Ten Cultural Career Lies

Things “they” told us that just might not be true.

Related article: How to write a good cover letter.

In April 2008, I gave a talk at Harvard Business School on the Ten Cultural Career Lies. These are things I believed for most of my life. Recently, the conventional wisdom started seeming suspect. I called several of my classmates who are all mid-career and asked what had led to their successes and failures. Upon close examination, much of what I had believed to be true about careers did not seem to hold.

This is one man’s experience. I invite you to decide if it matches your experience.

1. You can plan your career (or would even want to).

  • That’s not my experience, nor is it the experience of anyone over 35 I’ve talked to.
  • Maybe it worked in the 1950s…
  • Maybe it works in careers driven by successive degree requirements (e.g. medicine)
  • We get trained to think in terms of one-step-leads-to-another by 18 years of linear schooling.
  • So: plan less and be more. Hang out with good people doing good stuff and grab opportunity as it passes by.

2. Being the boss makes for a good life.

  • Have you ever worked closely with a CEO? It can be a great job, but it can also suck. Like any job, it requires a certain temperament and set of skills.
  • So: find jobs that suit your skills and temperament, don’t assume that the “oooh! isn’t that amazing” jobs will be good for you.

3. “Self-made” people exist.

  • The most self-made person alive still relied on millions of others to provide financial markets, schools, sewers, and the infrastructure that allowed them to go off and become “self-made.”
  • So: Recognize interdependency and build your life around positive interdependency. And when you want to learn to emulate a “self-made” person, pay attention to all the ways they weren’t self-made; that’s where the learning is. (And by the way, they may not be helpful in pointing out ways that contradict their myth.)

4. Hard work and skill will be appropriately rewarded.

  • Bear Sterns CEO cashed out for “only” $60 million. Cleaning lady @ $8/hour must work two jobs just to pay rent and still doesn’t make enough to save anything. ‘Nuff said.
  • So: understand what is rewarded (by money, power, respect, affection, time off, flexibility, freedom) and do that. If you want money, finance is the surest way to get it.

5. Do a good job and you’ll get ahead.

  • So: See #4. Pay special attention to what the people who will promote you want to see. Don’t assume it’s results.

6. I’ll work now and do what I love when I’ve made my first million, cured cancer, etc.

  • Management consulting firms and investment banks use this lie as a recruiting tool.
  • Dangerous strategy, and I know very few who’ve pulled it off. If you don’t do it, you’re left at mid-life trapped in a career you don’t like, with a non-transferable resume, and a network composed of people who are the last ones in the world who could help you do what you love. But boy, could they help you get even further in the career you despise.
  • So: Factor in your passions and ideals from day one.

7. Intelligence matters.

  • Up to a point. After that point, it can threaten people. It’s only useful insofar as you have the people/political/marketing skills to get your ideas in play. Even then, unless you’re perfect, you run the risk of overconfidence.
  • So: take classes when you need them, but stop assuming more knowledge is the answer to every problem. As a Fortune 500 ceo once confided: “business really just isn’t rocket science. In fact, to a smart person, it’s kinda boring…”

8. Achievement matters.

  • Actually not. Who you know and who thinks well of you probably matters at least as much as what you’ve achieved, if not more.
  • So: don’t get too caught up in building that great company, finishing that piece of art, or whatever. Yes, getting things done can be good. But if you enjoy and learn from the things that don’t get done, that may be enough.

9. We can control our lives.

  • Sickness, death, lotteries, luck, and love all happen. My friend just moved from Washington D.C. to Las Cruces, NM, where his snuggle-bunny has a job. That sure wasn’t planned for.
  • So: go with the flow. Learn to accept the things you can’t control. Be o.k. with that. Enjoy the process and don’t sweat it if you don’t reach the outcome. (That said, give it your best shot if you really want it.)

10. Success (money, power, achievement) brings happiness.

  • This has been disproven by tons of research. See the books Happy for No Reason by Marci Shimoff, Are You Ready to Succeed by Srikumar Rao, or Authentic Happiness by Marty Seligman.
  • This lie causes great unhappiness. See The Happy or Successful diagram below.
  • So: orient your life around happiness and look for success, not the other way around.

Happy or Successful Decision Tree

Click to view the image in full-page size.

Decision tree showing the difference between a life based on happiness and one based on success.

Decision tree: living for happy vs. living for success.

The ongoing joke that is Silicon Valley Privacy

SnapChat just revised their privacy policy. I decided to read it. It looked pretty good. Then I got to the section How We Use Your Information. How does SnapChat use the information? To provide services. To communicate with me. To monitor trends. And so on.

The final bullet point? Carry out any other purpose for which the information was collected.

In other words: SnapChat has no privacy policy, and places no limits on what they can (and presumably will) do with your information.

Google’s privacy policy is similar. It sounds really grand, but if you read it carefully, in critical areas it exempts Google from any actual restrain on behavior by including similar clauses to the SnapChat clause.

Please face it: Silicon Valley, that supposed bastion of libertarian respect for individual rights, is no such thing. It’s a collection of disingenuous, deceptive, liars who are happy to write multipage privacy policies for PR purposes, which have no teeth whatsoever.

Be very, very careful of anything you put on a computer you don’t own. And I’m sure that the license agreements we agree to when we buy our computers and install Windows or Mac OS X will contain similar escape clauses if they don’t already.

If a policy does not have genuine, real teeth (“Corporation agrees to pay $1,000 for every violation of our privacy policy”), then over time, all such policies that supposedly protect consumers will be eroded. It seems to be a natural law, and it makes me believe more and more in regulation. I would rather slow progress than have process come at the expense of the well-being of consumers. Business was invented to serve us, not the other way around.

Corporations seem to be nothing if not explicitly immoral. It is very sad to watch.

Brainpower boosters? Not so fast…

Happy BrainBeing in the self-help space to some degree, I see an awful lot of products designed to “boost your brainpower.” This is an interesting value proposition, but it’s incomplete. You need to ask: how will you use the boosted brainpower? What will you expect it to do that your current brainpower isn’t doing?

This is an extremely important question. In my experience, brainpower is NOT what holds people back. What holds people back is not brainpower, it’s how the brainpower they have is organized. Brainpower is secondary to the ability to take action, align actions in mutually reinforcing ways towards a goal, and use feedback from the world to make mid-course corrections.

For example, if your primary attitude towards life and the world is a “victim mindset,” do you really want to boots your brainpower? You’ll be that much more effective at finding ways to explain why you’re a victim and not in control of your own life.

Boosting brainpower without making sure you’re using it for something worthwhile is like putting in a high-horsepower engine without making sure your car is pointed in the direction you want to go. What determines where you end up is the direction of the car. The horsepower only affects how fast you’ll get there.

FIRST choose a worthwhile direction.
THEN boost your brainpower.

Social Media and “The Good Life”

I just spent a week camping at a festival. We were in a far away place, with no power outlets and only spotty cell phone coverage. It seemed best to put my iPhone away and spend the entire time disconnected.

Logging into Facebook, checking my email, and returning to the online world, it’s once again glaringly obvious how little it seems to add to my life. The quiet and serenity was lacking in reaction-driven seratonin hits, but it was wonderful for just enjoying being in the here-and-now.

Try disconnecting for a while. It’s really fun!

What makes a good driving question for life?

If you were only allowed to ask one question of yourself to move you into action each morning, what one question would have the greatest chance of creating the best life for you?

In a recent Get-it-Done Guy episode, I explored the nature of using driving questions to shape your life. My episodes are often created from events in my own life. As many of you know, several years ago I did a three year experiment in Living an Extraordinary Life which later turned into a TEDx talk, a webinar, and a series of talks. You can even download an MP3 of the Living an Extraordinary Life webinar.

The driving questions episode came from my decision (largely made unconsciously and revealed to me by my unconscious mind in the late afternoon of June 17, 2014) to re-start the Experiment discussed in the presentation. In short, what driving questions drive an extraordinary life?

Here are some candidate questions so far:

  • What am I grateful for?
  • Who do I want to hang out with?
  • Who do I want to serve?
  • What do I want to do?
  • Who do I want to be?
  • What do I want to build?
  • What would I do if I were on vacation?
  • Who are the people I want to become?

These are all good questions to ask as part of a periodic life review. That’s very different from the way I’m proposing to use them, however. The proposal on the table is that one of these questions–or some other question entirely–can act as a daily launching pad for life. Which question is the one that will serve best as a daily launching pad? They propel you in a very different direction, depending on which is answered.

Is the very concept of work doomed?

I just read an excellent article on XConomy by Wade Roush in which he asks the question: is technology destroying the very basis of our economy to offer employment? And assuming it is (as a thought experiment), what might we do to stop it?

First, read the article. Otherwise, my commentary won’t make much sense.

First of all, I found it fascinating that Finland and Sweden have lower taxes than the US, despite having much better social benefits. “What!?!?!?” you cry, “lower taxes? But they’re inefficient, evil socialists! It destroys the prevailing Capitalism is Best Ever narrative to say such a thing!!!”

Well, let’s take a look. My state tax is 6.25%, my Federal taxes are 33%, and my FICA taxes are 14%. Add those together and we discover that I’m paying 53% in taxes, which is about 18% MORE1 than the 45% tax rate Wade quotes for Finland and Sweden.” The big difference is that my tax dollars go mainly to private defense contractors, private insurance companies, and other private providers of services hired by the government.

What about motivation?

Wade correctly points out that such welfare states have a problem motivating people to work. But is this a problem? If the promise of industrialization is coming true—to wit, that technology will free us to pursue things that are personally meaningful rather than productive—then decreased motivation to work doesn’t seem like a huge problem.

Perhaps what we need to do is make work either voluntary, or a phase of life (say, ages 25-40), after which you can continue to work if you enjoy it and are challenged by it, otherwise you must go out and create artwork.

Warren Buffett hasn’t needed to work in any economic sense during my entire lifetime (and then some!). But he has done so, and even took on the stressful job of running Solomon Brothers. Why? Not because the money was the big incentive, but because challenge and meaning, and rescuing an institution was important to him.

This implied theory that people’s only motivation is money continues to mystify me in an age where the #1 complaint people have about their jobs is that their jobs are meaningless, paper-pushing wastes of time that are nothing more than an excuse for a paycheck.

Do any of Wade’s solutions work?

I think Wade’s option #8 is really the only viable one. Solutions like “grow our way out of it” don’t solve the underlying systemic problem. First of all, you can’t grow everything fast enough forever, so you end up in the same situation somewhere down the line. Secondly, those solutions still cling to the notion that the only legitimate way to get paid is by doing valuable work. But if the fundamental premise we’re up against is that machines are devaluing the work rapidly, then any solution that starts with the assumption that there’s enough valuable work for everyone is doomed to fail.

As for retraining, I just have to laugh. People already accumulate a lifetime’s worth of debt for their first education that will let them spend a decade to advance to a solid, mid-level, middle-class job. While I hear this meme tossed around a lot, I challenge anyone who claims it’s possible to quit their job and retrain in another unrelated job that gives them the equivalent income. (Must be unrelated because again, the premise is that the first job has been rendered economically less vaulable by technology. Thus, the replacement job must be substantially different.)

What do you think? If technology really has made a great many humans redundant for the first time in history, we’re in uncharted waters. Where do we go from here? Anywhere we want to. Where do we want to go from here?


  1. The math is a bit weird here. What I mean is that if I make $100 in the US, I pay 53% tax, leaving $47. Someone from Finland pays 45% tax, leaving $55. That’s 17.78% more than the Fins. Actually, to do this correctly would require looking at the different tax brackets and drawing a big graph of income ranges, etc. At the end of the day, however, it’s hard to argue that most middle class people pay much lower taxes in the U.S. If you factor in their need to pay for the services that Finland and Sweden provide nationally (e.g. health insurance, mortgage insurance, maternity leave, etc.), Americans definitely have lower take home pay to spend on non-essentials.