Kerrying On

The Best Career Advice Nobody Ever Gave

In the spring of 1952, Lydia, a woman who lived up the hill from our house, purchased the neighborhood’s first power lawn mower. Had the circus marched up 25th street while P. T. Barnum himself juggled flaming chainsaws, it would have drawn less attention. After all, Lydia was now packing a gas-powered, carbine action, rotary mower. Everyone showed up for the inaugural mowing. Several brought folding lawn chairs.

After yanking on the starter rope for a couple of minutes, Lydia’s new machine finally roared into action. Within seconds, she was handily plowing through grass so thick that it would have caused a hernia had it been cut by someone using a traditional push-reel hand mower.

I desperately wanted a chance to operate the rotary beauty, but before I could say anything, I noticed that the chute that spit out the cut grass was becoming clogged with clippings. “I’ll pull out the grass!” I shouted as I worked my way across the yard. “I’ll just shove my hand into the . . . ”

As it became clear that I intended to thrust my six-year-old hand into a machine that housed a spinning, razor-sharp blade, the onlookers freaked out. It was obvious that Lydia was too occupied maneuvering the mower to see me approaching her left flank. And since the other adults were too far away to do anything, they felt helpless . . . so much so that they froze in place. That is, everyone except our neighbor Walter, the retired boatswain mate. He leapt to his feet and rushed toward me—eyes bugged, arms thrashing, and mouth screeching something I couldn’t make out over the thundering engine.

Fortunately, Walter’s frantic movements were so startling that I paused to take stock of the situation. I didn’t stop for long, but apparently for just long enough, because at the very moment my hand approached the treacherous blade, Walter crashed into me and knocked me to the ground. I couldn’t believe it. A full-grown adult had sprinted across the lawn, hurled his body through the air, and pushed me, a seventy-pound first-grader, down the hillside.

“Why’d you knock me down?” I asked as I scrambled to my feet.

Once the mower came to a complete stop, Walter tipped the machine onto its side, pointed out the steel blade hidden within, and explained how I had come very close to getting a “really aggressive manicure.”

Not sharing in Walter’s humor, I fell to my knees and burst into tears.

“What were you thinking?” the retired navy man asked.

What was I thinking? I was a kid. My intentions were simply to be helpful.

Oddly, the part of this incident that I most vividly recall isn’t Walter’s acrobatic dive-although it was pretty memorable. The picture that’s still etched in my brain is the expression on the faces of the adults who remained frozen in terror as they watched me approach the deadly mower. They knew I was headed for a disaster, felt helpless to do anything to avert it, and stood frozen in place. Except for Walter, the newly crowned hero of 25th Street.

Now, you’d think this sort of incident would happen only once in a person’s lifetime, but it happens to me all the time—not with a spinning blade—but with something quite menacing in its own right. Allow me to illustrate.

I live in a town that houses more than 60,000 university, tech, and trade school students. Between their classes, workshops, and practicums, these budding artists, nurses, and big-rig mechanics sell me movie tickets, cook my fast food, and hand me my dry cleaning. And every time I run into one of these art-history ticket takers, or social-science burger chefs, I refuse to remain mum. I brazenly ask them what they’re currently studying to prepare for their real career. More specifically, I ask them if their training will lead to a viable job that will pay the bills.

It turns out that most of the young people I talk to know precious little about where their educational efforts will actually take them. And, why should they? They aren’t required to talk to individuals approaching graduation (who know the current job market). They don’t interview previous grads to see how satisfying the profession is. They may know little of their major’s average income, or their chances of ever finding a job in their discipline.

Granted, not every person in search of a career runs off half-cocked and clueless. And I’m certainly not arguing that if individuals don’t go to Yale Law or some other ivy-covered brick institution, they’re doomed. What I am suggesting is that whatever career path one takes, it’s best preceded by careful study. Never before in the history of education have there been more learning options, methods, and topics—and along with it, uncertainty. Consequently, if people don’t do their pre-work, one day they may end up facing the spinning blades of corporate reality.

Check the record. If you assume any member of the workforce you encounter doesn’t care for his or her current job, you’ll be correct over 70% of the time. The average employee’s pay is so anemic that it takes two or more jobs to keep most households afloat. In the end, your typical couple will set aside less than $5,000 by the time they retire, forcing many of them to live out their “golden years” in their children’s basement. It’s hard to imagine that this is the future most students have in mind when they start down their chosen career path.

Fortunately, there are people out there who play the role of Walter. Perhaps you’re one of them—a caring individual who explains how to find and interview people who have recently graduated and have a realistic view of the job market. You may even take out your smart phone and look up salaries by career specialty or explore (and then share), national job postings. This may sound rather aggressive, but it’s hard to remain quiet knowing that, more often than not, the only people talking to students about the viability of the field they’re studying are the instructors whose livelihood depends on students continuing to take their classes.

With my own offspring, I speak up. I talk to them about the people who hold the jobs they might be interested in and the paths those people followed to get there. I teach them that financial independence and job satisfaction bless those who follow a career path that leads to what I call the “golden trio.” More specifically, (1) the skills they learn are rare, (2) in high demand, and (3) enjoyable to perform.

Naturally, preparing yourself to land a job where your talent is unique, in demand, and gratifying isn’t easy. But it’s worth it. If you don’t carefully explore your career alternatives (and as a result, if you fail to uncover the dangers that lie ahead), one day you may find yourself being blind-sided by an airborne boatswain mate doing his best to save you from your good, but naïve, intentions. Nobody wants that.

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Kerry Patterson

Cofounder of VitalSmarts, Kerry has coauthored four New York Times bestselling books as well as co-designed the company’s line of award-winning training programs. As author of our most popular column, Kerrying On, Kerry shares his vision, experience, and advice through fun and insightful stories from his past. read more

9 thoughts on “The Best Career Advice Nobody Ever Gave”

  1. Kerry is a great writer and thinker. At the individual level, this story makes good sense. But what are the societal implications if everyone seeks employment within the golden trio? A lot of jobs need done that don’t fit that metric at all.

  2. Great article. Matching reality with talents is a very individual affair, but the best bet is to strive hard early (always better). Sometimes events get in the way though – these often can be unforeseen events that force one to look outside the box.

    When that happens persistence is a good trait.

  3. Dear Kerry,

    This is one of the best blogs you have posted. I have enjoyed and learned from many of your blogs. After reading this one though, I had to tell you that it’s up there for style as well as impact! Almost Mark Twain!

    Thanks again for sharing your stories and making them such enjoyable lessons on living well.

    Regards, a Canadian fan

  4. Today’s message struck a chord. I have tried to be that voice in the wilderness so to speak.

    I have nudged some friends out of a funk, and helped them find a good profession.

    I tried the same approach with my middle sister, who was hell-bent on becoming an Opera Singer. I asked her about the job prospects, and got out the Chicago Tribune to look for jobs. We looked for Opera Singers – None. How about Entertainers? There were a few jobs for Exotic Dancers – Nope, nothing there. Musicians: Nada.

    So I asked her, “What is your Plan B?” She asked me what I meant, so I told her – the job prospects in your profession aren’t great. What will you do to make a living? She said teach.

    So, I have a sister who now nearly has a PhD in Music, who is working as a music teacher, and who still wants to be an opera singer.

    Some people you just can’t get through to. I did try.

    They recently made a little fun of me – I am a senior manager at a utility, and they said I didn’t have any artistic ability. I disagreed – “I have a technical job that pays well, and allows me to write for magazines. I have several covers and hundreds of photos published, with a thousand articles. So, I have an artistic side – I just make my money in a technical position, so I can afford to live and be artistic.”

    You can try to lead. Sometimes they follow, sometimes they don’t.

  5. I think Kirk is on the right track. While this advice is good for individual young people choosing careers, the problem of anemic pay for the average job is one that requires a more systemic approach to address. We can’t all be above average–by definition.

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