Monday, September 22, 2008

career advice

22 September 2008

Dear Readers of This Blog,

I was recently asked by a loved one for some career advice. This very generic topic, upon which thousands of books have already been written, did start with some questions, and did trigger some thoughts, which I shared. Having done so, I immediately saw a broader application, and so with only a few changes, and seeing no real hope (or any serious need) of disguising my original correspondent, am including this effort as my first blog offering.

I hope to make many more entries, at first concentrating on my political philosophy, but that is hardly limiting. I will, of course probably respond to your responses as well, but give me time. I won’t be here as often as some bloggers I have read.

Q: What would be some ideal careers for me? Why? You should pick a career that capitalizes on your amazing ability to relate to people, especially in the context of the popular culture. You “read” people well, and are able to discern what they would like from you, and to find ways to meet those needs and desires. In that light, marketing or sales positions would use your talents well (but see the caveats in later paragraphs). Your natural talent for recalling names and titles from the entertainment world suggests a possibility of finding something rewarding related to that field, although you would probably need to be open to relocation to fully explore such a possibility. Your facility with the modern information and communication technologies is way beyond my own, so I would be a poor judge of your potential opportunities there, but I imagine you could hold your own among today’s hot-shots as long as you are willing to put forth the effort to stay current.

Q: What careers should I stay away from? Why? You are an exceptionally talented person, and I would judge that there is NO career, in terms of required skills and technologies that you could not handle. You already have many such skills, and could obtain any of the others you might need, once you set yourself to the task. So the sky’s the limit – medicine, law, psychology, accounting, sales, etc are not beyond you. Or managing the business of offices where these professions are practiced by high-powered, but often unfocused (from a business perspective) people. But I still haven’t answered your question. Avoid like the plague any situation where you are encouraged, either by ethically questionable practices or overly credulous profit estimates, to suppose (or to represent to your clients) that here is a path to easy riches. There is no such path that does not include unacceptable risks, either moral or practical or both. It’s a very old (but still useful) cliché that “if it sounds too good to be true, it is probably NOT true.” And this wisdom applies not just to the fantastic “opportunities” and MLM schemes where you have to be in on the ground level (and, of course, the promoters always assert that what they are offering IS the ground level) to make anything. It also applies to almost every “new” idea. I had a friend who bought into a video rental establishment, calculating that at the going price of $5.00 per rental he would do very well. But he was utterly unable to compete with the big chains and mail-order establishments who soon flooded the market.
It is a generally established principle of chemistry, physics, and biology that the process or organism that can carry out ANY function most cost effectively will outcompete and ultimately become the only surviving occupant of its niche. It seems to be less well-understood that the same principle exists in the business world. If you are able to provide any good or service for a dollar, you will survive only until someone else can provide the same thing for 90 cents or a better one for the same dollar. The correct strategy in response to this principle is to be continually in the business of doing it better. Most of those who think they can manipulate reality in avoidance of this principle end up either bankrupt or in prison. A few of the rest “make it,” but only by working very hard and adapting to the realities of the world.
This advice is not usually well-received when I give it, and I often have. But where people have sought my advice and then ignored it (or even worse, have avoided asking because they didn’t want to hear it), there have been ZERO exceptions to the predicted outcome.

Q: What types of work activities do you think would make me the most fulfilled and excited? I insist that it is almost never the “activity” that determines fulfillment and excitement, but rather a set of far-more-important factors involved in what the job offers. These include:
Does the job offer growth? I’m not talking about salary growth here, although that should reasonably follow, I am talking about personal growth. You can be the worlds best at a given activity, whether as physical as weight-lifting or swimming, as tricky as gymnastics, or as mentally taxing as accounting or nuclear physics. But if you don’t get stronger or faster or in some way more capable, it won’t take long for the excitement to disappear, and the job to turn into drudgery.
Does the job have an identifiable client who can provide you with feedback on how you are doing? Direct feedback, not filtered through your boss.
Does the job include complete and challenging tasks that leave you feeling you have really achieved something when completed? To be permanently satisfying, the work itself must provide this sense of achievement, not the “attaboy” praise you get from the boss. While good words from the boss always feel good, they are not the same as the personal satisfaction of a job well-done. Besides, they don’t always ring completely true, and are sometimes arbitrarily given or withheld or otherwise wrapped in ulterior motives. But when you have really done something worthwhile, you know it intrinsically, and it is always fulfilling. This principle holds true whether the result of the task is a spotless mirror or a completely clean house or mastery of a complex computer program, or the closing of a multi-million-dollar contract.
You may have noted that I did not give first priority to a second set of variables, namely what you bring to the job: skills, preferences, and attitudes. These assets are important, but with regard to job satisfaction, I insist they are secondary to the attributes of the design of the job listed above.
Of even less importance are the things most people seem to put first on their lists when they go job-searching, namely salary, working conditions, benefits, vacations, etc. While this last set of variables can contribute to your sense of comfort, ease, and well-being, and must therefore be managed at an “acceptable” level, they never contribute to “fulfillment,” “motivation,” or “excitement.” I promise. In motivation-hygiene theory, we call this last set of variables “hygiene” factors, the metaphor alluding to physical health factors such as hand-washing, tooth brushing, dishwashing, disinfecting, floor mopping, etc. These practices can go a way toward keeping you from getting sick, but they can never make you healthy, much less stronger, or more capable. In the physical world, that takes exercise, practice, and proper nutrition. In the job world, look for hygiene in the factors in this paragraph and for motivating factors in the first paragraph of this section.

Q: What types of work activities should I avoid? The shortest (and best) answer to this one is as long as it is legal and ethical, there is no overriding reason to avoid it. I guess it makes some sense to first concentrate on you own perceived desires and strengths. Number crunching? New technologies? Persuasive? Helping/coaching? They are all exactly right if you make them so. Just be certain you don’t let that initial choice limit your opportunities.

My own experience may be instructive. My early interest in science and my “native” facility with numbers (you can make a good case for genes, or environment, or happenstance, or some combination – it doesn’t really matter) led me to pursue a career in chemistry. Although somewhat successful, after a number of years, I felt less “fulfilled” in some of the repetitive tasks, and found my way into the logistics profession, where the tasks were less predictable, more difficult, more people-oriented, and therefore more potentially fulfilling. That worked for me. On the side, I again turned to my number-crunching skills to start a tax preparation business. If it were just a matter of filling out forms and performing the various calculations, however complex, that would also have become old. But I found unanticipated fulfillment in helping people through their financial problems, with their infinite variations, and developing long-term relationships with their lives. In another side move (which, by the way, you led me into), I found much fulfillment and satisfaction in my house-cleaning business. This did not seem a predictable outcome for someone of my educational and professional attainments and scientific interests. That dissonance led me to some introspection, where I discovered that the housecleaning business had more in common with my very satisfying tax business than you might think. In both endeavors, people welcomed me into their homes/offices. They trusted me with intimate details of their lives, including “dirt” they would be loath to share with their own mothers, and they paid me a fair price to clean it up for them. And they often allowed me to continue to share in their lives year after year. (When I attempt to enumerate the number of close associates whose friendship has remained impactful and valuable to me for longer than two decades, the list is heavily predominated by my tax clients.) This work has met all the criteria I have listed above for fulfilling jobs. The only reasons I had to eventually give up the housecleaning had nothing to do with the perception that the work was “beneath” me, but were instead related to a down cycle in the economy and my own advancing age.

Q: What personal aspects do you see that I need to change in order to be successful in my career? I really have very little to offer here that is not already clichéd, but I will probably get a little long-winded and rambling anyhow. Some that seem obvious, but are sometimes overlooked:

Personal presentation is important. This is especially so when dealing extensively with the public, but nobody works in total isolation. You cannot hope to be given the opportunity to show your best work if the work is never even offered based on first impressions. Get and stay physically fit. Pay attention to grooming. Pay attention to and continually work to polish your language. Know what’s going on in the broader world, not just your own. (If you are in an “intermediate” job – and aren’t we all?) dress for the job you want, not the one you have.

Quit complaining. For one thing, nobody wants to hear it. They will avoid you and unfairly characterize you as somebody you are not. Not entirely fair, but so nevertheless..
Much more important, you are already completely familiar with the principle that our words are infinitely powerful. (for those readers less familiar with Landmark principles, I promise more on this subject later) What we say becomes our world. Yet I have so often heard people I love yearn for some undefined future when they won’t have to work so hard. I testify that you do not really want that, and will be sorry if you ever get it. It is our work that defines us and gives us fulfillment, satisfaction, and excitement. If that work is easy, the rewards will be similarly muted. Be certain that I use the word “work” in the broadest possible sense, to include building a home and family and pursuing talents and interests outside our employment, and above all giving service to others. But when we are in the employment world, that employment is a critically important component. Speak only positively about it.

Give up, FOREVER, on EVERY scheme that you are invited into that seems unrealistically lucrative. The more lucrative it seems, the more likely you are not looking at it clearly. And the more you are unwilling to ask advice from cooler heads, the more you should consult those very heads before jumping. Some clear warning signs of such schemes include (the more stars, the more the danger):

*Does it ask an up-front investment of money?

***Must you borrow to get that money?

**Does it purport to take advantage of some “loophole” in the tax code?

***Are you depending on that loophole still being there when you need it?

****Are you depending on the accuracy of that tax advice from someone who stands to profit by your following it (as opposed to independent counsel)?

**Does it purport to offer a greater rate of return on investment than “market” rates?

*****Does it “guarantee” that greater return?

*****Does a significant portion of the payment you are asked for go directly into the promoter’s pocket -- often with the assurance of that same lucrative portion coming to YOU when you bring in somebody else. By the way, if you cannot get a straight, believable answer on this question, assume my assumption is true, and perhaps add a few more stars because he’s likely hiding something.

*Is someone charging money to “Teach” you how to make a bundle in a particular pursuit? (The number of stars on this item is variable. If the amount asked is the approximate equivalent of college tuition (several hundred dollars for 10 to 30 face hours is reasonable, even though, like any college class, there is no guarantee of any real learning) then just 1 star. But add another star for every thousand dollars or so that is being asked for "buy-in" or "promotional supplies" or “training,” ie: If he demands $5,000, this a six-star caution; if it’s $30,000, then that’s 31 stars ---(*******************************)!
For one thing, the obvious question to ask is “If this stuff is so good, and if is so unavailable from less expensive sources, why do you not just keep it to yourself, and get ALL of the benefits for yourself. And the obvious answer is that he misrepresents its value, and has found he can make a great deal more by “teaching” it to others, than by applying it himself.

My rule of thumb (to be honest, I just now made it up, but it feels about right) is that any combination of these danger signs totalling more than about 6 stars is too dangerous to consider without the competent advice of somebody you trust, but who has no personal interest in the proposal, and preferably a second opinion from somebody who has been burned by ignoring too many of theses danger signs.