I coach, teach, and mentor about work, jobs, and careers for a living. And I’m big on taking risks, making mistakes, living and learning, pushing boundaries. You may overhear me say things like “if something is worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.” I was never one for moderation, and still struggle to stay within the designated zone. So, when someone like me advises caution, it means something.
My interest in other peoples’ wellbeing and success is deep and genuine. What follows is from the heart, even if it sounds harsh. Someone’s got to be the bad cop and call it like it is. I worry that good, well-meaning folks, and especially our youth, are being told things that are simply untrue and don’t stand up to any objective scrutiny—things that create impossible expectations, are incredibly misleading, and essentially lead people down the garden path full of unicorns and rainbows.
Of course we want to inspire our clients, our students, and our mentees to pursue their dreams. Our garden and our path must have the occasional unicorn and rainbow to make us believe in beautiful things. But our path must also be true, real, and stable. To that end, there are a few things we need to stop saying. Here are four of them:
1. You can be anyone you want to be.
This belongs right up there with “you can have it all.” You can’t be anyone you want to be, nor can you have it all. The universe is specifically designed to prevent this.
Those who say this — especially to women — typically have an unusually fortuitouscareer and life story to tell, and it’s from this perch that they preach to the more earth-bound.
Here’s what we really should be saying: You can’t be anyone you want to be, but you can be more of who you already are. All of us are born with specific talents and gifts. We have certain natural inclinations and capacities. Over time, we add to these with learned skills and experiences. The sum total of this package is what makes you unique and what will allow you to make unique contributions to this world. This is what you have going for you—not being anyone you want to be, but developing who you already are.
Your best bet is to identify and develop this set of innate talents and strengths. If you’re unsure, take some tests, such as Myers-Briggs and Strengths Finder. They will identify a list of careers where you would most likely succeed based on your strengths.
There is great joy in embracing and being as much of who you are as possible. In fact, if you shirk away from this, the world loses out on you.
2. You can do anything you want. All it takes is hard work and determination.
This statement is thrown around usually after a one-in-a-million example: Albert Einstein didn’t speak until he was four and didn’t read until seven, but turned out to win a Nobel prize; Oprah Winfrey was fired from her television-reporting job and told she wasn’t fit to be on screen, but today she is the billionaire queen of television talk shows; Michael Jordan was actually cut from his high school basketball team before going on to become possibly the best basketball player of all time.
These people did amazing things, no doubt. But the reason these stories are so inspirational is because they are few and far between. We’re being disingenuous if we attribute it all to hard work, since an incredible amount of natural talent played a part, but luck especially had huge influence. Scientists who study the huge acclaim of hits like "Harry Potter" or how certain people become overnight successes share that the processes involved are highly unpredictable, and don’t necessarily have a bearing on the quality of the product or the effort expended. It’s not that the success isn’t deserved, but that it’s wildly out of proportion with any objective measure of quality.
The truth we don’t want to accept is that hard work is only one part of the equation. There are a lot of hardworking people out there. In fact, there are people working three jobs and making just enough to pay rent. These people work hard, but still fall short of meeting their goals. Why? Well, there are a myriad reasons: a lack of education or training, inevitable circumstances, planned or unexpected constraints, and unforeseen events, such as poor health or a prolonged recession.
Look, we need inspiration to motivate us to keep us going, to give it our best shot. I do one key thing all day, and that is encouraging my clients — especially my graduate student clients — to put forth their very best efforts. But I’m not going to tell the fish who can’t climb trees that maybe they should just work harder at it. You know what that does? It leads to self-doubt and low self-esteem.
3. Follow your passion. The money will follow.
The number of self-help gurus and motivational speakers who say this with a straight face is astounding. Popular career books like to peddle it, too, probably because it’s a lovely idea and one that sells.
“Follow your passion” or “do what you love” may be perfectly valid advice, but when it comes to finding a career you like that is also sustainable, love and passion alone won’t cut it.
There is no quick fix for career happiness. It’s a long road of trying things out, identifying what you’re naturally good at, and being willing to work at a passion through classes and taking on additional responsibilities wherever you can, such as through volunteering or pro bono work.
There may also be underlying factors to your career malaise. You may find that, even in your new passion, things may not hold for long because “everywhere you go, there you are.” If I tell you the number of clients that come to us post burn-out from the “passion carousel,” you’d be surprised.
So, what’s the major disconnection between all this passion and the money that’s not following? Your passion has to sell. No matter how much you love a thing, it’s not a livelihood unless and until you can sell it. What you love must also be what the world needs. It must be something that the market values and will pay for. This is not optional. It’s mandatory.
And since you have to be able to sell your passion, you must be good at your passion. You can’t just love yoga. You have to be talented at some aspect of it — teaching it, writing about it — in order to make a living. I love career coaching, but I won’t survive or thrive unless I’m good at it. Ideally, what you’re good at and what you love will converge over time.
This is why we repeatedly emphasize the following in our workshops and blog posts: instead of focusing on passion, look at what you are naturally good at, what comes to you relatively easily, what energizes you, what others recognize you for, and what you’ve been rewarded and promoted for.
Look at your current job situation: what are the tasks that engage and energize you versus the ones that shut you down? Where do you excel with ease, and where do you struggle? Where can you make a contribution to your team, your organization, or your community? This last one alone can create a sense of purpose and — God forbid — real passion.
4. Dance like nobody is watching.
This is bad advice — period. If you are in public, you should not dance like nobody is watching. People are watching, and most of them have video recorders on their cell phones.
Anyone who wants to hire you, network with you, work with you, or date you will google you. They can easily find what you share on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and YouTube. You don’t have to curate content as perfectly as we do for our clients, but, at the very least, make sure that your post, pins, likes, and tweets are fairly innocuous. Would you be comfortable if both your boss and your mom saw it? If the answer is no, then don’t put it on the internet. It’s shocking how many people don’t seem to have a handle on this. The world is small, people — very small. And when you’re looking for work, it’s actually pretty tiny.
Here’s the good news:
Wonderful things are possible in this world. Many people find work they love, can sustain it, and make a decent living out of it, while also contributing to their families, friends, and community. The key is to get to know yourself well, embrace your natural strengths, and slowly but surely move in the direction of matching these to correlated lines of work. The universe has a way of collaborating with what is both possible and inspiring.
Wonderful things are possible in this world.