I’m always happy when I see someone cruise through college, get a job they love, and live a happy life well into their forties. Of course, if that were the only measure of my happiness, I’d probably be bummed out a lot, because honestly, how often do we see that happen? Much more often, people choose a degree for the wrong reasons – prestige, employability, or high income – and end up changing jobs soon after graduating. I couldn’t find hard statistics, but this Indiana Wesleyan University page says that according to the U.S. Department of Education, 40% of college graduates end up working in careers unrelated to their college major four years after graduation, and it’s common knowledge that many people end up in a career unrelated or only loosely-related to their college degree. This becomes more of a pitfall with the rising education costs and sluggish economy of the last several years. So what can one do to avoid this kind of meandering path through misguided expectations and later dissatisfaction? Well, as is often the case, a little balance and self-knowledge go a long way. Unfortunately, our consumer-driven culture doesn’t encourage much balance, and the guidance we receive when entering college is often much more based on measurable achievement, and test-driven aptitude assessment. The entire system (in the opinion of this non-graduate) tends to be skewed – as I already suggested – toward financial reward and prestige. And most of the best-intentioned advice we receive as we enter college is from people who have bought into the same belief system. So we’ll serve up some fun ideas for taking a new look at who you are further on, but first a little background on why a person like me – a non-degreed person pursuing what he humorously calls his fifth career – has anything worth saying about the topic.
The Yuppie vs. Bohemian Decade
I was of college age in the eighties, the decade that gave birth to the term “Yuppie”, and the Wall Street mentality that has shaped much of our culture for the last two decades. As a result, I’m now able to see the long-term fruits of the choices people my age made back then, and how these choices affected their financial well-being, personal happiness, and even their physical health. The youth of that era were pretty clearly polarized into two distinct camps. On the one hand, there were those that bought into the beliefs based on net income as a basic measure of success, and on the other hand, those who didn’t. I fell into the latter camp. Although I excelled in academic testing (I only missed three questions on the SAT) I was much more interested in creative and artistic pursuits, and had a poorly developed understanding of the concept of long-term financial stability. Although there is a definite continuum across this Yuppy/Bohemian spectrum amongst these people I know, now that we’re all over forty, one pattern is pretty evident to me. Those who polarized toward career climbing and wealth accumulation as a measure of success have tended to reach a period of spirtual or emotional hollowness that either leads to a re-awakening, or in negative manifestations, substance abuse problems or genuine personal crises like divorce and financial problems. On the other pole are the bohemian types like myself, who I would describe as more genuinely happy and spiritually content, but often terribly ill-equipped for their later years, with no financial plan for “retirement”, a word that will rapidly become useless as the boomers and generation jones reach their sixties and seventies and find none of that “Social Security” they put so much of their income into to over the last few decades.
My Intrapersonal Stupidity
Something that probably affected me personally to a greater extent than my socio-economic values was an issue relating to the measurement of intelligence. As I said, I kind of kicked the SAT’s ass, but at the time – although it was a handy bragging point with my academically-inclined friends – it was an otherwise utterly useless accomplishment. I simply had no interest in college, and had a number of things I wanted to DO, not STUDY. And this is where my life could have been much more rewarding, if only I’d understood one simple fact sooner. I was blessed and cursed with a genuine gift for learning, which – combined with a fairly disciplined and persistent nature – made it possible for me to excel at most things I tried. This would seem like an asset, but the fact is that for years it kept me from discovering what my real passions or gifts were, and helped keep me hopping from pursuit to pursuit, never REALLY feeling rewarded. I had a nominally successful pop music career (I turned down label deals), I ran a successful small telecom firm (and sold the accounts after two years), I had a screenplay optioned out (meaning I got paid but the film was never made) and most recently I maintained a state of barely adequate self-employment for a decade doing web development and other new media work for small business clients. I say “barely adequate” because I only maintained a subsistence income, and although I LOVE the freedom of not having a “job”, I never bumped things to the next level and created self-maintaining revenue streams, even though I was fully aware that this should have been a basic objective, and I probably had the knowledge and skills to achieve it. So why this continued near success and mediocrity? I’m convinced it boils down to one simple thing, something I only discovered a couple of years ago by exploring Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences. And what was it? Well, at the core of Gardner’s work is the notion that we have seven core kinds of intelligence: Linguistic, Logical-mathematical, Musical, Bodily-kinesthetic, Spatial, Interpersonal, and Intrapersonal. I tend to test very high on all except the last one, Intrapersonal intelligence. And there’s the clincher. Imagine you were really good at everything except knowing what you were really good at! So this little insight started me on a more recent journey, which was getting clear on what my gifts are, and how my skills can help me realize them. Below are three things that helped me get a start. Maybe they’ll open some doors for you too.
So You Think You’re Pretty Smart
But what KIND of smart are you? You might want to check out the book I mentioned above – Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences – but you can also take a quick and informative quiz online at the The Birmingham Grid for Learning. It’s free, and at the end presents you with a graphical representation of how you tested. Mine is below, highlighting my “Intrapersonal Stupidity”. On the other hand, it highlights my exceptional interpersonal and linguistic skills, which, combined with some superficial Myers-Briggs tests (see below), helped me narrow in on something I probably knew all along, which is that my real gift lies somewhere in the realm of understanding people and how they communicate.
The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator
If you’ve been through extensive hiring processes, there’s a very good chance that at some point in your life, you’ve been subjected to a test that’s based either directly or indirectly on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. I’d like to make clear that I have no genuine expertise or extensive knowledge of this inventory tool, and although there seem to be quite a few people who invest a lot of energy in applying and pondering the concepts, I only personally recommend it as a start point. I treated it more like a compass than a full set of navigational tools, but often recommend it to people who are struggling with sorting out their personal identity. Free versions of the basic questionnaires are widely available, it has its origins in the work of one of the greatest minds in the field of psychology – Carl Jung – and it is widely acknowledged as a credible tool, with only minor scientific criticism. For the record, I consistently test as an ENFJ. There are a number of organizations that offer professional MBTI assessments, but as I said there are plenty of free short-form versions available, like this one. This test is open to a fair amount of self-report bias, so be honest. No-one’s judging the results but you!
Your Heart & Your Head
So these little quizzes are both fun and informative, but unless you work in human resources or psychology, they’re of limited use after a point. The whole idea here is to find YOUR path and YOUR purpose, not simply put together a tidy, externally-generated assessment of yourself so you can put it on the shelf or talk about it with your friends. To help make this self-examination a useful part of a better life, you need to take little pointers like this and put them to work! The first thing to explore as you assess what your new course might be is an approach that is consistently overlooked, but perhaps the most powerful tool in your toolbox. It’s your heart. Einstein said “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them“, making him an ironic source of some great advice. The fact is, if you find yourself at a place in your life where you’re unhappy with your work – which for most of us is more than a third of our waking hours – there’s a really good chance that you “thought yourself” into this place. We tend to make career decisions based on what we think are rational questions like “will I make enough money?” and “will I be able to get a job doing this thing?“, and COMPLETELY overlook questions like “will I have any FUN doing this?” or “can I find some real SATISFACTION from doing this?“, which in my opinion is the root of the entire problem. Many of us are heavily conditioned to ignore the best-informed source of information available to us, the things our HEART tells us. The fact that I’m going to clarify this metaphor is a perfect example of how out of touch many of us are, but when I say “what your heart tells you” I’m suggesting that you give more credence to your visceral reaction to the idea of certain kinds of work. If I say “how would you like a 100 million dollar a year job as fast-paced executive of a major corporation?“, you may like some part of the idea, but if I say “How would you like to own and operate an oceanfront restaurant in the tropics?” you might actually get a mental picture in your head and relax for a moment. What do you love? What sounds like it would be fun? Yeah, it’s almost a hackneyed cliche to say Do What You Love & The Money Will Follow, but the fact is that if you do what you love, the kind of contentment you experience makes the exact volume of income a little secondary, and you generally find you still make enough, because you’re already happy before you get a “paycheck”.
Mentors & Coaches
For me, having a trusted sounding board has been a crucial part of what has been a very rapid personal evolution. I highly recommend finding a decent life coach, even if you don’t engage in a long-term working relationship. Many have short-term and per-session packages, and for just a few hundred dollars, you will probably get a kick in the butt that equals twenty years of career counseling. A good life coach is like a therapist that kicks your ass instead of helping you dwell. If you’re bringing the right attitude to the relationship, you should be able to get all sorts of fresh strategies and the motivation to enact them in a very short time. And mentors? There are a multitude of ways to approach this. The simplest is the direct method, which is simply identifying someone in your professional life that you respect or admire, and ASKING them to be a mentor. If they’re an entrepeneur or professional worth their salt, they’ll know what this basically means, perhaps be flattered, and be capable of giving you a simple yes or no answer. If they say no, you’ve at least probably strenghtened a professional relationship through your expression of trust or respect. My personal strategy has been a little quirky. Because I give the impression that I’m more intelligent than I am, a lot of people in my professional life have a hard time accepting that I really need this kind of relationship. So you know what I do? I DON’T TELL THEM that they’re my mentor. I just allow a more humble relationship with them than I would with other people, and whenever you ask people questions and show interest in their answers, they become veritable fonts of valuable information. EVERYONE loves to show what they know. There’s no need to make the process official.
So do you know of any good self-assessment tools? Feel free to share.