How To Do Life

Fresh ideas about career and personal issues

Not-Obvious Career Truths

Nine things I’ve learned from having been career coach to 4,600 people.

Ramberg Media Images, Flickr, Wikimedia Commons
I’ll soon be giving a talk, Not-Obvious Career Truths, and I thought you might like an advance look at what I’m planning to say.

CHOOSING  A CAREER

Just pick something.

It’s widely assumed that if you root around long enough, you’ll come up with a career that makes you say, “Eureka, I have found it!” Rather, I’ve found that most people who are happy in their careers wouldn’t have known that in advance. If they had waited on the sidelines for that Eureka! moment, they might well have been waiting for Godot.

In most cases, you can’t just hear about a career and expect to feel ecstatic any more than you can expect to have an orgasm just by listening to someone. So after a modest amount of career exploration, just pick the career that feels best and start down that path as though you were passionate about it. If you feel you made a bad choice, it’s usually quickly apparent and you can then try another career path.

It’s akin to this analogy: If I dropped you on top of a frigid mountain and you just sat there, you’d die. But if you quickly picked the path down that looked best, you’ll have either picked a good path, quickly found it was a dangerous one and scrambled back up to choose another, or found a good side path you couldn’t have seen from the top.

After you’ve chosen a career, key to being happy in it is to get high-quality training. Plus, as with a clothing outfit, you need to tailor and accessorize it to suit you. For example, if you decide to be a counselor, hone a style that’s consistent with your personality: If you’re a relaxed person who enjoys listening and facilitating, find training and supervisors who’ll encourage that. If you prefer to more actively participate in sessions, build on that. If you like working as part of a team, join a group practice. If you hate commuting, see if you can work at home. Off-the-rack, a career will probably look just okay. To really be happy with it, you must tailor and accessorize it.

Cool careers are overrated. The emotional problems, drug addictions, and deaths of many celebrities only hint at the reality that “cool careers” often aren’t cool enough to make people happy. Indeed, the competition for jobs in entertainment, environment, journalism, academia, fashion, etc., is so fierce that salaries are often poor and there are oodles of applicants for every good position. And if you beat the odds and get hired, you’re often treated badly, for example, paid poorly as a temp, because the employer knows those oodles are still salivating in the wings for the opportunity to work for low wages or for free to fundraise on behalf of the snail darter. You're always worrying that if you screw up, you can easily be replaced.

Instead, you might want to consider less prestigious careers. Indeed, prestige can be the enemy of contentment, witness all the unhappy lawyers. Competition is less intense in less statusy careers, especially if under-the-radar, for example, optometry, neon-sign maker, program analyst for government, child-life specialist, manufacturer’s rep for fine china, and forensic accountant.

Generally, career happiness comes not from a career’s “coolness” but from your job having the basics met: a reasonable salary, job security, workload, boss, co-workers, ethics, learning opportunities, commute, and your having taken the time to become expert. One of my clients is a first-line manager at a local utility. While the job isn’t sexy, it has all of the above characteristics and she's very happy.

Instead of a career change, consider a career tweak.  Changing careers is much harder than some gurus would have you believe. You need the time and ability to retrain, can afford the lost income during training and usually in your first job(s) in the new career, and be able to convince an employer that it’s worth hiring you, a newbie, over experienced candidates. And, ironically, many career changers don't end up happier in their new career—They bring their issues with them: poor reasoning skills, procrastination, annoying personality, etc.

It may be easier to try to tweak your current career: a job description changed to replace tasks you dislike with tasks you do, upgrade your skills, change bosses or employers. 

LANDING A JOB

A resume’s greatest value may be as a tool for self-discovery. Employers give only modest weight to resumes, knowing it’s difficult to tell how honest it is or even whether it was written by the candidate. But creating your resume is an excellent way to inventory your accomplishments, skills, and abilities. After creating it, you'll like be more confident, plus you’ll have the basis for identifying a job target and for explaining—in networking, cover letters, and job interviews--why you’d be good.

SUCCEEDING ON THE JOB

Treat time as treasure. Most successful people realize that time is their most valuable possession. They carefully consider whether a chunk of time could more wisely be spent: how perfectionistic to be on a given task, what to say yes and no to, and what to delegate. They’re wary of major time sucks such as excessive TV watching, sports and video-game playing, shopping, meal preparation, a long commute, and non-essential travel, such as trekking cross-country to their second cousin’s third wedding.

Be publicly positive, privately negative.  American culture values positivity, being upbeat. If you too often criticize, even if justifiably, your career may well suffer. The politically sensitive person sets  aside non-central criticisms and then decides to bring up an important concern publicly or to leak it to a trusted person who might.

Beware of being politically incorrect. I’d like to believe that “the truth shall set you free” but I’ve too often seen politically incorrect candor causes the person to be set free from his job or at least censured. We claim to celebrate diversity but dare an idea veer from today's orthodoxy, severe punishment is often imposed. I have great respect for those who put themselves on the line for their beliefs but we live in times in which it is riskier to do so than I can ever recall.

Hire slow, fire fast. It’s axiomatic that a manager’s most important task is to hire wisely. That requires finding candidates primarily by referral from trusted colleagues and friends than from want ads. If a trusted person refers a candidate, s/he’s more likely to be good than is an unknown applicant whose resume, cover letter, and even references may be legitimate or may reflect their having paid a hired gun and/or exaggerating their accomplishments. The choice of whom to hire should be based more on simulations of the job’s difficult central tasks than on the too-often invalid resume, cover letter, interview, and reference check.

If possible, hire the person on a trial basis. Otherwise, there’s risk of a wrongful termination suit. Often, you can tell in the first day or two, whether the person is likely to work out. If after a brief attempt at remediation, you still sense the probability of the person being a good employee is low, it’s wise to cut your losses. It’s easier to find a good employee than to try to turn a bad employee into a good one.

Steak, not sizzle. Some people put more effort into networking, wardrobe, and elevator pitch than to building expertise. That may succeed, especially in the short run, but often results in ultimate failure or at least a chronic case of the imposter syndrome. Most successful and contented people put more effort into their steak than their sizzle.

As I said at the outset, this is a draft of what I’m planning to say in an upcoming talk. Your comments and suggestions are most welcome.

Marty Nemko's bio is in Wikipedia.

Marty Nemko is a career and personal coach based in Oakland, Ca. and the author of 7 books. 
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