Seven Myths about Careers


Taken from an address delivered to the student body of Brigham Young University of October 18, 1983.
It’s a real jungle when you’re searching for your life’s work. Misconceptions can sneak up on you.

In the past 15 years I have spent a great deal of time studying the careers of professionals; you might say I’ve made a career out of studying careers. In interviewing hundreds of professionals, including engineers, scientists, accountants, bankers, and professors, I’ve learned some things that may be of interest to students who are in the process of choosing a career.

Since 1970 it has become more and more difficult for students to choose a career, primarily because, as the number of college graduates has increased, the number of jobs for those with college degrees has not kept pace. In addition, there are a number of myths that confuse the issue and make this decision even more risky:

  1. 1.

    To be happy I must get into the right profession. For many students that means medicine, law, or perhaps dentistry. This myth puts a lot of pressure on many students.

  2. 2.

    To be happy I have to get a job in the right organization. Some of the organizations mentioned include IBM, Proctor & Gamble, Hewlett-Packard, and the LDS church.

  3. 3.

    To be happy I must make a lot of money. Students want to know which are the highest-paid professions.

  4. 4.

    To be happy I must rise to the top of the organization, become the president or a chief executive officer.

  5. 5.

    To be happy I must please my family and pursue the career they have chosen for me.

Even though these myths are not valid guides in choosing a career, each contains elements of truth which tend to lead many people astray.

The main problem with these five myths is that they suggest that people should use external criteria to choose a career. They assume that the most important information is what other people think. They imply such questions as, Will people respect me? Will people think I’m important? Will I have prestige in the community?

If you want a rewarding and productive career, those are the wrong questions. Most of you will spend about 40 years in the work force. If you work 40 hours a week, that’s 2,000 hours per year and 80,000 hours in a lifetime. That’s a long time to work at something you don’t enjoy.

In my view, the objective in choosing a career is to discover one’s genius. By genius I mean those things that you do with excellence and that you enjoy doing. I can best convey this idea by presenting some examples.

I have a friend who took a long time to get into her professional career. She went to college to get an education but married at the end of her first quarter and was expecting a baby by the end of the second quarter, so she dropped out of school to raise a family. At the time her fifth and last child was one year old, she started taking one class a semester. When her youngest child entered kindergarten, she found she could take a heavier load, and in a period of eight years she finished her bachelor’s degree. She then went on to complete a master’s degree, but even with a master’s degree it took her several years to get into her career. First she worked as a graduate assistant, and then she started teaching part-time. Eventually she was hired to teach full-time. She has had many letters from students who say, “This is the best course I’ve ever had.” My friend has discovered that her genius includes being a loving wife and mother and an excellent teacher.

LaVell Edwards worked for ten years as an assistant football coach at Brigham Young University before taking over as head coach in 1972. As an assistant coach, he was a defensive specialist. I suspect that very few football fans predicted that he would become the coach of the most successful passing team in the nation. It took Coach Edwards a number of years to fully discover his genius, but fortunately for BYU he certainly has done just that.

Sybil Ferguson is at present a business executive. As a young woman she had no plans for a professional career and was married right after high school. She spent a number of years raising a family, and after about 20 years of marriage she experienced the blahs of middle age. She was overweight, she didn’t like her appearance, and she didn’t feel very good about herself. She read a lot of books and developed a weight-loss program that worked for her. People were curious as to how she’d accomplished this feat, and so she shared her program with others. Finally, she opened a diet center in her home. That center was so successful she decided to franchise the program in other cities. After 12 years, her organization has 1,500 diet centers throughout the United States. This experience changed Sybil’s life. She has become a confident executive who does a lot of public speaking and has written a bestseller on losing weight.

Clayne Robison, a professor of music at BYU, took a roundabout way to discover his genius. In college he had a difficult time deciding what career to pursue. He went to law school at Harvard and worked for a year in a major law firm. But he found out he did not enjoy the work. He left the firm to work at BYU for a year. He next worked for a large consulting firm for a year. He said, “I could feel what I wanted to be like at age 60, and those jobs weren’t moving me toward that goal.” He then returned to BYU to study social psychology, also accepting an assistantship in music because he was singing in some productions at the university. By midsemester he had decided to pursue a career in music. The minute he started studying music, he found it was great fun. He enjoyed everything about his doctoral work. When you hear Clayne sing or watch him teach music, you know that he has discovered his genius.

Clayne’s experience illustrates the sixth myth about careers: The career decision is so important that it would be disastrous to make a mistake.

Many students find it very difficult to choose a major because they believe they are choosing a career and the cost of making a mistake is very high. There are at least two fallacies in myth number six. The first fallacy is the idea that selecting a career is a single big decision. That is simply not the case. A career consists of making hundreds of small decisions. You choose a discipline, then a specialty, then an organization to work for, a department, and so on. Then you may change organizations, specialties, departments, etc.

Secondly, you need to understand that most career decisions are correctable. If you’re dissatisfied with your work, you can change to something else. Some of you may be thinking, What a waste! Professor Robison is not using the training he received in law school. I can’t accept that view because in law school they teach a person to think, and he’s still doing that. Besides, our nation has too many lawyers. Law schools are turning out 35,000 graduates a year. But how many people can sing like Clayne Robison?

Unfortunately, it takes years for most people to find an activity that they do well and that enables them to earn a living. In the meantime, they have to select a major and take a job without the benefit of knowing their genius.

James Michener, the author of several bestsellers, wrote his first book after the age of 40. In an essay entitled “On Wasting Time,” he said: “Many men and women win through to a sense of greatness in their lives only by first stumbling and fumbling their way into patterns that gratify them and allow them to utilize their endowments to the maximum. … I believe you have until 35 to decide finally on what you are going to do, and that any exploration you pursue in the process will in the end turn out to have been creative” (in Reader’s Digest, Oct. 1974, pp. 193–94).

I can imagine that some of you may be thinking, Terrific! So what do I do until I’m 35?

First of all, a self-assessment can help you to discover your genius. Self-assessment involves asking questions like Who am I? What do I enjoy doing? What don’t I enjoy doing?

Most schools have a career guidance counselor and information that can help you in that process. They have aptitude tests, books, courses, etc. that can assist you in self-assessment.

I had an experience a few years ago that emphasized the importance of this process. A friend came to my office with a problem. He told me that he had studied art in college and then pursued a career in that field, which included a couple of teaching positions. It was while he was the director of an art museum that he finally realized that his profession was not going to provide him with enough money to support his family. He thought he had solved his problem by taking a job in the advertising department of a large company. But two years later the company fell on hard times, and he was laid off. He came to ask for my advice. I suggested a book for him to read. I didn’t see him until three years later when we met at a high school reunion. He thanked me for all my help. When I questioned him, he explained that he had read the book and completed the self-assessment. Based on that information, he decided he would really enjoy working in business, and he took a job selling life insurance. That job gave him a better income, and he thoroughly enjoyed the work. He felt good about the service he was providing. Now I’m not saying that selling insurance is better than being an art director. I’m saying that understanding yourself is important in making career decisions.

Part of self-assessment involves learning from experience. You might ask yourself, What have been the five best periods of my life? the five worst periods of my life? Then analyze that information. What are the common themes in the best periods and the worst periods? In this analysis you need to be careful that you don’t draw the wrong conclusions from your experience. For example, when I returned from my mission, an insurance agent came to see me and offered me a job selling insurance. He convinced me that having filled a mission I was prepared to be a good insurance salesman. I accepted the job and worked part-time for a year. To my surprise I did not like the work at all. When I thought back on my mission experience, I realized that I didn’t enjoy contacting people for the first time. I loved teaching them the gospel, but not the first contact. Unfortunately, the insurance job was all first contacts, and it was painful for me.

In another context, a lot of students come to apply to the master’s program in organizational behavior because they say, “I really like to work with people.” After I have asked them a few questions I often recommend that they become a mortician, because many of them neither understand themselves nor the field of organizational behavior. I can’t overstate the importance of a careful self-assessment in making career decisions.

My next recommendation brings me to the seventh, and last, myth: I can’t take the risk of pursuing an education. I must prepare for a job.

Many students choose business or computer science over a liberal arts education because that’s where the jobs are. If one really wants to be assured of a job, he or she should go to a business college and take typing classes: there’s a strong demand for secretaries. However, for people intent on building a career as a professional that’s a poor strategy. My recommendation is to focus on a complete education while you’re at the university. Don’t misunderstand me. You can pursue an education while majoring in business, and while this is an age of specialization and you have to specialize to a certain degree, I’m strongly suggesting that you should not overspecialize. There are at least four problems with that approach.

First, you may fail to acquire critical skills that are needed to be effective in organizations. A large number of corporate executives were asked to assess the importance of various courses in the education of future executives: 98 percent said written and oral communication were important; 91 percent said science and mathematics were important; 83 percent said history and social studies were important. Several other courses, including art, philosophy, and foreign languages also received support from the majority. A more specific example may illustrate this point.

Two or three years ago, Reginald Jones, the chief executive officer of General Electric, visited the BYU campus. In a meeting with a group of students, someone asked him what skills they needed to succeed in business. His immediate response was, “Learn to write.” He said that often he has to edit the memos written by his subordinates. My strong advice is to acquire the basic skills that are offered in a general education: learn to think logically, communicate clearly, and respond aesthetically.

Second, those who overspecialize often fail to develop interpersonal skills. A lot of work in organizations is done in work teams or task forces. One of the most common blocks to career progression is a lack of interpersonal skills. Narrow specialists are unlikely to serve as mentors for younger professionals, and they are less effective in dealing with customers and suppliers. Because of these problems, they are less likely to be promoted.

Third, those who overspecialize run a great risk of becoming obsolete. Several years ago I made a presentation to a group of 20 managers in a large computer company. After the presentation, I asked them to describe a person in their organization who they felt was blocked and frustrated in his or her career. We heard about 20 different people who had specialized in a narrow area, and in many cases the company no longer needed the specialty. The managers were surprised that they had such a pervasive problem. But I was not surprised, because we had found that problem in dozens of organizations.

Fourth, those who overspecialize have less job mobility. This is true both inside and outside of the organization. Several years ago I looked at the statistics concerning people who had changed careers in the United States. Between 1965 and 1970, 30 percent of all employed people changed their career field, and that was not just blue-collar workers. Twenty percent of the people in managerial, professional, and technical jobs changed career fields in that five-year period. There’s a possibility that you may find yourself in a situation where you don’t like the work for which you are prepared. If you have overspecialized, it’s much more difficult to change.

I hear many students who say, “I’ll be so glad when I get all of these requirements out of the way so I can just take courses in my major.” I strongly advise you to resist that temptation. Take advantage of the excellent courses in a variety of disciplines. They may not help you get that first job, but they will certainly help you to grow and survive throughout your career.

Let me make one more point about your education. I have a friend who had a hard time choosing a career. In college he majored in accounting and worked part-time in an accounting firm. By the time he graduated he had decided he didn’t really want to be an accountant, so he applied to law school. He attended law school for just one week, found he didn’t like law, and withdrew. Then he enrolled in a master’s program in educational psychology. He lasted a full quarter in that program before dropping out. Next he entered a master’s program in marketing and completed that degree but could see no place for himself in the job arena of marketing.

By that time he had a military obligation and spent four years in the air force. As he completed that assignment he applied to the doctoral program at the Harvard Business School and was accepted. In his first year there he discovered organizational behavior and finally found a field that he enjoyed. Since then he has become an outstanding researcher and teacher in the field. When people hear that story they comment on all of the false starts. But the important thing is that no matter what programs he was involved in, he worked hard and received excellent grades. As a result, his academic record qualified him for admittance to Harvard. The moral: Even if you don’t know where you’re going, do your best work in order to keep your options open.

My next recommendation is, don’t stay at the university too long.

This may sound a little strange coming from a person who has spent almost all of his adult life in a university. But a student can stay at a university too long. There is more knowledge there than one can learn in a lifetime, but much of what you need to learn is about yourself.

Many times students go to graduate school as a delaying action. They can’t decide what to do with their lives, so they continue in school. It might be better to take a job and use it as an opportunity to find out more about yourself, what kind of work you enjoy, what kind of activities you don’t like.

If you’re not clear about your future when you’ve completed your bachelor’s degree, take the best job you can get and give it all you’ve got. After two years, if you decide you don’t want to spend your life in that field, there is time enough for you to return to school to get a graduate degree in a field more closely related to your interests.

After I received my bachelor’s degree I worked for eight months as a statistician for a government agency. They knew I was going to graduate school, so it was a temporary job. While there, I learned a lot about myself. I found working with numbers and doing detail work very tedious and uninteresting for me. I determined to avoid that kind of job in the future.

One word of caution: It’s also a mistake to leave the university prematurely. Don’t drop out today and go get a job. It’s almost always wise to complete the degree on which you are working. Several years ago we had two MBA students who received job offers that would require them to leave the program one semester before completion. Several faculty members pleaded with the students to stay through to the end, but they had been told that this was the chance of a lifetime, and so they left. Three years later, the company sold off the division in which they worked and they had to find employment elsewhere.

It’s difficult to know how much schooling is enough, but one of the relevant questions is, Where will I learn the most about myself?

Another recommendation is that you continue to learn on the job. Many students believe that the tough part in life is completing the degree. They assume that once they get a job there will be no more worries about education, no more homework, no more term papers. They can just join a bowling league and enjoy themselves. We are living in a time of rapid change, and everyone has to continue learning. Professionals are subject to rising expectations. At age 25 an engineer may do three projects a year, write two reports, and be considered a high performer. If he or she is doing the same level of work at age 45, managers want to know what’s wrong.

There are at least four stages in professional careers. In stage one, an individual works under the direction of others as an apprentice, helping and learning from a mentor or supervisor. In this stage people work under relatively close supervision.

After two or three years, most people move on to stage two, where they demonstrate their competence as individual contributors. They assume responsibility for their own projects or clients. In this stage they work more independently and rely less on their supervisor for guidance. Those who do well in this stage move on to stage three, the mentor stage.

To make that transition, professionals need to make changes in two areas. First, they develop greater breadth of technical skills and they apply those skills in several areas. Secondly, they become involved in the development of other people. That might happen as an informal mentor, or they might assume formal supervisory positions.

Some of those who master stage three move on to stage four and are called sponsors. They exercise significant influence over the future of a major part of the organization. Professionals in this stage work with a wide variety of people, both inside and outside the organization. They are also involved in the sponsoring and development of promising people who might fill key roles in the organization.

In my view there are three things young professionals should learn from the concept of career stages:

  1. 1.

    Don’t try to skip stages. Many of you are tired of being students, and you can’t wait to be the boss. But don’t get impatient. Some students think they can get a job as assistant to the president for a couple of years, then become manager of a division, moving on to being president by age 30. It rarely works out that way. One should accept the reality that for the first two or three years, you’ll be a freshman once again and have to do a lot of routine and boring work. Do it well and you’ll move on to more challenging assignments.

  2. 2.

    Choose a specialty. I’ve concluded that there are two mistakes one can make in a career: one is to specialize and the other is not to specialize. In most professions it makes sense to develop a specialty once you are on the job. Get to know something in depth. But if you are going to avoid being pigeonholed after a few years, you need to broaden out and develop more skills. It is for this reason that I’ve spent so much time warning you about overspecialization.

  3. 3.

    Strive to move at least into stage three. Those professionals who just want to do engineering or accounting and can’t be bothered with mentoring younger professionals or dealing with customers or suppliers are not rated as high performers. Being an engineer is more than working alone designing a system. You need to get involved in the development of other people. This relates to those interpersonal skills that are so important.

My last recommendation is to remember that a career is only a part of life. Some people get so caught up in their professional life they neglect other aspects of growing and learning.

Twelve months ago I interviewed a successful young engineer. He is highly productive and very well paid. When I asked how many hours a week he worked he said, “Usually about 80, but last week I worked 120.” That is a very long work week! It would be very difficult to achieve a balance in one’s life working 80 hours a week, let alone 120! Is it any wonder that we hear a lot about burnout among professionals, or that many people are losing their motivation and find it hard to drag themselves to work each day? It takes balance in one’s life to remain productive for 35 to 40 years; you can’t sprint for that distance. Thoughtful professionals will develop several aspects of their lives, including family, church service, and continued learning.

It is not easy to choose and develop a rewarding career. However, it is possible with some effort to discover one’s genius. Robert Frost captures much of what I believe about careers in a few short lines from his poem “Two Tramps in Mud Time”:

But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future’s sakes.

(Lines 65–72.)

[illustrations] Illustrated by Richard Hull