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You’re Doing it Wrong: How to Build a Great Career

April 30, 2013

I’ve had a rant stewing in me since I saw a TED Talk by Larry Smith on why you will fail to have a great career. The gist of his unpleasant talk is that you will fail to have a great career because you will compromise on what you are most passionate about. And if you don’t do what you’re most passionate about, you will never have a great career.

When I first saw the video, I said “Yes!” So much so that I posted it on my Facebook page. But after a few days, lingering doubts about it caused me to delete it from my Facebook page. These doubts have only grown in the interceding months. It took an interview with Martha Stewart in Parade magazine this past Sunday to inspire me to express these doubts in a blog post. She says:

My father was the smartest guy, he said: ‘you can do anything you set your mind to.’

I know you have all heard these words from your parents and teachers. And I don’t want to discourage you from pursuing your dreams. But I’m here to tell you if you insist on doing whatever it is that you are passionate about, you are more likely to fail to have a great career. Great careers are made by people who listen to what the world needs and who learn to provide those things. They are not necessarily made by people who create things they are passionate about and hope the world needs them. If you think that is the way things work, you are setting yourself up for disappointment.

It certainly helps to be passionate about what you do. It is important to any happy career. And you probably can’t have a great career if your work makes you miserable. But learning to do unpleasant things well, and learning to enjoy success in things for which you are not gifted are essential to cultivating a great career. If you only do what you like to do and what comes easily to you, you are likely to fail. This is the gist of my rant against Larry Smith.

Two wrong turns in the pursuit of a great career

I was a bright-eyed college student, going to school on my own nickel, working two and sometimes three jobs while taking a full load. I was technically a pre-architecure student, meaning I was taking all the core classes one takes in preparation for entering a design school. I wanted to be an architect from the time I was 8 years old because it represented that Ancient ideal combination of art and science. I loved to draw and I was good at math–Rain Man good. So it seemed like the ideal career for me. I pursued it with gusto.

When it came time to apply for design schools, I applied to two. I got an early acceptance from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). Based on that, I assumed my home school (The University of Minnesota) would accept me. I was years ahead of other applicants in math, science and art education, and my portfolio was praised by the RISD acceptance committee. But I really wanted to go to the U of M. With confidence, I turned down RISD and waited for my acceptance letter from the U of M. It never came. To this day, I don’t know why.  I was devastated.

I took a year off to consider my options. I had a philosophy minor while I pursued pre-architecture (again, following the Ancient ideal). So when I went back to school, I became a philosophy major. I excelled, pulling a 3.9 over the two years left for my B.A. And I loved it. I reveled in abstract thinking and debating. My teachers said I had a chance to do great things in philosophy, encouraging me to apply to several grad schools. I was accepted at a few and wound up at my home school, the U of M.

I worked on a PhD in philosophy for seven years. I can’t say I was a top student. But I did good work. I served as a teaching assistant and instructor in 20 classes. I got scholarships and fellowships. I got my M.A. I was all-but-dissertation (ABD). I thought I was on my way. But the department didn’t think so. I was one of several colleagues who were told, “You will no longer be allowed to pursue a PhD at this institution.” I was devastated.

I had pursued my passions. I had focused on what I was good at. I had followed my heart. And I was 0-2 with twelve years of post-secondary education and a mountain of student debt. In both cases, I consoled myself with wise words from mentors and advisors. One architect said, “I was a top student and graduated with a B. Arch. with honors. I’ve been a mere draftsman since, working for little better than minimum wage for 15 years.” A philosophy PhD had a similar story: “I went to the top school, had a top 10 advisor, published 10 papers and a book in my first five years out of grad school. But I spent my first 10 years wandering from one-year appointment to one-year appointment.” He was one of the lucky ones. When I was shown the door, there were 350 philosophy PhDs in the United States without any kind of teaching position.

The right approach to a great career

At 31, I changed my strategy, out of necessity. The new strategy was simple: Listen to what the world needs and learn how to provide it. I took the first job I could find: As an editor for the campus newspaper. Meanwhile, I entered a degree program for Scientific and Technical Communication. My new goal was to do what no one wanted to do and no one seemed to do well: tech journalism. I got a reporter job at the paper covering the science and tech beat. I learned. It was difficult. I was never good at English growing up. In fact I was am dyslexic. But I kept at it. Slowly, my career grew. I had many set backs.  But I eventually got a break. I was hired as the managing editor of ComputerUser magazine and a month later, the editor in chief (EIC) quit. I got his job. And my career has taken off from there.

It doesn’t just take off on its own, however. You have to continually listen to what the world needs and learn to provide it. I won’t bore you with all the twists and turns of my career. But one in particular is instructive. At a certain point, I became the EIC of ibm.com. We had a survey on our site that asked people if they had achieved their goals. If not, we asked them follow-up questions. When I started, content quality and search were the two most prevalent reasons people had not achieved their goals. After two years in which I focused on content quality, the survey indicated content quality was no longer a significant issue. But search remained an issue. So I shifted my whole focus to search and learned everything I could about how to improve our client search experiences. In the process, I wrote the book on the subject (with the help of my co-authors), and continue to grow my subject matter expertise. Point is, careers evolve. If you continue to listen and learn, you can proactively evolve your career, rather than letting your career evolve in ways that restrict your opportunities.

Two key traits of a great career

You might wonder how I could choose to do something that stretched my skills so severely. How does a dyslexic man become EIC? The thing is, after 20 years in this career, I am actually better at writing and editing skills than I ever was at math. I now struggle to tutor my son in geometry and trig, two subjects I aced when I was young. Why? Because the brain is a flexible organ. It will grow and develop in ways you want it to. (Conversely, use it or lose it.) It takes long hours of practice and hard work. But eventually you can do it. In this respect, Martha Stewart’s father is right. You can do whatever you set your mind to. But the thing is, you need not have passion for it first. You can develop a passion for the things the world needs you to do.

You might also wonder how someone can succeed without having initial passion for something. That is also not easy. But passions are transient. Even those that naturally spring forth from your heart need to be cultivated, lest they become stale. Boredom is a self-fulfilling prophesy. But if you really take an interest in your subject, it will begin to delight and fascinate you. That is what happened to me with technology, journalism, and search. And this fascination continues, as humans continue their relentless pursuit of knowledge, constrained only by Moore’s Law. Also, there is no escape from tedious work. The trick is, to learn how to enjoy what might seem tedious to some. By learning to love work that others find boring, you will never be short of opportunities.

I want to close with one thought: Some of you might see a connection between the theme of our book and the theme of this blog post. The book is based on the notion that before you create content, it’s important to listen to what your audience needs. It is much more effective than writing what suits your fancy, publishing it, and hoping someone will find it useful. The most effective tool for this listening is keyword research. Listening for opportunities to grow your career is a bit more challenging than keyword research. I recommend  seeing how the skills in LinkedIn grow and shrink in popularity. This is a good source of listening data on what skills are most needed in the marketplace.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. May 3, 2013 5:13 pm

    James, we have more in common than I knew. I started out at U of M in Interior Design. I actually worked for Dayton Hudson for a few years doing room designs. My passion fizzled and I was told by a psychologist friend of mine I should be in technology. I too have listened and followed a number of fascinating career changes.

    I sold technology, which lead me from word processing to PC’s to corporate applications which brought me into wireless, where I excelled in analytics. I have jumped between IT and marketing a number of times always staying with new exciting technology moves in the market. My 5 years in Digital Marketing have continued the learning and personal satisfaction. At each phase it was answering my early adopter who believes in lifetime learning.

    Everyone needs to ask themselves every day, “what do I want next?” Listen and follow your internal compass.

  2. Cay Drew permalink
    May 5, 2013 2:46 am

    I love this, James, and I’m going to share it with my 16 and almost 15 year old boys. I want them to follow their passions for sure, and I want them to find gainful employment at some point, too. And i think that they can do both.

    If I insisted on having a career in an area I’m passionate about, I’d be an art museum docent or a bible study leader. Not much pay in those! But I’ve been able to pursue those passions outside of work, and they fill me up. And, like you, I’ve learned to love my work, by getting good at it.

    Maybe a key thought here is to develop passion for lifelong learning and the flexibility to learn what the world needs.

    • May 5, 2013 5:19 pm

      Thank you so much Cay! I wouldn’t be an IBMer without your recommendation and support.

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