Eight Career "Truths"That May Not Be So True
By Marty Nemko
This is a fuller version of the public lecture I gave at the University of California, Berkeley Extension on June
Now, in my 26th year as a career counselor, I find myself musing about the validity of eight career "truths:"
· "Follow your passion"
· "Networking is the key to landing a job"
· "Job seekers must sell themselves"
· "Entrepreneurship is a wise path for many people" "
· You'll make a bigger difference working for a non-profit or government than in the private sector."
· "We should all strive for work-life balance."
· "Getting a degree is usually wise."
· "You make your own luck."
I'd like to tell you how I went from sure to unsure on those eight commonly held beliefs and offer practical takeaways that might be helpful to you or to someone you care about.
1. "Follow your passion." I certainly used to believe you should "follow your passion." If there were a Bay Area motto, it might well be, "Follow your passion." or "Do what you love and the money will follow." Or maybe, "Do what you love and if the money doesn't follow, don't worry, your parents or someone will support you."
Most career counselor trainings I attended stressed that. And when the media asks a successful person for career advice, it's usually "Follow your passion." Raise your hand: "How many of you have ever been told to follow your passion, do what you love, or some such?"And when I started as a career counselor, I indeed routinely encouraged people to follow their passion, do what they love. And sometimes it works. For example, many people here in the Bay Area are committed environmentalists and are making a living at a solar company, a nonprofit advocacy group, etc.
Alas, too often, people have tried to do what they loved and poverty followed. I recall one of my first clients--it must have been 1986--who was a truly devoted environmentalist. She was bright, dedicated, always trying to be on environmentalism's cutting edge: She protested against lead in paints. She built straw-bale houses. She even wrote a book. Fast forward to 2013. She's stayed in touch and she's now 60-something and broke, living in welfare housing. And she's wondering, "What was all that about 'Do what you love and the money will follow?'"
The problem is that people's passions tend to be in just a few areas: the arts, entertainment, the media, sports, spiritual practices like yoga or meditation, and the environment. Raise your hand if you have a strong interest in one of those: the arts, entertainment, the media, sports, spiritual practices, or the environment?
So supply-demand means that most people in such fields are paid little or asked to be volunteers. So unless you're a star, the odds of making a living at those are not great. The Princeton Review reported a while back that of the more than 22 million artists in North America who called themselves professional artists, only 0.5% earned more than $50,000 from their art. Less than 8% earned even $1,000, not even enough to pay for their meals of ramen and tuna fish, let alone their rent, let alone their student loans.
Ironically, many people who do end up getting paid to follow
their passion aren't necessarily happier. Indeed, because employers
in popular fields know that many wannabe employees are waiting in
the wings, employees can treat their employees poorly: pay them
poorly, demand long hours, etc. "Do it for the cause!"
I think of the wine lover who got a "good job" in the wine industry. But he ends up spending a lot of time just pushing wine barrels around. Sure, he occasionally gets to run tastings for the rich and famous but, net, he wonders if his passion for wine might have been better addressed as a hobby.
Rather than pursuing one's passion as their career, as likely a path to career contentment is to find a less-crowded career so it's easier to find a job with work that's interesting, with a decent boss, that's ethical, a reasonable commute and work hours, and decent pay. I had a client who worked in the billing department at a utility. She wasn't passionate about billing but felt better about her job than do many people in "cool careers" because she found the work not too difficult or too easy, "got into" her job--staying in the moment and taking pleasure with each task getting done-- it was ethical work, she was making $60K a year, full benefits, had a reasonable commute and great job security.
So now, while I'm certainly not against following your passion,
I can't so blithely tell my clients to do what they love for a
living. These days, I try to be more nuanced: Is following your
passion worth risking the odds? Or would you more wisely do that as
a sideline or hobby? Is there something else you're interested in,
perhaps a career that's more under-the-radar and thus has a better
For example, I had a client who was concerned about how elders
are treated and she now works in marketing a high-quality assisted
living facility. I have another client who's an Egyptologist,
another who loves beautiful wine glasses. She is now a successful
manufacturer's rep for a line of glasses that--she showed me--are
truly beautiful. Choosing an under-the-radar field can be a wise
Here are some other under-the-radar careers I'm bullish
Bioinformatics--the ability to tease out promising research
areas from the ever more massive amounts of genomic data available.
That will--hopefully sooner than later--cure or prevent everything
from cancer to mental disorders.
Immersive online education: the boring lectures too common in
online classes will be replaced by highly interactive,
Any jobs at Kaiser: The Obama Administration has written the
health care law to make Kaiser a big beneficiary.
Alas, the Middle East will likely get yet even more complex:
Tensions are high in Turkey, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Iran,
and Libya, on top of Iraq, Afghanistan, and non-state actors like
Hezbollah and Al Qaeda, not to mention the Israel/Hamas-led
Palestinian conflict. Because of the Middle East oil reserves, the
threat of terrorism, and a likely nuclear Iran, jobs addressing the
Middle East mess should be plentiful. The FBI, CIA, military, and
other agencies as well as nonprofits will likely hire more people
who speak Middle Eastern languages and have cultural
One of President Obama's top priorities is to legalize the 11+
million people residing illegally in the U.S. That will create jobs
for bureaucrats to administer the legalization process and teachers
to train immigrants to pass the citizenship test. Once legal, the
immigrants will be eligible for Obamacare, which will trigger great
demand for bilingual health care providers. That will also spur a
need for social service providers; for example, counselors and
social workers. Whatever business you're in, having 11+ million
people "come out of the shadows" may create business opportunities
that should be considered when planning for 2014 and
I'm also bullish on a number of health care careers: physician
assistant, genetic counselor, optometrist, audiologist, and
A couple of other helping professions I like: tutor and college
financial aid counselor.
If you're a more data-centric type: health
informatician--improving health care providers' and patients
ability to get information online. Or program analyst--that's a
government job in which you do research and evaluation on
government programs. If you're a hands-on type: firefighter,
landscape architect, and energy engineer.
If a client does want to pursue a long-shot passion, I encourage
him or her to work toward it for a fixed amount of time: Circle a
date on your calendar, three months, six months, even two years
from now. At that point, if the world is giving you signs you are
going to make a living at it, wonderful! If not, you still have
enough time to pursue a less risky Plan B---unlike that 60ish
environmentalist client of mine who's in welfare housing.
One more strategy: Perhaps you're someone who can subsist on
little money and will feel content having an easy-to-get job in a
cool field. For example, most films use many production assistants.
They make near-minimum wage and mainly get the coffee, etc., but
love the idea of working near all those creatives. That does remind
me of the man whose job is to follow behind the elephants in the
circus with a garbage can to catch their dung, and when asked why
he doesn't quit, he replied, "What, and leave show
Of course, you also can pursue your passion as an avocation. And
that may even be more rewarding. I've spent a lot of time in the
world of theatre. Alas, most professional actors spend much of
their time painfully: auditioning, flying to Hollywood or New York,
and if they get cast, it's usually a small part and so they spend
most of rehearsal and even during the play, waiting. I know a woman
who tried to make it on Broadway, failed and now does acting as a
hobby and gets to play starring roles in community theatre here in
the Bay Area. She is having much more fun and, because she's taken
a day job that's pays reasonably, she's far from eating cat food.
She is doing what she loves and the money follows--just
from a different source.
The question is, "What's right for you: Should you be
doing what you love as your career or as your avocation?
2. "Networking is key to your career." I've
become convinced that's overbroad. Yes, some of my clients have
gotten all their jobs and otherwise boosted their career thanks to
networking. And most such people love the process: schmoozing at
events, becoming LinkedIn Ninjas, and so on. Jobs seem to come to
Alas, for some other people, networking has been a waste of
time. They go to meet-and-greets, they become LinkedIn ninjas, yet
derive nothing that helps their career.
Still other people have been hurt by networking. I'm
one of them. No matter how much I try, I too often come off as too
intense and a know-it-all. I interrupt too much, even though I know
it's wrong. I think I do better writing -and hopefully speaking to
audiences. The message: One size does not fit all: The mantra
"Network, network, network" works only for some people.
Here's how you might assess how much effort you should
devote to networking. The more of these to which you answer yes,
the more you might want to network: 1. Does your career
need networking, for example, if you're unemployed or are
looking to move up or to another employer? 2. To date, has your
networking been worth the effort? The past is a reasonable
predictor of the future. 3. Do you enjoy networking? 4. Even if
you're good at networking and enjoy it, is that the wisest use of
that time--What could you be doing otherwise? 5. Is your
existing networking liberally laced with people who can
help you? Building a network usually takes a long time. By the time
you build one that nets you a job, you could be homeless.
Some jobseekers do better by devoting most of their job search
time simply to answering jobs ads but taking the time to do it
really well, to reveal their true strengths and weaknesses so an
employer will believe what they're writing and be able to assess
whether there's a good match between the applicant and the job. So
the message here, as with the other seven career beliefs: There are
few black and white truths. Nuance is required. One size does not
fit all. So, moving forward, should you do more or less
3. "Job seekers must sell themselves." Another
common career belief I too unquestioningly accepted is that job
seekers must sell themselves. After all, that's the American
way--sell, sell, sell. At trainings and conferences for career
counselors, we were taught ever more powerful tools to help our
clients sell themselves: PAR stories, microanalyzed mock video
interviews, perfect canned answers for the toughest interview
questions. And we were told it was ethically defensible to write
clients' résumés and cover letters, even without
those documents disclosing that.
Sure, it's understandable that especially in a tough job market,
job seekers, especially weak ones, want to buy all the help they
can get. But after a while, I started feeling oily. I especially
felt uncomfortable writing or even heavily editing clients'
résumés and cover letters. For most professional
jobs, employers use résumés not just to screen work
history but to assess candidates writing, reasoning, organizational
skill and detail-orientedness. When I write a résumé
or cover letter, I've misled the employer: S/he decides whether to
interview my client on my abilities, not the client's. Was
that fair to people who chose to do their own work, perhaps with
modest input from a colleague? How would you feel if you
did your own work perhaps with a bit of help and lost out to an
inferior candidate who paid someone to write their
résumé and cover letter and to transform him or her
into the dream interviewee? Was I putting a false veneer on less
qualified applicants thereby hurting more-qualified people's
chances? Indeed, I often was. On average, it's weaker candidates
who--to try to become competitive--hire a packager.
Was I really being any more ethical than if I were paid to write
someone else's college application essay? If hiring someone to
write someone else's résumé were ethical, why don't
professional résumé writers write, "Written by Jane
Jones, professional résumé writer?" And if having
someone else write your resume were ethical, why would most if not
all applicants delete that sentence before submitting their
I thought further: If I added value to my clients in writing
their résumé and cover letter, it means they got an
interview when they otherwise wouldn't. Isn't that like putting a
jet pack on my clients for the first part of the job-search race?
Is that fair?
And now, let's say I coached that not-top-of-the-stack client to
ace the interview and he or she got the job. Was I also hurting the
employer and coworkers who are now saddled with a worse employee
because of my efforts? And more broadly, if inferior candidates are
hired, the products or services the organizations provide are more
likely to be worse, and then in turn, society to be worse. I had
become a career counselor to make things better. Was I fooling
myself? Was I making things worse?!
I've come to question the wisdom of "sell, sell, sell." There's
nothing wrong, indeed everything right, about helping someone find
a well-suited career. There's everything right about helping
someone on the job to be more successful and satisfied. But there
is something wrong with helping a job applicant look better than
they are, and the weaker the applicant, the more that's
So might you want to think twice when deciding how much help to
get in applying for a job? Sure, read articles on how to do it and
how to prepare for an interview. It's also ethically defensible to
have a colleague offer modest to moderate feedback on your
résumé cover letter, and mock interview. Yes, an
ethical approach may put you at a disadvantage compared with
candidates who get others to do their work for them, but shouldn't
integrity trump expediency?
So what do I say to clients who want me to help them land a job?
I do turn away prospective clients I sense would be weak employees
in the job they seek but, more often, I simply try to help them
realize that "selling themselves" is not the right metaphor: You
may be able to sell yourself into a job but if it's the wrong job,
you'll likely do poorly, and perhaps get fired or laid off--no
fun-- and you'll be back to see me. And you won't feel good about
yourself. The right metaphor for job-seeking is not selling, it's
matchmaking: Reveal your strengths and your weaknesses and thus the
wrong employers will reject you and a right one will hire you. For
example, one of my weaknesses is that I'm a poor team player. If I
were applying for a job, I'd mention that while I'm capable of
doing difficult projects on my own, I do poorly on a team: I tend
to get frustrated when I don't have enough control. That would get
me rejected from the wrong jobs and accepted for a right
So might you want to think of job-seeking not as selling but
4. Self-employment is a wise path for many
people The fourth so-called career "truth" I've come to
question is that self-employment is a wise path for many people. I
started out believing that. After all, that was how my father--a
Holocaust survivor who came here without any education or
money--made enough money to move my mom, my sister and me out of a
Bronx tenement and into middle-class Queens. I've also been
positively predisposed to self-employment because most employers
pay people as little as they can get away with and in a tough job
market, that's often meager and with few benefits. Even nonprofits
and universities, which claim to care about workers, use lots of
volunteer interns, which enables them to skirt the minimum wage
law. All that made me feel that self-employment can often be a wise
But having been self-employed as a career counselor and
consultant to corporations for 26 years and helping my clients to
become self-employed, I'm a bit sobered. Being successful in
self-employment is more difficult than many people think. It
requires you to be good not only at your profession but willing and
able to market yourself. And, in a tiny business, there's no
support structure: no IT department, no accounting dept. It's all
on you, and if you hire people to do all that, it's difficult to be
left with a decent income, especially because you may be paying
individual rates for health insurance.
I do think some people are wise to consider self-employment if
they are very good at what they do, are good at solving
business-related problems by themselves, are good at marketing and
don't mind doing it. Or they might find a trusted partner with a
complementary skill set, for example, someone who is a great
For those cut out for self-employment, I am bullish on businesses in which you provide a service and that don't require much money to start. Examples:
· Broker who brings together business classes with corporations that want projects done. Class projects would be of real-world use rather than just go into the ether.
· Tutor. Some make over $100 an hour, especially working with learning disabled or autism-spectrum students.
· Relationship ad coaching. It's hard to create a the right ad for meeting the person of your dreams.
· Fundraising auction planner. That's one of the most potent ways that nonprofits raise money
· Spacemaker: Clean out basements, garages, and attics and then installing shelf and cabinet systems.
· Running people's garage or estate sales for a percentage of the take.
· Non-food carts: Flowers, scarves, fancy soaps in gift baskets. Top location: near a busy train or bus depot.
· Job agent: Helping people land a job by making those
initial inquiries that job hunters hate, like the agents that
represent performers and authors.
So I encourage you to dispassionately consider whether, for you,
being self-employed is a wiser option than being employed by
5. "You'll make a bigger difference by working for a non-profit or government than for a company." I felt that way. After all, I went to Berkeley and been living in the Bay Area for 40 years now. But I've had a few eye-opening experiences that are making me question whether government and nonprofit work are necessarily superior.
For example, I recall visiting the federal buildings in Oakland, CA-- twin skyscrapers--and walking through the hall and seeing clean desk after clean desk with employee after employee literally polishing their nails or reading a magazine.
Then there was the caller to my radio program asking what he should do about the fact that when he wanted to get his City of San Francisco crew of carpenters to work faster, they slit his tires. In that same call, he said the workers often have so little work to do that, to look busy, they, for example, build a fence--slowly--then knock it down and build it again.
Think about how much you pay in taxes: income taxes, sales tax, property tax, etc. Do you think you get good value for your tax dollar? For my clients who want to prioritize making a difference, I can no longer as enthusiastically recommend a career in government.
Regarding nonprofits, a number of clients have told me that their nonprofit is run so inefficiently that they feel guilty asking people to donate to it.
In contrast, when I think about companies, while there's certainly much to criticize, I wonder if, net, companies bring at least as much benefit to humankind:
I think of all the items in this room: the walls, the tables, the glasses, the microphone, indeed the hotel itself. All made by corporations.
I think about the companies that make TVs at a price anyone can afford--Well maybe not a 90-incher, but a 32-inch high-definition TV that's much bigger than what I grew up with now costs less than $200.
Then I think about Google, which makes much of the world's information available to everyone for free.
I think about Toyota, which makes my 45 mpg, completely reliable Prius.
I think about Bayer, which makes aspirin we can buy for pennies a dose.
I think about Whirlpool that made my refrigerator that cost me $900 15 years ago and still runs perfectly.
I think about the corporate homebuilder that built my home at a price I couldn't build it for if I hired a bunch of handypeople to do it.
I think of the countless helpful items that I take for granted: from pens to safety pins, wrist watch to telephone, scissors to hair dryer to nuts and bolts. All of these are reliable, cheap, and made by corporations.
I think of the entertainment: I can watch a movie at home, on-demand for a few bucks thanks to the corporation that made the movie and Netflix or Amazon that allows me to watch it on-demand. And I'll admit, I occasionally play video games on the Wii made by the Nintendo corporation or my computer made by Dell.
I think even about the so-called corporate food: I can buy a pound of on-the-vine tomatoes grown at a corporate farm at a pleasant, corporate supermarket for $2. At the farmer's market, they want $2.50 per tomato. Even if I thought that were worth it, I can afford it but can poor people?
Then there are the people whose lives benefit from owning shares in companies, including anyone invested in a mutual fund or in most retirement plans. My wife and I, over the years, have slowly accumulated shares of such companies as Genentech, Amazon, and Procter & Gamble so we could afford a home, send our daughter to college, and build a nest egg for a rainy day. We're grateful to the people of those corporations whose efforts have led their company's stock to rise in value.
So while, of course, some government and nonprofit work is most worthy--I'm grateful, for example, for the existence of 911 and for professional associations--might you want to take a more nuanced view: Is it possible you can make at least as much of a difference working in the private sector?
6. "We should strive for work-life balance."
It's an article of faith that we all should strive for work-life
balance. After all, who could argue against "balance?" It's the
Aristotelian Golden Mean. Indeed, the Obama Administration uses the
word "balanced" to describe a number of its initiatives, from
dealing with the debt to illegal immigration. And yet as I look
back on the 4,000 career counseling clients I've had the privilege
of serving these last 26 years plus my friends and colleagues, many
of the people who feel best about their worklife and are most
energized overall, who feel really content with their lives and
made the biggest contribution, work long hours. Many people
describe them as lacking work-life balance. Indeed, some people
denigrate them as workaholics---a term that evokes a comparison
with alcoholic--someone addicted to something bad.
But is that a fair way to describe a cancer researcher who works
some nights and weekends to try additional experiments? Is that a
fair way to describe an outstanding relationship counselor who sees
extra clients each week rather than refer them to a less effective
counselor? Is that a fair way to describe an accounts-payable clerk
who devotes week hours 40-50 to ensuring everyone gets paid
promptly and accurately, even if it's just to make more money to
support her family?
We may or may not choose to work long hours, but rather than
denigrate people who do so as "out of balance" let alone
pathologize them as workaholics, might it be fairer to think of
them as hard workers or even heroes?
Some claim that working long hours causes people to make errors
and to burn out. I'm not advocating the 100-hour-workweeks that
medical interns are forced to endure. I view that as senseless as a
fraternity hazing. But as I look back on all my burned-out clients,
they were not mainly the people who worked long hours. Indeed many
worked short hours but at a job that was too difficult for them or
was unethical. So as you decide how many hours a week to devote to
work, rather than simply accepting the blanket stricture to strive
for work-life balance, I invite you to recognize that one size does
not fit all. Decide, for yourself, what's the right level of
work-life balance for you, for your family, and for society. And
think twice before labeling a hard worker "out of balance" let
alone "a workaholic."
7. "Getting a degree is usually a wise bet."
You'd think I'd be an strong advocate for getting degrees. After
all, my parents constantly told me that education is The Answer.
And I have a Ph.D-- from right here at Berkeley--and in the field
of educational psychology. And indeed, I used to believe
that getting degrees is usually a wise choice: not just but for
career preparation but for enlightenment.
But over the past decades, I've become less sure. The first
sense I got of that was in graduate school when I was forced to
take many courses that would contribute little to my being a good
professional or even good citizen and human being. For example,
Professor Leonard Marascuilo was a statistics professor who was
able to convince the administration that every education doctoral
student needed five five-unit graduate level courses in statistics.
Many if not most Ph.D.s use a consultant to do their statistics.
Were all those courses truly the best use of students' time and
Then, when I become a consultant to colleges, the private
conversations behind those ivy-covered walls were very different
from the rhetoric in college brochures and PR efforts about caring
about students and helping them to grow. Too many administrators
seemed to care most about bringing in research dollars, hiring more
research-centric professors--whether they could teach well was
pretty irrelevant--, about its US News ranking, about
increasing alumni donations, and about protecting their own
careers. Discussions about undergraduate education were mainly
about increasing retention while lowering their cost to the
university, but never about lowering the price paid by
More recently, I have read but am not surprised by the
definitive study of how much learning occurs in undergraduate
Academically Adrift, published by the University of
Chicago Press. It found that 36% of college graduates grew not at
all in writing and critical thinking. And regarding the achievement
gap that is so worrying the nation, the students who did poorly in
high school were, on average,
the least likely to grow.
Of course, many people attend college mainly to improve their
employability. And in decades past, colleges did, a fact that
colleges continue to trumpet. But anAssociated
Press analysis of data from 2011 found 53.6% of college
graduates under 25 were unemployed—or, if they were lucky
enough, under-employed, meaning they were working in jobs they
could have gotten out of high school. That's especially likely in
fields that don't particularly impress employers such as sociology,
art history, or American studies.
I think of a recent client, I'll call him Joe. He was the first
in his family to attend college and his family was so proud that he
got into UC San Diego and even more proud that he graduated with a
3.6 GPA, majoring in psychology, but the best job he's been able to
find is working at an electronics retailer where his job includes
such tasks as finding someone to unclog the toilets.
Alas, even science and technology majors have according to a
Times,an unemployment rate higher than the national
average of 7.6%. For example, major in science: the unemployment
rate is 8.2% Mechanical engineering: 8.6% Information systems:
But what about graduate school as a way to improve
employability? In April, 2013,
The Atlantic reported, "Nine months after graduation, just
56 percent of the law school class of 2012 had found stable jobs in
And PhDs? The National Science Foundation
reports--and this really shocked me--that fewer than 40% of new
PhDs had a job waiting for them at graduation. Another 35% had
signed up for a post-doc--That mainly consists of more studying.
And 28% had nothing!
I couldn't find national averages for that supposedly most
marketable degree, the MBA. But according to a November 2012
report, 10% of Berkeley MBAs were unemployed three months after
graduation and 23% of MBAs from USC were. I can only imagine less
prestigious MBA programs' unemployment rate.
I am not saying, "Don't get a degree." Indeed, 90% of those
Cal-Berkeley MBAs were employed, I'm guessing most of them
well employed. I'm merely asking you to not just reflexively follow
the conventional wisdom: "Degree good." Decide whether, for
you, going back for a degree is wiser than for example,
learning at I call You U: working at the elbow of a
successful, ethical master, reading and attending short-courses
such as those offered through your professional association,
through UC Extension and so on.
And if you're going to get a degree, I invite you to not give
disproportionate weight to the ostensible practicality of a STEM
major: science, technology, engineering and math. Not only, as I
mentioned, are today's unemployment rates even in STEM fields
surprisingly high, if those fields don't play to your strengths,
you're particularly likely to not graduate or to graduate with
skills insufficient to succeed in those fields. You might be wiser
to major in something that, on the face of it, seems less
practical, for example, rhetoric, which, more than most fields,
teaches you the skill of persuasion and logical reasoning, which
are crucial to almost any career. Ironically, that might make you
more endurably employable than pursuing an expressly careerist
At this point, I also want to put in a word for an initiative
that would enable students to more wisely decide if returning to
school for a degree would be worthwhile, and where they should go.
Colleges receive billions in taxpayer-funded aid every year yet
have less accountability than we require of tire manufacturers.
Every tire must have, molded into each sidewall, its tread life,
temperature, and traction rating. Each home for sale comes with
pages of disclosures. Every packaged food must prominently list its
calories, sodium, fat content, etc. Yet colleges are required to
prominently post nothing.
Doesn't it make sense that with a college education being one of our most expensive and potentially life-changing purchases, all higher education programs be required to post a College Scorecard, consumerist information that would help prospective students decide whether to attend. President Obama, in his State of the Union address, proposed such a Scorecard but it had little teeth. A College Scorecard Version 2.0 should include, for example:
· The cost of attendance, subtracting cash financial aid for the length of the program, disaggregated by family income and assets.
· The results of the most recent student satisfaction survey and summary of the accreditation report.
· The percentage of students that graduate in the "expected time," broken down by students' high school record.
· How much growth in writing and critical thinking skills do students make?
· The percentage of students professionally employed
within a year of graduation.
Colleges claim to care about students. How many of you would
appreciate having that kind of information as you decide if and
where to go back to school? I can think of no better way for
colleges to show they care about you.
I am not against getting degrees. I just want you to evaluate
the decision to spend the time and money carefully. Richard Bolles
author of What Color is Your Parachute, says that many
people choose their vacation more carefully than they choose their
career. I merely invite you to as carefully consider whether you
should go back to school as how you should spend your
8. "You make your own luck" or its variations:
"Luck comes to the well-prepared." and "Luck is where preparation
meets opportunity." Those are odes to working hard. I'm no longer
so sure that hard work is as often rewarded as those aphorisms
Of course, many people do succeed because of hard work but I've
also seen many succeed without hard work: They had the
good luck to be born smart and/or winsome, or were, indeed in the
right place at the right time. A dishwasher happened to be on duty
when the sink clogged. He was able to fix it and had the good luck
that boss happened to be there to watch him and the luck that the
boss was about to open another branch of his restaurant, and asked
him to help manage it. Luck!
Yet I've seen other people work their guts out and are grateful
to get a part-time $10 an hour job so they can afford to eat and
yes, maybe, buy drugs or alcohol to dull their pain.
So again, the message is nuance: It may be time to replace
blanket beliefs such as "You make your own luck." with: Yes, work
hard, it boosts your odds of success, but perhaps be a bit more
charitable, not just in dollars but in spirit toward the people we
might write off as lazy. They may indeed have had the bad luck to
have been born unintelligent or unattractive or into a home that
didn't nurture whatever gifts they were born with. Or they never
ended up at the right place at the right time but rather met some
people that were bad influences. So they, consciously or
unconsciously, realize that even if they work hard they're unlikely
to reap much success. If you're successful, you might want to feel
grateful and if you're not, yes work hard and try to surround
yourself with people most likely to bring out the best in
So in sum, my core message today is that we tend to fall victim to group-think, even when it comes to our worklife. What would seem wiser for us as individuals and collectively as a society would be to replace group-think with each of us thinking in a more nuanced way:
· Instead of blithely mouthing the mantra "Follow your passion," assess whether, for you, the risk-reward ratio of trying to get paid well enough to do what you love is a wiser choice than pursuing something with a better risk-reward ratio, perhaps an under-the-radar career, and pursuing your passion on the side.
· Instead of the broad-brush advice to "network, network, network," look at your track record in networking and your needs, and then decide how much effort you should put into networking rather than for example, getting more skilled in your work.
· Instead of accepting that when looking for a job you must sell yourself, consider whether it's wiser to think of job-hunting less as selling and more as matchmaking. Might that be wiser not just for you, but in the larger scheme of things: to the employer and even to the larger society?
· We might also take a closer look at whether self-employment is as desirable as is widely touted. Are you enough of a self-starter, able and willing to market, able to handle all the inevitable problems without hiring help for everything, and, is the service or product you provide so good that you can compete, if necessary, with larger businesses?
· Might it be worth revisiting the conventional wisdom that you'll make a bigger difference by working for a non-profit or government than in the private sector? There is good and bad in all sectors.
· Instead of blanketly accepting that we must all strive for work-life balance, should we hold a more nuanced view: that one lifestyle needn't fit all. If we truly celebrate diversity, instead of pathologizing hard workers as workaholics, like alcoholics, addicted to something bad, might a fairer descriptor be "hard worker" or even" hero?"
· Instead of the broad-brush statement, "Getting a degree is usually a wise bet," more recent data suggests that it can be a tough call, requiring a careful examination of the pros, cons and opportunity costs of school, including asking fair questions like, "What percent of graduates are professionally employed in their field three months after graduation?"
· And rather than smugly asserting that we make our own
luck, might we want to feel gratitude for the luck that contributed
to our successes and a bit more charitable toward those who started
out life with fewer of the building blocks for success?
I want to end by telling you one more story. The year was 1939.
The town was Sierpc, Poland. My father was a teenager living with
his family. One day there was a knock on the door and it was two
Nazis in black boots. But unlike in the movies, they didn't yell.
One was silent and the other whispered: "You will be out of your
house with only what you can carry on your back by noon tomorrow or
else." The next day, there were two trucks in the town square and
12 Nazis, but now they weren't whispering. "Rouse!" And they went
into the Jewish households and threw the able-bodied people on one
truck and the old, young, and infirm on another. My father never
saw his parents again. At the end of the war, my father was dropped
in the Bronx without a penny to his name, No English, no family, no
education. Only the scars of the Holocaust tortures. What did he
do? He took the only job he could get: sewing shirts in a factory
in Harlem. And at night, what did he do? He went to Roosevelt High
School's night school to learn English. And what did he do on the
weekend? He went to the owner of the factory and asked, "Can I buy
the shirts I sewed for you during the week and sell them out of a
cardboard box on the street ?" What did he do with the money? He
used it to pay the first and last month's rent on the only
storefront he could afford: 105 Moore St in Brooklyn. On one side
was a deli specializing in chicharones (deep-fried pork intestines)
and the smell of that merged with the smell coming from the store
on the other side: a live chicken market--the smell of stale blood.
My father's store was so small that he had to display most of the
merchandise on folding tables in front of the store. But the
neighborhood was terrible so on the weekends, when the kids were
out of school, they'd come by and grab clothing from the tables and
run away. So when I was old enough, on Saturdays, I'd play security
guard at my father's store. And I remember standing in front of the
store one day and business was slow, so my father was standing
there next to me, and I asked him, "Daddy, how come you so rarely
talk about the Holocaust?" And he stiffened, which he rarely did,
and said, "Martin, the Nazis took five years from my life. I won't
give them one minute more." He said, "Martin, never look back.
Always take the next step forward."
Each of us has had bad things happen to us but I've had the
privilege of having been career counselor to some of our most
successful, contributory people as well as to some real strugglers.
And one of the differentiating factors is that most of the
successful ones follow my father's advice: Never look back; always
take the next step forward. I can leave you with no better
Dr. Nemko is a career coach in Oakland, CA, writes weekly for USNews.com and AOL.com, and hosts Work with Marty Nemko on KALW 91.7 FM (NPR-San Francisco.) His latest books are How to Do Life: What they didn't teach you in school and What's the Big Idea? 39 Disruptive Proposals for a Better America. 1,000+ of his published writings and his radio programs are archived on www.martynemko.com
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