The Best Career Advice You Were Never Told

The most effective people make career choices for fundamental reasons, not instrumental reasons.

That’s one of the key take-aways from Dan Pink’s excellent book The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You’ll Ever Need.

Dan Pink’s book is excellent on two counts. First, it presents the material in a creative and engaging way: the book is actually the first American business book in manga. I was slightly familiar with this approach because the resource team at DG worked with some people a few years ago to adapt some of John Piper’s content to a graphic novel format. Dan Pink has done the same thing here, except to teach career principles.

Second, the content is helpful — and counterintuitive. Here are the six lessons of the book:

  1. There is no plan.
  2. Think strengths, not weaknesses.
  3. It’s not about you.
  4. Persistence trumps talent.
  5. Make excellent mistakes.
  6. Leave an imprint.

If I can, maybe I’ll do a series that briefly covers each of these points.

For now, here’s some advice for those who aren’t sure what to do next: make your next choice for fundamental reasons, not instrumental reasons.

Here’s how Pink explains it (via one of the characters in the book):

You can do something for instrumental reasons — because you think it’s going to lead to something else, regardless of whether you enjoy it or it’s worthwhile.

Or you can do something for fundamental reasons — because you think it’s inherently valuable, regardless of what it may or may not lead to.

And the dirty little secret is that instrumental reasons usually don’t work. Things are too complicated, too unpredictable. You never know what’s going to happen [and note that this is biblical! Proverbs 20:24; 16:9; James 4; etc.]. So you end up stuck. The most successful people — not all of the time, but most of the time — make decisions for fundamental reasons.

They take a job or join a company because it will let them do interesting work in a cool place — even if they don’t know exactly where it will lead.

There’s the key idea. If you don’t know what you want to do next, do what you think is inherently valuable. You don’t need to know where it will lead. And, almost certainly, it will lead to someplace interesting, because, first, you already are doing something interesting (that was the point of your choice!) and, second, we are more effective when we are doing what we love to do.

And even if you do have a clear goal for where you want to end up (which is a good thing), don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you will best get there by making a bunch of instrumental choices to do things you don’t really want to do, but which will “keep your options open” and eventually let you get closer to your interests. This approach usually backfires. Instead, have your large goal, but stay open to seizing unplanned opportunities to help get you there, and along the way seek to follow the path of doing what you find inherently valuable.

April 21, 2011 | Filed Under Career | 11 Comments 

Comments

  • Brett

    This is a really insightful, clarifying post for me. However, one question I have is how to discern between “inherently valuable” options.

    Thoughts?

  • http://www.lifeofasteward.com Loren Pinilis

    Matt, I’d especially be interested in hearing about #5 – making excellent mistakes.

    Brett,
    My opinion on discerning between inherently valuable options would be to know who you are, know your big picture, seek wisdom, and then just jump.
    Know your strengths and weaknesses. Know the God-given desires you have as a result of renewing your mind.
    Know your big picture – meaning have your larger goal in your mind. Is it to bring glory to God in business and send a sizable chunk of your profits to worthy causes? Is it to have a flexible job so that you could travel around the world often as an evangelist? Our goal is always to bring glory to God, but think about a little more specifically how you think that will be implemented in your career choice.
    Seek wisdom by examining the scriptures, praying for wisdom, seeking counsel from mature believers, and do your best to evaluate each option well.
    Then finally – just jump. The desire for complete clarity is the subtle killer of big dreams and lives.

  • JC

    Matt — Where can we see the comic books of DG?

  • Matt

    Loren: Great counsel on discerning between inherently valuable options. I agree.

    JC: We used to sell them in the DG store (www.desiringgod.org/store), but it looks like we are all out (and I don’t think we’re printing more). But if you shoot me an email, I can see if we have any around here that we can send you.

  • Joanna

    This is really helpful wisdom, Matt.

    I’m the process of making my next career decision count for fundamental reasons.

    I’m currently reading Rescuing Ambition by Dave Harvey, consistently seeking God’s will, giving over my desires to Him, and trying to wait patiently ;-). My dilemma is that I don’t know when to make that jump.

    I have a well-paying job currently (my first out of college, going on 4 yrs), but it is in a toxic work environment that implicitly prohibits community, true teamwork, any encouragement, and leadership. All of these prohibitions are terrible to an enthusiastic extrovert like myself. It’s stifling–half of me says “leave now!” and half says “stay, be generous, save for the future!”

    My question is, how do I know if I should pursue a deep interest, a skill, or just pick a path? I’m curious about everything (History major), know my strengths/weaknesses, but there’s still no clarity.

    Long story long ;-). I’d love feedback from anyone. Thanks!

  • Matt

    Joanna,

    Rescuing Ambition is a great book. Glad you’re reading it! And, good work seeking to make your next career decision for fundamental reasons.

    It’s challenging when there are lots of possible directions and options. Here’s one thought. Jim Collins talks about “the hedgehog concept” in his book Good to Great. He’s talking about companies, but the concept is transferable to individuals making career choices.

    Basically, consider three circles: what you are passionate about, what you can be “best in the world” at (= really good at), and that you can make a living at. The intersection of those three circles is the direction you should consider going.

    Just one thought. Would love to hear other people’s thinking.

    Matt

  • http://www.lifeofasteward.com Loren Pinilis

    Joanna,
    I would say the first step is to abandon the requirement of clarity. Sometimes God may give you a clear understanding of your next step, but often you just have to jump. I think Dave Harvey has a chapter relating roughly to this in “Rescuing Ambition” (a chapter on risk). Also, I would recommend Kevin DeYoung’s “Just Do Something” – the best book I’ve ever read on the subject of finding God’s will.
    I give you this advice because I have been there – trying to make a decision and seeking God’s will. The reason I wanted to know God’s path for me was because I wanted to honor Him and I wanted to take the path that would be the absolute best. I was paralyzed in doing this because I was unsure about the right direction, my ability to hear from God, my ability to see the various options. But I think God calls us to discern the best path as best we can – and then just to make a leap and trust Him. It’s not about faith in our decision making abilities, it’s about faith in a sovereign God who we can absolutely trust in every way.

    My advice to you would be:

    1. Talk to other mature believers about your dilemma, particularly those that know you well. They may give you some insight.

    2. I can understand that the culture you are working in is stifling to you, but beware that the grass is always greener on the other side. It’s easy to focus on what you don’t like about a job. I’m not saying that you’re doing this, but I know I have at times.

    3. Dream big. Like real big. Reading “Rescuing Ambition” is a great first step for that.

    4. Understand that our lives are way more than our jobs. When we think about bringing God glory with our lives, the natural thought is about doing so professionally with our job. Should I be a pastor, a missionary, etc.
    But Paul was a tent-maker. He did what he did to pay the bills, so he could focus on his true ambition and his true passion.

    5. Look for ways to prepare for your true passion in the here and now. Maybe the best thing to do is to stay at your job for another year or so and work in your spare time to gather the skills or experience necessary to embark on your next journey.

    Just my two cents.

    Ultimately, I wish there were – but there’s not an easy 5-step formula to absolutely know God’s will for every situation. Get all the input you can, use all the wisdom you can muster up, pray, search the sciptures, and then make a decision knowing that God’s in control.

  • Joanna

    Matt & Loren–

    Thanks for your insights and care in taking the time to respond. What you’ve each said is valuable to me. God is using both of you as virtual spiritual directors, as far as I’m concerned.

    @Matt I really appreciate the Hedgehog concept. I think I will create a chart or list of some kind on which I see how these circles intersect. Maybe that will help me find a course of action.

    @Loren

    I’ve definitely thought of most of the points you’ve mentioned, but haven’t gone to the “next level,” as far as dreaming big goes.

    I consistently have to remind myself that the “grass is pretty green right here,” and I believe God is giving me time to acquire the right writing and researching skills to do something more (I’m a full time tech magazine writer . . . but would love to write about food, travel, community, spiritual disciplines, or other.) I can see that God is possibly showing me this is the learning phase before I “just do.”

    I think the biggest thing I struggle with is waffling between wanting the stability/really good pay check/comfort of this job and sacrificing it for a good change that would require unpredictability/not so great pay/discomfort. Part of me craves the adventure of the latter option.

    ***

    I’ll keep praying. I just want a heart that’s ready to surrender to the what God wants me to do in the next . . .hour, day, and year.

    -Joanna

  • Joanna

    P.S.

    I’m aware of the fact that comfort and the “selfish ambition” of adventure can both be idols. Maybe part of the struggle is not letting either one get the glory in my life.

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