A new year, a new start and many of us turn again to the goals and aspirations of our professional lives for this year, whilst simultaneously reflecting on the successes and failures of the past 12 months. In my book, Executive Presence: Demonstrating Leadership in Times of Change and Uncertainty, I talk about the LEADER model of Executive Presence and the second ‘E’ stands for 'Evolve'. This area of leadership is focused on how we manage our career, find and pursue our passion at work.
One of the best, best, best TED talks I have watched in the last twelve months is by Larry Smith, a Professor of Economics, University of Waterloo in Canada. It’s a funny, but very blunt, talk that will make you stop and think – if you’ve not already done so given the title above. His unique delivery style is thought-provoking, funny, and devastatingly honest and it’s a video that we all should watch and re-watch. Smith states that most of us will fail to have a great career and espouses the reasons why:
- Some of us start out with the aspiration for a good career and some of us start out with the aspiration for a great career. However, most of us will fail at both.
- We have been told many, many times that we should pursue our passion, but choose to ignore this advice and decide not to pursue it.
- Some of us are simply too lazy and won’t try hard enough. If we try to look for our passion, but not find it, then we make excuses not to do what you need to do for a really great career.
- We create excuses that we believe, such as the excuse that really great careers are truly a matter of luck for most people.
- We choose to believe that there are special people who pursue their passions but they are geniuses. Smith suggests that we all used to think we were geniuses – but probably only when we were young. As we grow up we lose this belief and think instead that we are ‘completely competent’. Smith believes that such thoughts damn us all with the faintest of praise. And he’s right.
- We believe that if we pursue a great career then we have to be weird. People who pursue their passions are strange or odd. We don’t like to think of ourselves as strange or odd. We like to think of ourselves as nice, normal people. However, nice normal people don’t have passion.
- We do what our parents tell us – and that is to work really, really hard. Smith believes that we can work really, really hard – and that’s not the same as having a really great career. He also believes that just telling kids to work really hard is nonsense. Why? Because all of the evidence points to the contrary.
- We find things that we’re interested in but we don’t find our passion. Smith says that having an interest is great – but what about finding our passion in the big wide world and trying a bit harder? We’re not interested. Passion isn’t the same as interest and we might have lots of interests but all of us need to find our passion.
- Even if we find our passion many of us will still fail according to Smith. Why? Because we continue to invent excuses for not having a great career as our passion. The phrase “if only I had…” is, according to Smith, one of the most damning things we can say.
- Smith says that what we say to ourselves is that human relationships are more important than accomplishments. We want to be a great friend, a great parent, a great spouse etc. and we won’t sacrifice that at the altar of human accomplishment. Smith is uncomfortably honest here. If we listen to what we’re saying to ourselves; we’re making ourselves out to be a hero. But we’re no heroes.
- Then when our children say that they want to be something other than that which they are good at, we repeat the mantra. We repeat what our parents told us and what we have told ourselves in terms of excuses.
- The bottom line is that many of us are simply afraid. We’re afraid to try, afraid to fail, afraid to succeed.