Saturday, February 28, 2009

Not only are your friends wrong... I am wrong, too.

I was talking with a colleague yesterday about this blog. What emerged from our chat was that I have an "edgy style," but it is me and I can pull it off... most of the time. (By the way, I think think "edgy" was a euphemism for "whacked.") This is the source material for today's post. Why can't I do that voodoo that everybody else do so well? First, two pet peeves.

If I could ban one thing in my office it would be any sentence that contains the phrase, "but my friend told me" or it's sinister, eviler twin, "I have a friend who." These utterances are generally a preface to my questioning their poorly constructed resumes or why they are looking in unproductive places for jobs or their rationale for seeking a job in a field for which they are not prepared.

If I could ban one thing from my field, it would career counselors who rev up workshops or individual counseling sessions with those one-in-a-million stories of students who set their sights on a $500,000 starting salary in a field outside of their experience range and landed it upon graduation. I told one of these stories in workshop six or seven years ago and it has since become legend on campus. People come to my office telling me about "their friend who got a job" and the rest of the story is identical to the one I told in my workshop.

Life is what happens to you when you are busy making plans.
Wasn't John Lennon brilliant! Here's the deal. There are no secrets or tricks to finding the job of your dreams. Dr. John Krumboltz from Stanford developed "Happenstance Theory" to describe the notion that "luck and chance" seem to be as important to creating and having a happy career as preparation and focus. Before we go any further, I am not at all suggesting that dropping out of your undergrad or grad program is the key to your success. Rather I am suggesting that when it is all about the plan, you might miss the little opportunities that become central to your later choices. I am pretty sure that Dr. Krumboltz would agree with my aforementioned bans and here is why I think that.

While observing our friends' trajectory in the career universe can give us ideas that would not have otherwise rattled into our heads. It is important to make room for happenstance to occur. We cannot do this if we are too focused on what went well for our friends and then try to emulate it. Sometimes, just doing what seems most natural to you creates those opportunity for adventure. (Here's where the edgy reference becomes important.)

For years, the interview question "Which do you prefer, being part of a team, or working alone?" My friends all answered "I definitely prefer being a team member and enjoy the give and take of a collegial environment." I used to answer that way and occasionally I thought, "Dang! I got the job because of the team-member-collegial-environment answer." It seldom took long for my supervisors and co-workers to realize that I am independent to the point of... well, edginess and I work best if I am given a project and left to my own resources to complete it. For the last 15 years or so, when I asked, I just tell the edgy truth and I have realized that it always works. Always and here's how I know. When I give my truthful answer anyone who can't handle an employee or colleague who is highly independent will go in another direction. Anyone who values independence will leave me in the running. There is no horrible discovery two or three months later that I am stubborn and opinionated.

That's why I really just don't listen to my friends' ideas about how or why they got hired. The fact is that some of them are very devoted team players who bring great collaborative strengths to the workplace. They have the power to include boneheads like me in the synergy of a group project and they got their jobs because they were themselves in the interview, not because they gave the perfect, secret answer.

Hardwork and virtue and their own punishments.
Oh yeah, about the ban on counselor stories. Happenstance is important to this ban as well. Since chance is a significant element in our success, no amount of hard work will ever assure us of a satisfying career. Here's the story on this one. About 25 years ago, I was seeing an orthopedic surgeon for a minor foot problem. At the time, I was working with gang kids and actually spent much of my time playing basketball, going to the beach, and chillin' wit my homeboys. This came out as the doc was stitching my foot and he said, "Gee, I really envy you." When I asked why, he shared that he decided in the ninth grade that he was going to go to medical school and the next thing he knew it was thirty years later and he was best know for feet and toes. What happened next was a little creepy. He grabbed my great toe between his thumb and forefinger and, looking me in the eye, said, "You know. A man can look at too many toes." I had a moment of panic before he went back to stitching.

The rest of our conversation centered around two things. The first was the high school counselor who had told him in ninth grade about the famous surgeon who worked hard and sacrificed and made it to medical school out of poverty and now drove gazillion-dollar cars and yachts. At 15 years-old that sounded great. The other thing was the great pictures that hung on wall. It turns out that when he was doing his internship, he had taken up photography. He told me that when he was in college, his roommate tried to convince him to take a photography class because they got to take pictures of nude women. He sighed and looking away from my toes again, he said, "If I had taken that class, I probably wouldn't be here today. It just seemed so silly."

Three not-so-easy pieces.
I wish I could say that I managed some great wisdom that encouraged the surgeon to leave his practice and take up photography full-time. I was pretty much speechless, being worried for my toes and all. I also wish I could say that one day I walked into a museum and saw a showing of his pictures. I cannot. I can, however, say the following.

Listen to your friends, but don't expect that what works for them will work for you. Being yourself is the single most important thing you can ever do. Ever.

Listen to your teachers, counselors, parents, etc., but understand that their vision of your future is just that... their vision.

Life is very funny. Nothing, but nothing will substitute for hard work and focus in a job search. If that is all you do,however, it will be like looking at the ground when you walk. You will never trip, but you might miss the apple that was hanging just above your head, just within your grasp.

1 comment:

  1. I totally appreciate all that you wrote. One minor point: I think that "edgy" generally means something like, "direct, honest, straight-up, perhaps slightly cutting-edge, while being on the EDGE of insulting/offensive/obnoxious. Like that controversial band or person who speaks their truth with a naco attitude..." Just what I think.