Tears for Careers

Everybody wants to rule the world.

– 1980s new wave group Tears for Fears

When this song was popular (about 25 years ago), I disagreed with the statement above, because I for one didn’t want to rule the world. Not only that, I didn’t want to rule a company, a department, or even a team of two.

However, along the way someone suggested that I take a personality profile test. I finally took one, and guess what? It revealed that I actually do want to rule the world. So I discussed these test results with people who had known me for many years. They would tell me that these results were not a surprise. They would give examples of my behavior that support the results, etc. While I felt shattered to hear such information, it was a useful time of reflection where I was able to finally understand things that had happened to me and how to handle future events in my life. I’m glad to have gone through this, but I’d probably be a glutton for punishment to want to do it again.

So what does this have to do with careers? Well, we are often guided to take such tests in the context of our career. But I didn’t mention “career” above, just life in general. This causes me to wonder how often people have an opportunity to explore their personality profile outside a career setting?

My curiosity is derived from this – there has never been a point in my life where I wanted to have a career. That might sound strange, but let me explain.

To me, a career is not the same as work. I grew up in a rural area where my senior family members (parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts) and their friends were, for the most part, farmers and/or entrepreneurs. They didn’t call their work “having a career.” Careers were for big-city folks on television. They worked in offices and wore fancy suits. These are two things that don’t agree with me. I don’t like being in closed in spaces. Even when offered an office, I’ll ask to sit in an open common area. As far as wearing a suit, I always liked Thomas Edison’s quote “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” Additionally, according to Wikipedia the word career derives from carrera which is Latin for race, i.e. rat race!

This is in keeping with much of what I see when “career” is the topic. Books, seminars and courses on Climb the Corporate Ladder, How to Get That Promotion, Impress Your Boss, and so on. How many times have people been told to take an assignment “because it will be good for your career.” When that’s happened to me, the assignment had nothing to do with my goals, but everything to do with being promoted.

So I mentioned goals in that last sentence, and you might be wondering what my goals have been if I’m a person who works but doesn’t consider that to be a career. A subset of some relevant goals of mine in this life are (in no particular order)

  • Solve problems
  • Help people
  • Make enough money to pay the bills

I could have listed more (e.g., have fun) but what I like about these three is that they include the type of goals that my role models might have had. The role models I’m referring to are my grandfathers. One was a farmer and the other owned an excavation and farm drainage company. They solved problems such as figuring out how to keep machinery working for as little money as possible. They helped people by producing food, assisting neighbors, and volunteering in soil and water conservation organizations. They made enough money to pay the bills and pass their farms and businesses on to the next generation. Those are some good things that involved a lot of hard work, but neither of my grandfathers would say they pursued a career.

So I’ll end this with a list of some rough questions related to careers and professional development that I’ve been thinking about lately.

  • Are my views in this blog post totally incorrect? Partially correct? Enlightened?
  • Do others feel their goals are similar but consider it offensive when I say that I don’t have a career?
  • Do you feel that any kind of progression, be it for-pay or volunteer, through skills and experience is a career? Or does a career require pursuit of promotion?
  • Do you feel there’s a moral imperative to have a career if you have the opportunity? Seriously, this is a genuine question. I wonder about this because I’ve heard comments (some directed at me) such as “It’s such a waste of your life if you don’t do this [career related thing].”

Feel free to comment and discuss any of this below, or better yet it would be great to see what others think about this topic in their own blog posts.

About Noel McKinney

Noel McKinney is the administrator of noelmckinney.com
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4 Responses to Tears for Careers

  1. Brent Ozar says:

    I got my start in the hotel business and I thought I had a career at the time: climb the ladder to management, then regional management. Along the way, I realized that preset paths don’t necessarily match up to the skills I have and the work that I enjoy. I gave up on the job title concept. Instead, I try to go to people I admire, show them my skills, and say, “Do you want me to do this stuff for you?”

    It’s impossible to do that with strangers – you have to focus on people you know and respect first, and preferably people in your network that you’ve worked with in the past. That way, they already know the basics of your work ethic and personality, and they’re more willing to gamble on you.

    I turned down promotions a couple of times because the duties in the promotion didn’t match my skills and my favorite tasks. Yes, I know, it was more money and would have been a better career – but who cares if I’m not happy?

  2. Noel,

    Great food for though. My work goals have generally been “get paid to play with computers” but I think you break things down in a better manner. As far as career versus work, that is a bit of semantics.

    Regarding reluctance to take on a leadership role, I really suggest you look at this post on ESR’s blog. http://esr.ibiblio.org/?p=3008.

  3. Pingback: Exectweets » BrentO at 05/12/11 02:53:04

  4. I have been doing a lot of thinking along the same lines and have found that I had to change my perception of the word “career.” In my mind, a career is not monolithic (i.e. you start at the bottom and climb up). This may stem from the fact that I’m in IT and we are known to change jobs as a means of promotion.

    I’ve often been told that I compete quite heavily with myself. Part of that is my not wanting to step on someone else’s goals, and part is that I tend to be the common denominator in everything that I do. As such, for me, a career is more of a life-long progression towards a set of goals. If that means quitting my position as a senior developer and taking up farming in the Midwest to assuage a desire to work with my hands, then it’s a career move.

    So, as to your questions… No, I don’t see anything wrong at all with this kind of introspection. You know there’s a problem and you’re working through an approach to solving it, that’s a huge first step. No, I don’t think promotions == career. I know a lot of people who realized after decades of doing the same job that they weren’t cut out for it (and others who have fallen victim to the Peter Principal (just because you think you deserve the promotion doesn’t mean you do).

    I’d like to think I’m just a single step beyond where you are right now. Every mentor I have has asked me what my goals were. When I outlined basically the same things that you did, they just shook their heads. I have come to realize that my “goals” are actually more like “guidelines” and that what I really need are tangible, achievable, targets that help me determine my path. So, for example, rather than a goal of “enough money to pay the bills”, I have been refining it down to, “given this specific lifestyle (location, home, car, etc), exactly how much money will I need to survive?” That gave me a number. Once I had that number, I asked myself what I saw as my job/position that would earn me that figure. Once I had that, I started looking at positions that might offer me that (or lead me on the path to that).. and so on.

    Noel, I wish you luck on your journey. You are on the right path, you just need to find that cottage at the end of it!

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