As I See It: Success, The Career Killer
January 14, 2013 Victor Rozek
“I honestly think it is better to be a failure at something you love than to be a success at something you hate.” Better yet to be a success at something you love and to remain lucid and funny past your hundredth birthday. But Naftaly Birnbaum was an anomaly. He knew what he wanted to do by age seven. Talent and singular focus propelled a career that spanned vaudeville, radio, television, and film. By the time of his death, he was a national icon best known by his adopted stage name, George Burns.
Characterizing career success can be as elusive as it is personal. It may include traditional pursuits such as acclaim, power, position, compensation, quality of work, or the ability to support one’s family. But it may also include more nuanced considerations such as making a contribution, the opportunity to be creative, autonomy or, for a parent, proximity to schools or day care. For those who chose to define it, the subtleties of success probably encompass more than one criterion. For those who limit success to being employed, criteria do not matter. It’s the difference between being a piece of driftwood and being a rudder.
The reality is that if you don’t chart your career, someone else will. Immersed in a sea of possibilities, it is easy to become diverted by random flotsam from the task of steering toward a desired destination. It is said that the perfect is the enemy of the possible. But where career trajectories are concerned, the reverse is also true. The good, the known, the comfortable become the enemies of the great. Settling for what is possible–accepting work based primarily on availability, for example–may be expedient, and even necessary in some contexts, but it is unlikely to lead us to what Greg McKeown calls “our highest point of contribution.”
McKeown defines that point as the intersection of talent, passion, and market. In other words, the conjunction of skills, drive, and commercial viability. His concern with marketability speaks to McKeown’s practical side: he is not addressing the aspirations of the avant garde artist who displays an iPhone in a jar of urine. Not all passions are suited to the realities of the job market. Rather, he is speaking to serious people pursuing serious careers. His point, which he makes convincingly on LinkedIn and amplifies on Harvard Business Review’s Blog Network, applies exceedingly well to IT professionals: success can be a catalyst for failure.
By his own admission, the point is overstated for impact, but his reasoning exhibits a certain circular elegance: Clarity of purpose leads to success. Success leads to more options and opportunities. Increased opportunities inevitably lead to diffused efforts. And diffused efforts undermine the clarity that originally created the success. In the workplace, this lack of precision results in the most talented and accommodating people feeling “overworked and underutilized.”
Successful people, notes McKeown, exhibit a combination of drive and capability, which portends both good and bad news. Once others recognize their competence, they bury them with requests and assignments. Over time, skilled employees gain a reputation as “go to” people, colleagues who are always dependable, always willing to help in a crunch. An unhealthy dependency follows.
Getting mired in ad hoc projects, argues McKeown, distract capable people from their aforementioned highest point of contribution. It’s not so much, as McKeown says, that they become underutilized, but that they are not properly utilized. The remedy requires discernment and the ability to say “no,” not always a welcome word to the sensitive, insubordination-attuned ears of management. But, when you have been hired to do X and find yourself doing Y and Z, saying “no” to others may be the only way to say “yes” to yourself. As my wife is fond of saying, “Just because I can doesn’t mean I should.”
Saying no extends beyond the workplace to energy-depleting activities and possessions. McKeown advises what he calls “the disciplined pursuit of less,” ridding yourself of things and tasks that you would not normally covet if you did not already have them. Belongings, as well as responsibilities, take on a greater–albeit unearned–importance by virtue of being our own. Ownership infuses significance to a degree that may or may not be warranted. McKeown suggests questioning the validity of the hold possessions and obligations have on us. Would I buy this if I didn’t already own it? Would I choose to do this if I wasn’t already doing it?
Like failed companies that become overextend by straying from their core competencies, the contributions of overstretched employees become watered-down. Refocusing begins with tightening the criteria for success. And identifying criteria starts with asking the right questions. McKeown calls it using “more extreme criteria.” Rather than searching “for a good opportunity,” ask “What am I deeply passionate about?” What makes best use of my talent? And perhaps even, “What meets a significant need in the world.” The opportunities won’t be as numerous, he says, but they are more likely to lead to that elusive “absolute highest point of contribution.”
Given that we don’t always get everything we want, assigning relative importance to our criteria will help clarify the desirability of a potential career move. Let’s say my top three job criteria are (1) creativity, (2) autonomy, and (3) excellent compensation. If I can’t get 1, are 2 and 3 going to be enough? If I can’t get 1 and 2, is 3 enough? Conversely, if I get 1, can I live without 2 and/or 3? It’s a way to identify what is truly non-negotiable. That which remains inviolate becomes the foundation for what I call “worthy work,” meaning work that merits the irreplaceable life energy required to do it.
Time is the only currency that cannot be replaced, and the realization that it is finite dawns slowly. It seems boundless to the young, stretching into a future well beyond the immediate horizon. We live with the comfortable illusion that there will always be time to make changes; plenty of time to live the life we want. But time always asks for more time. I’ll do it when _______ (fill in the blank) becomes the mantra of the unfulfilled. I’ll do it when I graduate from college; when I get a job; when I save enough money; when I get married; when I pay off the mortgage; when the kids leave home; when I retire.
Then one day you wake up lacking the skills, the drive, or the track record to achieve your higher purpose, and discover the truth of the observation McKeown borrows from Emerson. “The crime which bankrupts men and nations is that of turning aside from one’s main purpose to serve a job here and there.”
Remaking himself from Naftaly Birnbaum to George Burns was neither simple nor painless. But in challenging times he would remember an axiom he had been taught. “Look to the future because that is where you’ll spend the rest of your life.”