IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Hate your job? Follow your interests

Forget the conventional wisdom of parents and teachers, and turn your strengths into a successful career, advises Marcus Buckingham in his fifth book and toolkit "The Truth About You: Your Secret to Success." An excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY books

Performance is always the point
This is blunt, but it’s true. And you need to recognize it.

Organizations will recruit you by telling you, “Our people are our greatest asset.” They will tell you that they are looking only for the best and the brightest, and that you may be one of them, and that, if you join them, you will have the chance to learn, grow, build a great career, get promoted, and, of course, earn a good living. And when organizations say these things to you, they aren’t trying to mislead you. They are genuine.

But your organization doesn’t care primarily about you and your strengths. If you’re lucky, your individual manager will. Your organization, however, has other things on its mind. What your organization cares about most is performance. It cares about getting a job done. It cares about meeting the needs of its customers, serving a mission, and making a profit.

And there’s nothing wrong with this. This is the way it should be. Organizations are built to serve a specific purpose. This purpose can be financial — “Our mission is to provide an excellent return to our shareholders.” Or it can be charitable — “Our mission is to design water purification systems for poor communities around the world.” Or it can be a combination of the two — “Our mission is to sell water purification systems for a little more than it takes to make them, and so give a profit to our shareholders.”

But whichever, performance is the point of the organization.

It’s important to remember that you and your strengths are not the point. Your organization was not built to help you identify your strengths and show them off to the rest of the world. Sure, your strengths can be useful to the organization’s end. But never forget that you are a means to its end. And its desired end is performance.

Don’t expect your company ever to know you like you do
What this means is that the organization you work for won’t ever truly know you. It’ll know what you get done. It’ll measure your performance. It’ll give you a rating, a title, and maybe even a career ladder for you to climb. But it’ll never really know your strengths, or your weaknesses, or what triggers you, or how you learn, or which situations bring out the best in you. And so it is just as likely to put you into a job that truly fits you as it is to push you into a job that isn’t right for you at all but simply needs to get done. The organization will start with the performance it wants — a job that needs to get done — and then it’ll work backwards into you.

Again, to be clear, your organization isn’t wrongheaded to think this way, but this is, in the end, why so many people wind up in a job where they are mediocre, unhappy, or both.

Of course, the best way to avoid this is to take yourself seriously from the get-go. Since your organization will never truly know you, it’s going to fall to you to know yourself well enough to stay on your strengths path. It’s going to fall to you to figure out how to use your strengths to drive the performance your organization wants. This way everyone will win — your organization gets the performance it wants, and you’ll get to succeed by playing to your strengths.

How can you do this?

Start by taking your interests seriously
You’ve been raised to believe that other people know you better than you know yourself. At school, you were given grades to tell you what your strengths and weaknesses were. You’ve taken tests to reveal what career path you should take. Parents, teachers, career counselors, managers — they’ve all weighed on in what you should do with your life.

All of these people mean well. And sure, over time you are going to meet some wonderful people who inspire you, offer you opportunities, and teach you something about the world and about yourself.

But always remember: you are the greatest teacher about you and your strengths.

During the course of your career, you’ll come to discover this. You’ll make a misstep into a role that offers you more money or a bigger title but requires you to have strengths you lack, or you’ll work for a manager who just doesn’t understand you at all, and with each new experience, each step or misstep, you’ll come to realize that you are the person you should have listened to most closely all along. Experience will, over time, teach you just how well you know your own strengths.

But don’t rely on experience. Start looking now. And the best place to start is with your interests. Your interests are a very good clue to your strengths. Your interests aren’t random. You’re not intrigued by one thing one day and another thing the next. Sure, your interests do change and develop as you get older, but they aren’t random. Your interests are part of a pattern inside you. They are the first sign of some force inside you trying to get out, something important in you that needs to be understood and expressed.

They may not tell you right away what job you should have. (Although sometimes they do — my sister danced before she could walk; Matt Damon and Ben Affleck used to discuss their latest scripts in their middle school cafeteria; Sean “P.Diddy” Combs promoted his first concert at seventeen.) Nonetheless, they are worth paying attention to. Wisdom, it is said, can be found in what you choose to overlook. In this sense, your interests are wise. They cause you to overlook a bunch of other stuff and zero in on something specific.

You want to know what you are interests are? Take a moment to look back over your life and ask yourself some questions. Start with what you’ve done.

  • Have you ever held a job?
  • Was it just for the money, or did it spark something in you?
  • Was there any part of the job that really intrigued you?
  • Was there any part of the job that you can honestly say you loved?

Think a minute and then write it down.

Okay, now let’s move on to your hobbies.

  • Do you have any hobbies or special interests?
  • Have you ever joined a club or group (other than to pad your résumé) and found yourself actually looking forward to going every week?
  • What was it?

Okay, now on to reading.

  • What were the last two books that you read?
  • When you walk past a newsstand, which two magazines do you always buy?
  • When you read these magazines, do you find yourself drawn to certain kinds of articles or certain subjects? Which ones?
  • When you are surfing the Web, which sites are you drawn to?
  • Which articles do you tend to read online?

Finally, look at the people in your life. Take a moment to think about your friends and close colleagues.

  • What kinds of people do you find yourself drawn to?
  • What words would you instinctively use to describe these people?

Okay, now look at what you’ve written down. Scan your answers and try to pick out a couple of interests, a couple of things you are consistently drawn to. It might not be easy because you’ve probably captured quite a lot, but push yourself to be selective. Choose three things, or subjects, or types of people that you know in your heart are deeply seated interests of yours. And then write them down.

Obviously I don’t know what you’re written, but it’s guaranteed that no one else in the world wrote exactly what you did. Your interests are the first and most obvious sign that you are not the same as everyone else. And so, to live a strong, successful life, your interests are the first thing you must take seriously.

A great many people don’t. They are quick to discount their interests. They make mental trade-offs with themselves, saying things like, “I am really interested in teaching, but I want to make a lot of money first. So I’ll go into banking, work hard for ten years, and then give it all up and go teach.” Or, “I’m interested in art, but I can’t make a living at it. So I’ll go get a real job and then do my art on nights and weekends.”

In almost every instance these trades are bad trades. They force you to do something almost impossible: put your real personality on hold and then try to bring it back to life at some point in the future.

The problem is that while you’re waiting for that future to arrive, you spend hour upon hour, for years at a time, doing things that don’t interest you. And this takes its toll. Even if you manage to perform well in this “non-you” role, it still takes its toll. Your motivation suffers. Your confidence suffers. Your reputation suffers. Interested people attract others, and with your interests disengaged from your work, you become less attractive, less fun to be around, less energetic. You slowly lose your sense of who you are and what you can do. And so when that “future” finally arrives, you aren’t the same person anymore. You’ve lost yourself along the way.

Don’t let this happen to you. Don’t make this trade. Look closely at your interests and take them seriously. Start pushing your life toward them now.

Excerpted from “The Truth About You: Your Secret to Success.” Copyright (c) 2008 by Marcus Buckingham. Reprinted with permission from ThomasNelson.