unique. So he created a degree based on several languages, political science courses, and economics called Integrated International Commerce.

This is what college should be, Jordan believes. He studied what he was interested in, and he went in-depth on those things.

By the time he graduated, he was fluent in German and Spanish and had started learning Russian. He had lived in 9 countries for an extended period of time. So he thought he was qualified to do something career-wise, but didn’t have any luck applying.

Eventually, because he wasn’t sure what else to do, he applied to grad school, and he ended up getting into the University of Michigan Law School, which is one of the top 10 best law schools in America. Everyone told him since he was accepted, he had to go. Clearly the solution to not knowing what you want to do is more education, right?

You don't actually learn what you are passionate about in school. Jordan kept thinking that at some point during your education you get struck by lightning, and you suddenly realize, “this is my passion.” But that doesn’t happen.

To the Boardroom

After graduation, Jordan took a top market job on Wall Street. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn't something he absolutely loved, either. He felt jealous of people who had a career plan, or the older guys at the firm who seemed really interested in what they were doing.

Though had already taken this law office job, he thought, "I am not cut out for this. I'm not going to be a lawyer for long." Everybody else was really smart, everyone else was a really hard worker. He had to find a way to differentiate himself. He realized the one thing people at the firm weren’t great at was social skills, so he decided he was going to learn how to generate business for this law firm. If he develops a skill that nobody else has, he can gain a competitive advantage.

He started talking about things like networking, body language and non-verbal communication around the office non-stop. Eventually, he started teaching it to other law students, and then to other people in the office.

At this point, Jordan had an informal course going. He was getting tired of rehashing the same talking points every time someone new joined, so he started recording the conversations onto CDs and handing them out to people wanting to join in. This worked, but it was inefficient and very limited in its reach. He realized that he needed a way to distribute these sound files on the internet. This is 2006, and there weren’t really any simple ways to do that at the time. Then one day his friend tells him about this thing called podcasting. He uploaded the audio files onto iTunes, and that was when it took off.

He started seeing downloads from places like South Africa, and that's when he realized the power of podcasting, and that there was possibility in this far beyond what he imagined. That was the first taste of something he was really passionate about, and he didn’t hesitate to dive into it head first.

This whole journey started with the legal work when Jordan realized he had no competitive advantage and deciding to work on my social skills so that he could bring in business. Once he got into that, he realized that he didn't really love the teaching element, but he loved the interview and talk show hosting element. Over time, that evolved into him becoming an interviewer.

You have to be open to the idea that what you think you want to do might not be what you end up wanting to do. You’re not just leveraging experience from one job to another. You have to make sure that you have the freedom in place to move. You might not know what your next move is, but you can figure it out by keeping an open mind and realizing that your career is not set in stone. It is constantly evolving.

The Entrepreneurial Edge

Every week, we highlight one piece of advice for aspiring, struggling and successful-but-want-to-be-even-more-successful entrepreneurs:

Whether in your career or in your business, you need to be thinking about your competitive advantage: what it is that you can do better or different from everyone else.

In high school, Jordan’s competitive advantage was being able to study things quickly the day of a test in order to pass. In college, it was being able to stay focused on doing homework and studying instead of going out to party like everyone else. And in his legal job, it was learning networking and interpersonal relationship skills so he could bring in clients better than anyone else. As an interviewer, it’s spending several hours doing deep, deep research on his guests, so that when he sits down with them he can talk to them as if they know each other.

Find what skill or talent you can offer that will make you stand out among the crowd. The better you can define and implement your competitive advantage, the stronger your chances of success.


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