My patient was clearly miserable in her job as a graduate student and laboratory scientist. But she’d worked very hard to get into this position. And she was only 3 years away from a PhD.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” she said. “I’m just not good enough, I guess.”
She was blaming herself for this career not working out. I suggested an alternative.
Instead of viewing a job as a task, consider it is a role. Not a thing, but a person.
It wasn’t that she couldn’t do this job – it was that the job didn’t represent her authentic self. She wasn’t a laboratory scientist.
Initially, as a teenager, your career dreams hit a cruel reality when you discover that your talents and aptitudes are limited by nature, not by choice. You probably had all the commitment it took to be a rock star…but none of the talent.
That’s a harsh, if commonplace realization. You tend – especially as an adolescent – to imagine yourself as the protagonist in a heroic narrative, and it can be crushing to realize you are limited by banal realities like being too short to be a basketball star, or singing too out of tune to be the next Beyonce.
Once this life lesson is learned, though, you think you’ve found your groove. You’ll just find something you’re good at, and do it.
Unfortunately, that’s when you hit yet another realization.
Even if you have the talent and aptitude for a certain job – you also have to “be” that job. It has to represent who you are.
That’s why you have to know who you are before you can know what you want to do.
Think about work for a moment, and how it came into being. Originally, when all humans were primitive hunter-gatherers, the break-down of labor must have been rather simple. Mostly likely the men went hunting out in the field and the women took care of the kids and whatever other tasks could be handled close to the settlement area.
With the arrival of agriculture and domesticated livestock – and much greater population densities – greater specialization arrived. The Middle Ages in Europe saw the rise of guilds – early unions for skilled laborers. There was also more leisure time – at least for the wealthy classes – so artists and musicians began to appear. A king or a duke might hire you simply to set gemstones on snuff boxes, so he could hand them out as keepsakes.
You can view this development in one of two ways – that there was a need for lavish snuffboxes and someone had to be found to make them – or sightly differently: there was someone out there who had the idea and the inclination to make lavish snuffboxes, and he finally found his opportunity to follow a dream.
I think the second explanation makes more sense. As roles in society became more specialized, people were more able to express who they were by finding a niche where they fit in. Each “job” or “career” was really someone finding an outlet to express himself.
The real question, then, isn’t how you can find something you can do. It’s who are you, and what is the job that reflects your authentic identity.
Years ago I spent a weekend at the home of a very wealthy man, the father of a friend from school. This guy was a genuine titan of business – he sat on the board of a federal reserve bank and went fly-fishing with Paul Volcker. He was a terrific guy and a wonderful host, and the first thing I noticed about him was that he loved to play games – board games, card games, any games. The second thing I noticed was that he always won. Always. Each and every time. By a wide margin.
Clearly, there is a link between success in business and aptitude at games. That is demonstrably true – Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are both expert poker players and so are dozens of other zillionaires.
But some people who are good at games simply become gaming enthusiasts, or mathematicians or computer scientists. To become a titan of the business world, you have to be a titan of the business world. It has to be who you are.
The quickest way to figure out if a career fits who you are is to go to the lunchroom where you work, or some other forum where a bunch of other people with that career are gathered, and ask yourself if you fit in with this crowd. Now – of course – you could always decide to do things your own way – be that renegade accountant who doesn’t ride with the pack. But, as a general rule, if you stick out like a sore thumb in the lunchroom, it might be a good indication that you don’t belong in this crowd – and this job doesn’t represent the essence of who you are.
Sometimes we run from the truth of who we are. My graduate student patient had ended up studying science mostly because it was practical. She was an immigrant from China, and pretty good at math and science, and she needed something practical, that could get her to the United States, but didn’t require perfect English skills.
Deep in her heart, she confessed to me later, she longed to be a writer – a journalist. That might be a lot tougher to arrange – but ultimately, it was her happiness at stake, and we both concluded she’d be better off struggling to be true to herself than continuing to pursue a career that felt false and unsatisfying.
I once worked with a man who was preparing to take the MCAT exam to enter medical school. He, too, had the aptitude to be a doctor. But deep in his heart, he confessed to me, he longed to be a hair-dresser.
My opinion was that the world needed an inspired hair-dresser more than it needed an uninspired doctor.
You might think you need to choose something practical for a career. But at some point, you realize a career isn’t about what you choose – it’s about who you are. It chooses you as much as you choose it.
I had a patient who went to law school and struggled to make a career as a corporate attorney, but he was miserable. The odd thing was that his entire family worked as teachers. I finally asked him why he hadn’t become a teacher like everyone else. He thought about it and said he’d wanted to be different. Being a teacher seemed like giving up and admitting he was like everyone else in his family.
Eventually, he ended up quitting law anyway, and – sure enough – pursuing teaching. But he found his own way to be a teacher. In so doing, he found a way to be himself.