Last week I spoke at a conference in Florida and while I was there I met an interesting guy. We sat down for 30 minutes or so and explored his strengths and talents so that he could use this information to decide on a career path.
As we talked, it was obvious that he was crystal clear about his strengths. He was exceptional at things like “arranging materials to produce a product that benefits people.” He had used this strength for years doing mock-ups of houses just for fun. He had shadowed a construction manager for a summer and loved the experience.
All signs pointed to him finding satisfaction in architecture or construction management.
So why did he need my help?
I asked him this in not so many words. I think my exact question was “so why don’t you do it?” His answer: “I’m afraid to make the wrong decision. What if I choose it, invest in it, get down the road and decide it’s not for me.”
First, this is a totally understandable way to think. I’ve thought the same many times. But I’ve also learned through my own experience two important principles:
1. There is no “right” career. The truth is that you can work in any number of careers, industries, and organizations AS LONG AS they align with your talents, values, and ideal working environment. There isn’t a right or wrong, but there is definitely and worst, better, and best and the easiest way to narrow these down is through self-exploration. Start with what you do know — you.
2. You can always reset. You will never get too far to turn back. It may not be easy, and certain choices might make it even more difficult by incurring loads of debt or other obligations, but you can always reset.
That’s why I exist — to help people reset.
Learn who you are and trust that your inner voice will speak up if you head down a path that isn’t aligned. Inspiration comes when action is taken, so take action, pick a path, and go with it. You can only research and explore for so long before it’s time to take a step into the unknown.
“Career best” experiences happen at the convergence of your competencies (skills), passions and organizational needs. I read this from The Extraordinary Leader, Zenger and Folkman’s book, and it’s layered on an important aspect to my theory about values, talents, and environment — you have to find a place where what you have to offer is valued and needed.
The theory, they suggest, is that people are at their best in career when they find something they are passionate about, that they have actual skill in, and that is needed by the organization they work for or the audience they serve.
Passion is what you love to do, regardless of skill. Competence is what you are skilled in. Organizational need is, quite literally, what is needed by the organization. Find the convergence between these three and you’ve found your sweet spot.
I couldn’t agree more.
The challenge is that we often have either competency or passion (or both) but may be in a place that doesn’t need (or doesn’t think they need) what we have to offer. We spend our time trying to convince them that what we have is valuable.
Alternately, we don’t actually have as much competency in our passions as we think we might. Hence, the value of feedback and self-reflection to determine our true “genius.”
I was listening to a podcast yesterday that interviewed Mike Rowe and heard this profound statement: Vocation is where your greatest strength meets your greatest passion. I would add, based on this book I’m reading, in an area of greatest need.
Happiness, success, money, prestige, and all other pursuits follow congruence. The more congruent you are — in harmony with your true self — the more likely it is that these other pursuits will manifest.
Career is really all about figuring out who you are — your values, strengths, and ideal environments — and then finding a career path that pays you to be you so that you can develop what’s best about you, manage what’s weak or unnatural, and offer the talents you’ve been given to others. When you are congruent with who you are on a daily basis you feel more happy and satisfied. Happy people are more successful (see Shawn Achor’s work on happiness and success). Success leads to excellence in your work. Excellence leads to pay and promotion.
The challenge is that we often seek these priorities as ends unto themselves. “I want to be more happy” or “I want to make more money.” These things come to those who are congruent — they are byproducts of authenticity. Just seek congruence. Figure out who you are and use that as a lens to explore potential career paths and find one that says, “We want who you are.”
Picking a major in college was brutal. In fact, I registered 7 different majors during my four years. When I finally figured out my career path four years after I graduated I could see in hindsight several things I could have done to simplify the process and make a more educated decision.
So why aren’t college students my target market? Why don’t I spend my days coaching and writing for college students to help them avoid the mistakes I made?
The reality that I’ve come to over the past few years is that you simply need to get a first job out of college. Any job. There are certainly jobs that may be a better fit than others, but you can’t begin the real work of figuring out your life-path until you’ve experienced that first job.
Why? Why willingly subject yourself to a job that you may not even end up staying in?
I was talking to a friend recently who I had met while she was a student at Rice. She had been in the leadership program I coordinated and we’ve stayed in contact since we both work in the same industry. She said her first job out of college was essential for two reasons:
1. She figured out her non-negotiables. For example, she didn’t realize the power of a strong leadership team in making or breaking her job satisfaction. She’s now more committed to really understanding the leadership team of any future organization she chooses to work for. The first job gives you an opportunity to figure out what really matters.
2. She gets to cross things off her list and explore areas she didn’t previously know much about. This is genius. She’s got an open mind and a growth mindset. She’s using her first few jobs as a research study to learn what she likes and doesn’t like and what she wants to do next. She’s not afraid to be in an industry that she may not end up staying in. Most people I coach feel stuck and like they can’t make a change. You can always make a change. In fact, she’s going into her first job expecting to make a change. I’ve also coached people who are afraid to try a career path such as teaching or counseling or business, as if you only get to pick one and that’s your gig for the rest of your life. This isn’t Divergent. You can always make a change.
I’m not opposed to coaching college-age career-seekers. In fact, I think there are many things you can do to reduce the pain in the process. But nothing beats the first job in helping you figure out what really matters to you and to try things you’ve never tried before and that you may never try again.
Clayton Christensen is a smart guy. Really smart. He does econometrics. He teaches at Harvard, writes books, researches, and sets trends.
He also said that “the single most useful thing he’s ever learned” was this:
His life’s purpose.
The single most important thing?!
This is a bold statement and I couldn’t agree more. So important that he tells his Harvard Business School students that if they can figure that out during their time at HBS it will be the single most important thing they will learn there as well.
The reason, he says, is that he applies the tools of econometrics several times a year, but he applies the knowledge of the purpose of his life every single day.
This quote from Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” is a favorite of mine:
“This uniqueness and singleness which distinguishes each individual and gives a meaning to his existence has a bearing on creative work as much as it does on human love. When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude. A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the ‘why’ for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any ‘how.'”
Inspired by this, I wrote this statement:
I exist to show people the best in who they are and actualize their potential.
It’s what drives me every day. It’s the purpose for my work, my family, my religion, my hobbies, and this blog.
What’s your purpose?
In 2005 I was in a dark place. I felt drained by my work and hopeless thinking that this is what I would be doing for the next 40 years.
So I left.
I put in my two weeks’ notice, bid farewell to my colleagues (who were great, by the way), and left.
That moment was huge. Crazy, but huge. It was huge because it catalyzed the rest of my career. I wouldn’t be where I am today without that moment.
Crazy because I didn’t have a path. I had no idea where I was headed. In fact, when I quit my job I told everyone I was leaving to go to grad school in Utah and pursue a degree in Spanish. Truth is, I had no desire to do that. Like, I have no idea where that even came from.
But that plan wasn’t for me, it was for them. Most people have very little appetite for risk, lack of structure, or straight up career rebellion. I had to tell them something, and “I’m leaving because I don’t like it and I don’t know what I’m going to do next” would have been socially unacceptable and elicited too many questions.
In hindsight I was blissfully naive and simply believed in my ability to support my family one way or another, even if it meant taking a low-paying customer service job at Overstock.com — which it did.
The more I learn about doing what you love the more I realize that these moments are a big part of it. Some are more dramatic than others, but every move that has landed me closer to congruence in my career has been just like that. Big. Scary. Nebulous. Full of doubt, mostly of the self-doubt variety.
I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Don’t set goals. Just keep dreaming about what you hope to achieve. Do this and you’ll quickly find that without goals your dreams become nightmares, your own worst enemy.
Because you don’t have any structures in place to move you toward your dreams, they never seem to arrive. Instead, your dreams taunt you and make you feel weak. The great activators of dreams are goals.
Goals take something nebulous and turn it into something achievable. And in between where you are now and the goals you set are two things: consistency and diligence. These two elements make goals happen which in turn make dreams happen.
Dream, set goals, and then be consistent and diligent about achieving those goals and your dreams will manifest in reality.
“Putting the cart before the horse.” This is one of those idioms no one uses these days but is ultra-relevant in the case of resetting your career. It simply means doing things in the wrong order.
Most people don’t leap because they can’t see the end from the beginning. They’re not sure where they will land so they never launch. They overplan and overprepare and map out too much of the pathway. Their order of operations sounds like this: First, I’ll figure out where I’m going to land, then I’ll plan every step to get there, then I’ll prepare for the journey, then I might act.
You can’t plan your landing spot because it may look different once you arrive than you ever imagined it would. All you can control is what’s happening right now, right in front of you. The journey actually starts by acting.
I read recently about a woman who started a dog running business. She loved running and dogs, so she ran with her dogs. Then she offered to run with her friends’ dogs. Then she lost her job.
At this point she had two options: submit resumes, network, and land another conventional job or try something new. She learned about a man in another city getting paid to run with dogs. That was his job. So she called her friends and asked if they’d pay her to keep running with their dogs. They loved the idea, so much so that they referred their friends to her. Soon enough with 50 clients she was paying the bills and loving her work.
Had she decided not to start the business because she wasn’t sure it would ever take off she would likely be sitting in a typical desk job today. Don’t get ahead of yourself. Just follow the energy.
When I started my career journey in 2005 after leaving public relations, my current job didn’t exist. In fact, it didn’t exist until the beginning of last year. So aiming for it would have done me no good.
Instead, I looked right in front of me for opportunities to add value to peoples’ lives using my strengths and passions and followed the energy in my career path. This took me from grad school to Las Vegas to Houston and now to my current job which is super aligned with who I am and what I love to do.
Take it a step at a time. What are you excited about doing? Do it. Not sure it will make you any money? Do it anyway. Not sure it will work? Do it anyway. Not sure you will love it as much as you think you will? Do it anyway. If you get into it and don’t like you can always kill it and move on. That’s the beauty of career. It’s yours to choose.
What’s wrong with that? Nothing. Except that there are literally thousands of ways to help people that don’t include scalpels and stethoscopes and too many people make the leap from “helping people” to “performing surgery” without stopping to consider the options.
I was talking with a student the other day who said she wants to be a doctor. I asked why and she said, “Because I like to help people.” In the same week I talked with a friend who for the last decade has been on a path to being a doctor “because I like helping people” but who is now considering a shift to business. While working at Rice I career-coached dozens of pre-med majors in quarterlife crisis who had become pre-med because they always wanted to “help people” but quickly realized that the path to helping people included tons of technical classes on science-y things that I can’t begin to explain, a decade or more of schooling, and loads of debt. What do all of these anecdotes have in common? All of these individuals want to help people, and being a doctor may or may not be the best way for them to do it.
It sounds like I don’t believe in the profession but that’s not true. I love doctors. In fact, this post isn’t really about doctors. It’s about a much larger challenge in choosing a career path — making career decisions based on very limited information.
If you like to help people, as most of us do, consider these questions before leaping to a career path that will allow you to do it:
“Helping people” is a value and can help you define the type of work you would enjoy and the industries or organizations you need to be in, but you need to unpack it before moving further. Doctors are great because they help people, but so do social workers, psychologists, teachers, wealth managers, politicians (some of them), lawyers, landscapers, and many other professions. Who do you want to help? What do you want to help them do? And does it align with your strengths and ideal environments?
Hi! I'm Dustin.
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