Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Can your passion be your career?

I subscribe to a weekly e-newsletter called CareerWise, which is a collection of articles on career development. One from The Globe and Mail included in last week's newsletter was titled 'Four rules to cultivate your career passion.' I almost didn't click through to it because I've always had a bit of a problem with the concept of passion as it relates to work. However, the teaser caught my eye. It read 'One of the most common bits of career advice is to follow your passion. Career coaches repeat it endlessly, even though for many of us it can be discomforting.' Hmmm, I thought, well that's certainly how I feel! So I decided to give it a read. Turns out the article is actually a review of a book by Cal Newport, an assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University, called So Good They Can't Ignore You. (I haven't read the book yet, so my comments here are based solely on the review.)

Newport also has a problem with the notion that the secret to a fulfilling career is to follow your passion. Not only is such advice unhelpful at best he argues, but it can also be dangerous because it can 'potentially be the foundation for a career riddled with confusion and angst.' I can related. One of the first career development conferences I went to started with a keynote by a well-known author in the field who urged us to dream about how we could realize our passion in our career. It really stressed me out because I didn't know what my passion was! Books with titles like, Do what you love and the money will follow, also stressed me because I found it really hard to think of something I love doing that could be a viable career. For example, I love watching old movies but how do you turn that into a career? A couple of suggestions would be to write about old movies or become a film studies professor but both those lines of work involve a lot more than watching old movies.

Rather than trying to name your passion and figure out how to morph it into a career, Newport recommends focusing on developing a skill - becoming really good at something. He refers to this as developing the 'craftsman mindset' - not a term I would use but again the idea resonates. When I look back at my career so far, I can say that overall I have found it satisfying and rewarding. And a significant amount of career satisfaction I've experience has come from learning, mastering particular skills and becoming good at doing something. Newport argues that once someone develops the 'craftsman approach...the passion will follow.' I'm not sure this is the case for everyone, but I get the point.

Now, all this being said I do believe that there are some people who are able to turn their passions into careers. Artists, musicians and professional athletes spring to mind. However, I also believe that those people are not the norm. So I think becoming really good at doing something is sage career advice for a lot of people. I would simply add that what you choose to master be something that fits with your interests and core values (i.e., something you enjoy doing).

Monday, 5 November 2012

Who you know or what you know: What really gets you the job?

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard someone say, ‘When it comes to finding a job, it’s not what you know but who you know.’ I’ve heard this not only from people who are frustrated because they’ve heard nothing from employers they’ve applied to, but also from people who dispense job search advice.

I disagree that being successful in finding employment is all about who you know. That being said, ‘who you know’ often does figure into people’s experiences of finding work. My story about how I ended up working at CAPS is a case in point. I found out that CAPS was looking to hire a coordinator for their career resources centre when I ran into a former classmate who happened to be working at CAPS (and who is now a professor and associate dean at this fine institution). At the time, I was working for a provincial government department setting up a resource library for staff. It was a summer job and summer was coming to an end, so I applied for the job. I was interviewed and…didn’t get it! However, a couple of weeks or so later the director of CAPS called me about an administrative support position. Although it didn’t require a university degree, I took the job. But I was able to move up fairly quickly in part because of the skills I gained from my university degree (and in part because of the opportunities that were presented to me).

So yes, who I knew played a role in my getting the job. If not for my former classmate, I wouldn’t have known that CAPS was hiring (even though the job was advertised), I wouldn’t have applied, been interviewed, been rejected and then hired for a different position altogether. (Who knows where I would be today. Hmmmm…I wonder.) But it was what I knew – the skills, experiences and other qualities I had to offer – that not only got me a job but that also helped me to take on new roles with more responsibilities.

Lesson? When it comes to looking for work, make sure the people you know (i.e., your network) know that you are looking for work. The more eyes and ears you have open for you, the more likely you will learn about opportunities, not only those that are not advertised – part of what we called the hidden job market – but those that are advertised as well.

If I still haven’t convinced you, here’s another case in point. A few of years ago I was looking to hire an events coordinator. I can’t remember how many applications I received – a lot – but five were from people who had had previous experience with CAPS when they were students, either as a volunteer or Career Peer Educator. My director and I both short-listed those five applicants but I also included a sixth. She was someone whom I had never met but who had the skills and experiences we were looking for and who had recently contacted me by email about employment opportunities at the U of A. In my response to her, I mentioned we were hiring. She applied and, much to everyone’s surprise, she was the person we hired. We could have gone with someone we knew and felt would have done well in the job but we decided to go with the strongest applicant (both on paper and in the interview). And she continues to work with us today!

Second lesson? Even if you know an employer is considering someone known to them for a job you’re interested in – for example, the job ad says an internal applicant is applying – don’t let that discourage you from applying. And if you are offered an interview, give it your best shot. You just might be the one who ends up being hired.