I coach, teach and mentor others about work, jobs and careers for a living. There is a lot of good career advice out there, but also a lot of bad. One variant of the latter category is this idea that everyone should follow his or her passion, be ”true to themselves,” and mount a Steve Jobs-like mission to create and do work you love. Advice that creates impossible expectations is incredibly misleading when taken out of context and essentially leads people down the garden path full of unicorns and rainbows.
Of course we want to inspire people—especially current students—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, here are a few pieces of advice we need to stop giving:
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 calibrated to prevent this.
Those who mouth this platitude have an unusually fortuitous career 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 have talents and gifts. We have certain natural inclinations and capacities. Over time, we add to these with learned skills and experiences. The sum of this package is what makes you unique and what will allow you to make a contribution in this world.
The idea that we should focus on developing our strengths—as opposed to fixing our weaknesses—lies behind approaches such as Strengths Finder and other career assessment tools. Working with a leadership or executive coach, as well as seeking a strong mentor at work, can help toward continuous improvement and building on natural strengths to advance career goals.
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 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.
These people eventually 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. An incredible amount of natural talent played a part, but luck especially had huge influence. Scientists, who study the worldwide acclaim of hits like Harry Potter or sift through 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 of reasons: a lack of education or training, difficult circumstances, planned or unexpected constraints, as well as unforeseen events, such as poor health or a prolonged recession.
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 encourage my clients—especially my MBA students and recent graduates— to put forth their very best efforts. But I’m not going to tell a fish who can’t climb trees that maybe he 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.
“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.
We all want to find a job that doesn’t feel like work. And there are some ways to get going on that. But there is no quick fix for career happiness. What works for your peers or your friends may not work for you. 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 volunteer 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.” For example, if you are creative and contribute great ideas but your follow-through is weak, that lack of follow-through may continue to be a problem.
As for the major disconnect—usually—between all this passion and the money that’s not following, it’s simple economics. 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. Ideally, what you’re good at and what you love will converge over time.
Here’s a tip. Instead of focusing on passion, look at what you are naturally good at, what comes to you relatively easily, what others recognize you for, and what you’ve been rewarded and promoted for already. 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 do you typically make a contribution to your team, your organization or your community?
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 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 all your content perfectly, 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 the post? If the answer is no, then don’t put it on the Internet. The world is small—very small. And if you’re looking for work, it’s actually pretty tiny.