On Climbing the Ladder

When I was in college and law school, I was under the impression that those that get ahead do so, primarily, due to intelligence, skill, hard work, and dedication. And, indeed, those factors play significant roles in success in any field. The surprise of my working career has been, however, how many other factors lead to success and, conversely, how many can lead to failure.

The first is simply one’s appearance. If you don’t look the part, you don’t get the part. One of the most dangerous workplace rules is the casual dress code. Sure, you can take full advantage of that, but, in most places, you don’t climb the ladder in shorts and sandals. Visual cues matter.

Second, I’m amazed by how important simply showing up is. Being dependable and predictable is key. I previously worked with an extremely smart, productive coworker, but his frequent, unpredictable work absences just stalled, even derailed, his career. You just gotta show up. All the time. Ready to contribute. It’s not rocket science.

Next, a positive, happy attitude. Fake it, if you have to. No one wants to be around Negative Nancy, and, when it comes time to parcel out important tasks and assignments, people gravitate to those with a “can do” spirit. And, those that succeed at those important tasks and assignments get future opportunities. Again, this is basic stuff.

Related to attitude is the fact that gossips, whiners, emotional blackholes, and conspiracy theorists never get ahead. These odd ducks seek each other out and spend the rest of their careers huddled in corners, sharing the information they just know explains the latest office development. They are always wrong and a drag on office morale, efficiency, and productivity. A major key to success is steering far, far away from these folks. People note your company, and there is such a thing as guilt by association, as unfair as it may be.

Finally, doing more than the minimum required will unlock door after door. Most people want clear directions and work to satisfy expectations. Successful folks do more. They exceed requirements, they ask for additional work and responsibility, they bring ideas to the table, they volunteer to contribute in unique and positive ways at the office. A major mistake many people make is believing that they will be rewarded for meeting expectations. Sure, you’ll get a “good job,” but the key is to exceed expectations. To give your employer more than he or she expected. It’s not a mystery, but it is a test of your desire and dedication.

You can have all the talent, intelligence, or skill in the world, but still find your career stagnating. No one is going to hunt you down to reward you. Success doesn’t come knocking. You have to go out and earn it, and, luckily, the keys to success aren’t a great mystery.

On Finding Your Passion

It’s back to school time, so there’s no better opportunity to address one of the most destructive pieces of advice high school and college kids are going to start hearing. Nope, it’s not, “Sure, Billy, you can do tons with an Medieval English degree.” And, you’d be wrong if you guessed, “Abstinence is the right choice for you!” No, I’m talking about something much more insidious: “Find your passion.”

For decades, this old saw has been trotted out as the height of insightful career advice. Guidance counselors, teachers, and parents promise that, if you can unlock that secret, you’ll never work a day in your life. Just think how many times you’ve had this conversation:

Max: Hi Sarah! How’s work going lately?

Sarah: Oh Max, don’t be silly. I don’t work. You see, I found my passion.

That’s right. Your number is identical to mine: zero.

“Finding your passion” is the absolute worst career advice, for myriad reasons.

First, lots of people, and I mean lots of people, don’t have a passion. And, guess what? There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m one of those people. I have lots of interests, lots of things I think are great and cool, but I wouldn’t rate any of them as a passion. It’s really sort of cruel. When everyone tells you to find something you don’t have, that’s probably the first step down the path to paranoia.

Second, some people have freaky passions. Sure, Belinda couldn’t live without her Thimbles of the World collection, but how’s the thimble market right now? Hey, Belinda, you just aced every Advanced Placement class you took, but how about you run down to Jo-Ann Fabrics and Crafts and see if they’re hiring.

Third, implicit in the career advice to “find your passion” is the idea that one’s passion must be one’s life work. Why? Work is certainly important, but why must one work at what they value most? It seems pretty rational to me to keep your passion away from performance reviews, annoying coworkers, and endless meetings.

Now, in fairness, we must admit that there are people that truly have a passion they’ve turned into a career. At times, just meeting these unicorns can be inspiring. Other times, we find ourselves cringing at their obsessive focus on “their passion” with no care or concern for anything else in the world.

It’s not about finding your passion. It’s about finding something that interests you to a degree that you can pursue excellence in all areas of your life, not just your job. Most people aren’t pursuing their passion, so why do we insist on passing on this awful piece of advice? It’s time for a more honest conversation about work, life, and pursuing interests while maintaining a healthy balance. Now that’s worth being passionate about.