Your Career is in Danger of Becoming a Very Famous Poem

Maybe you'll be surprised to hear it, but one can end up in the same position with both a poem and a career: simultaneously overwhelmed and unmoved. I've seen university students stymied by John Keats and Ode on a Grecian Urn. I've seen adult learners -- professionals of great experience and expertise -- equally stymied by their work history.

What's the problem? It's a fundamental mistake about the scope and scale of work. Not the scope of work (a job description term), but the fact that it takes effort of some kind to get anything done. It’s a combination of the work that’s expended in the course of the task or the project and all the work that’s been done leading up to it that enables it and contextualizes it.

But work and effort are always falling into the background, away from the things we do and the things we encounter. Take Keats, for example. Go ahead, I’ll wait for you right here.

While it is to some extent true that “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know'” (remember, he’s throwing his voice into the urn in this quote), it’s also probably more nice than true. A near relative of the idea of the Romantic Poet (who just lets the poems spill onto the page so the first draft becomes the final draft) is the KISS idea: keep it simple. They’re related because they’re both abstract distillations of work that hide everything that has to happen in order for there to be something.

So when my students admitted that they like the poem but didn’t really know how to talk about it because, well, there it was? And what was there to talk about something that just is? -- what they were really doing was conceding the whole field of human creative endeavor to the poet. And he was already probably kind of lonely, given that he was apostrophizing an urn. (Would Twitter call this #kettlesplaining?)

If you want to talk about something, the toughest thing in the world is to actually talk about the thing itself or the act itself. Things and acts are resistant - that’s why we have to think them and do them, because they’re not going to just manifest themselves on their own.

Job seekers can have this same species of problem, but instead of an urn, it’s worse: the urn is their work history. As experienced as these folks that I worked with had become (and I’m talking people who were responsible for business outcomes up to and including stuff with six or seven zeroes on it), a lot of them couldn’t answer a very necessary question: Name three professional successes. That's fine, right up until it isn't.

See, work is not only resistant, it’s shy. It slips away when we’re not looking directly at it. It’s a problem because in too many settings the only way you get meaning out of a thing, an act, or the work that led to and inheres in both is if you find a way to give it scope and give it scale.

This is why narrating your work, being mindful about work, and generally disciplining yourself to notice that you’re doing something (not “notice when you’re doing something” -- that’s too luxurious for the beginner here) is the only way to authentically do a thing.