Fast Company

All The Right Moves: Rational Expectations

How to redefine success and make the most of a difficult market.

1. Is it time to downsize my dreams?

One day, you're the CEO of Me Inc.; the next, you're out on the street with a sandwich board proclaiming, "Have PhD. Will Work for Food." One moment, you're a pioneering CEO wearing khakis to work in Silicon Alley; the next, you're explaining the differences between relaxed-fit and cargo-style khakis to your customers at the Gap.

The ruling narrative of our careers has done an abrupt 180. We've gone from no limits to no options, from boundless growth to brutal rationalization. It seems as if no one is exempt from the compromises, humiliations, and outright rejections that accompany the worst hiring slump in 20 years. All of a sudden, we can't help but think what would have been unthinkable a few short years ago: Must I temper my ambitions? Do I have to settle for less -- and am I lucky to get even that? In other words, is it time to downsize my dreams?

The answer to that question, it turns out, is another question. The shift coloring our collective work psyche is from a clear imperative to make more -- best expressed in that classic Silicon Valley bumper sticker, "Stop for Lunch and You Are Lunch" -- to a searching question that encourages us to make the answer up for ourselves. That question, of course, is the eternal but freshly relevant one recently unleashed into popular conversation by Po Bronson with his book What Should I Do With My Life? (Random House, 2002).

Since its publication last December, the book has topped the best-seller lists, been featured on Oprah and Today, and sparked a grassroots sensation. It has also generated some push back. "One reaction is, How dare you encourage people to pursue their dreams in this brutal environment," says Bronson. "It's a real disconnect to assume that the way to a better life is something that happens only in good times. Actually, the opposite is true. In my conversations with more than 1,300 people who have either found a sustainable solution to the question or are in the midst of wrestling with it, it's when your best-laid plans go awry that you make the first, best steps toward the life that you want to lead -- and the work that lights you up."

Discounting your dreams in the face of external pressures is dangerous. When you hunker down in survival mode to wait out or protect yourself from a tough environment, chances are, you will get stuck there.

It's equally unwise to spin elaborate escape fantasies. When your job, your status, or your relationships aren't secure and satisfying, says Bronson, "what happens is that people pursue the general goal of 'happiness.' People say, 'I could be happy doing this, I could be happy doing that.' But it doesn't help them make any kind of a determined decision about who they are and what they want."

A populist at heart, Bronson sought out stories from people of every age, class, profession, and background -- from truckers and bankers to artists and athletes. What he discovered was that there is no inherently right or objectively wrong answer to the question, What should I do with my life? It turns out that the best way to do something meaningful -- and to recession-proof your livelihood -- is to make it a means of expression rather than merely a means to an end.

Ironically, the bust was the best teacher of that lesson. "The 1990s was a frenzy of people thinking that happiness comes from the outside: 'If I had more money, more prestige, more something, I'd be happy.' One thing that you didn't hear a lot of in that era was the reflection, What's important to me?" says Marshall Goldsmith, who is as entrenched in the inner circle of the world's most powerful CEOs as Bronson is seeped in the lives of ordinary people on the front lines of the economy. "The positive spin on the bust is that people began to see the illusory nature of that kind of happiness. It all disappeared. And it always can disappear."

Goldsmith is one of the world's most celebrated behavioral coaches, with more than 50 CEOs of top global companies among his clients. He's also probably the only one in the world who professes equal devotion to the wisdom of both Peter Drucker and Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Goldsmith's advice is peppered with ebullient Buddhist-inspired aphorisms -- Be happy now! Life is good! -- and his simple but profoundly effective process for helping successful people achieve positive, lasting change is deeply infused with Buddhist philosophy. "The great Western disease is, 'I'll be happy when. . . .' " he says. "When I get the money. When I get a BMW. When I get this job. Well, the reality is, you never get to when. The only way to find happiness is to understand that happiness is not out there. It's in here. And happiness is not next week. It's now."

Which brings us back to the original problem: how bad the economy is right now. How do you act powerfully when you feel like a victim of global economic forces? How do you take risks, try new things, learn, and grow, when there's no give left in the system? Goldsmith is unforgiving. "Make it up!" he bellows. "Most creative people make stuff up. Nothing about this economy prevents you from pursuing your long-term dreams. There are tons of options. It's just that most of those options involve work. The price of achieving your dreams just went up. Big deal. The nice thing about achievement is, when it's something you do for yourself that's important to you, even if you don't get the money, you still feel like you've won." Polly LaBarre

2. A few years ago, I wanted to be a star at work. Am I better off just keeping my head down now and staying in the background?

Absolutely not. Stars are needed more than ever before. Case in point: "When times get tough, better performers are in higher demand," says Robert Kelley, author of How to Be a Star at Work (Crown, 1999) and president of Consultants to Executives and Organizations. "The best insurance policy is to be a star contributor."

What constitutes being a star has changed though. Being an expert in one area is no longer enough, says Kelley. You need a real understanding of the company's bottom line, its strategy, and how your expertise can have the most impact. And remember: There's a big difference between being a star and being a diva. "Your goal is to make yourself valuable to your company and to the marketplace," says Kelley. "View your-self as a bundle of assets, and make sure they appreciate in value." Chuck Salter

3. I don't like my job, but I'm a slave to my paycheck. What can I do?

Dear Reader:

You're not alone. Regardless of whose research you look at, there are millions of vocationally joyless people in this country -- people who are deaf to their true calling. A career pays the bills, and it might help you gain a sense of power and status, but it probably won't fulfill you. Only when you know your calling -- your deepest talents, passions, and values -- can you bring your true sense of self to your work. When you bring all of your strengths to the table, you aren't motivated by external benefits like money or a job title. You are motivated from within -- and you ultimately stand a far better chance of being effective in your work and successful in your career.

If you're thinking about making a job or career change, the first step is to "know thyself." I can't help you figure that out in a letter, but I can give you a one-minute formula to help get you started: G + P + V = your calling. The G stands for your gifts; the P is for passion; and the V equals values. Taken together, they add up to the one thing you love so much that you would do it for free. How do you think about that? First, look at your gifts. I've done strength assessments for more than 30 years, and I can attest that all of us are born with certain core talents. Whether it's creating, or collaborating, or leading, you know your strengths, and chances are, your spouse, or even a trusted colleague, knows them too. Next, think about what you're passionate about. To paraphrase Aristotle: Where your talents and your passions cross, therein lies your calling. If you use your gifts on something that you feel passionate about, you'll put yourself on a pathway to finding your life's work.

But there's a third component to this formula: your values, which is really a code word for environment. People instinctively seek an environment where they know that they will have a full voice in matters of consequence. A place where they don't feel constricted, where they don't have to check themselves at the door. Such a work environment lets them breathe life into their gifts and passions. If you don't find an environment that feeds your soul, all you're left with is a paycheck.

You may think that finding your calling is an unaffordable luxury in this tough business environment. I couldn't disagree more. Excellence is a survival skill, and excellent performers know their core strengths and passions, which they leverage in environments that honor their values. Put them up against people who simply work for status and a paycheck, and who do you think will win?

Sincerely,
Richard Leider
Founding partner of the Inventure Group and author of four books, including the best-seller Repacking Your Bags: Lighten Your Load for the Rest of Your Life (Berrett-Koehler, 1995)

4. I just got my MBA. Does that mean I'm SOL when it comes to landing a job?

Even at the top B-schools, many graduates are scrambling to get an offer before their loan payments kick in. Peter Degnan, director of MBA Career Management at Wharton, has some advice for anxious grads. First, he says, lose the herd mentality with respect to industry, geography, and salary. "Focus more on experience and opportunity than on location or compensation," he says. Which fields are hot? Health care has been healthy, real estate looks promising, and consumer-product companies are still hiring, especially if you're willing to look beyond the east and west coasts.

Second, says Degnan, be prepared to show a company how you can hit the ground running. That may mean emphasizing prior experience over MBA skills. "Experience coupled with an MBA is what makes the difference."

Third, use your network of students, alumni, colleagues, and friends. But be savvy about it, he advises. Focus on building relationships, not simply pleading for a job.

Fourth, as hard as it may be, try to stay upbeat. "A recruiter will smell desperation," Degnan says. "Stay confident."

Finally, Degnan says, be sure to follow your heart. "Don't get caught up with what your friends are doing. Think about what you want to contribute over the life of your career." Linda Tischler

5. How do I lead for the long haul?

People probably wonder, "How do you keep from getting bored doing these books?" But I never feel bored for one minute, because I'm always learning something new. I picked Lyndon B. Johnson because I wanted to know how national political power works, and he understood such power better than any president or politician in the second half of the 20th century. Each book focuses on a different form of power, and the third volume is about legislative power. Learning how the Senate works was amazing. When you get to be 40 or 50, having the opportunity to learn something new is absolutely thrilling. I can't stand the thought of doing the same thing over and over.

I didn't know the project would take this long. I originally envisioned it as three volumes. I thought that I would do a few interviews about Johnson's life in the Texas hill country where he was raised and that would give me the color I needed -- probably a chapter or two. But when I went there, I was fascinated by this world cut off from the rest of America. Coming from New York, I didn't understand it at all. I realized that I had to move down there. My wife and I ended up spending the larger part of three years there. Tracing the development of Johnson's ambition became a big part of the first book.

With writing, I've found that pacing is very important. I used to write for as many hours as I could sit at my desk, but I found myself throwing out most of what I would write in the last few hours. Over the years, I've learned how to make myself quit after five or six hours. I think that the best piece of advice I've heard about writing was from Hemingway: Always stop when you know what the next sentence is.

I've never felt bad about the length of time spent on the project, because I think that it's worth devoting my life to -- or at least a lot of years. It's so important to believe in your work. I'm not simply writing a biography of Johnson; I'm explaining to generations to come how political power works, how it shapes all of our lives -- and the realities behind it that are not taught in school. It's something that people ought to know.

A former newspaper reporter, Robert Caro has spent the past 27 years chronicling the political evolution of former president Lyndon B. Johnson in a four-volume biography. Master of the Senate (Knopf, 2002), the third volume, took 12 years to research and write. It won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Biography. Caro is currently working on the fourth and final volume.

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