As each stove came down the assembly line, I plugged a two-pronged electric heating coil into a socket and secured it with two screws: bzzt bzzt with an airgun, like a Nascar tire changer but slower. Four calrods*, eight screws: bzzt bzzt…bzzt bzzt…bzzt bzzt…bzzt bzzt. And then another Hotpoint crawled through my 4 foot wide universe, an endless moving wall of blindingly shiny white enamel for eight soul- and mind- crushing hours.
The factory was no more the place for the likes of me than the military had been, and off to school I went, an academic career sounding majestic to a 23-year old punching a time clock on the night shift. As it turned out, academia wasn’t the place for me, either, so I grabbed an advanced degree and hot-footed my way out of there, ever-thankful to Indiana University’s Department of Sociology for having taught me many hard lessons about objectivity, rigor, and discipline, none more so than when a professor wrote at the top of my very first paper, “It is of no interest to me what you think.” As a Jamaican friend liked to remind me, “No, mon, you didn’t graduate Summa Cum Laude or Magna Cum Laude – you graduated Thank You, Lawdy.”
The economy was bad and I was broke and rudderless so I signed on as a social worker, first with the confused and infirm, then with war refugees, and finally with violent criminals, a job that came with the occasional middle-of-the-night death threat. A friend gave me a book called What Color Is Your Parachute? A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers, and it changed my life.
Readers are told to imagine themselves to have arrived at a party.
The room is six-sided and in each corner there is a group of people who share some key characteristics. Choose the group you most want to join, then imagine they leave to go to another party across town. Which group will you go to next? Okay, now imagine this second group leaves to go to that other party (no, you can’t go with them), and so on for all the groups described below.
- Good with words, the Social group likes to inform and enlighten.
- Artists like to exercise their imagination and creativity in unstructured situations.
- Investigative people like learning, observing, analyzing, evaluating, and problem-solving.
- Conventional people have clerical and/or numerical ability and like seeing to the details.
- Enterprising people like to persuade others for economic gain.
- Realistic people like working with machines, tools, and things.
The first time I read that list, I found I liked bits of each and would prefer being free to curate my own hybrid, but the test format is ranked forced choice, and choose I must.
Everyone who’s read my nearly 200 articles, viewed my Amazon Author Page, seen my LinkedIn profile, or visited my website knows I headed straight for the Investigative group and was sorry to see them go. Because I enjoy the company of imaginative and creative people, I went over and joined the Artists. When they left, I chose the Realists because I like fixing old things and making new ones and have much respect for craftsmen of all kinds. And so on. Which groups did you join and in what order? Your choices are telling you things about yourself, perhaps in ways new to you.
A career change.
It seems only logical that to thrive as workers we must not only be good at what we do but also love doing it. Nelson Bolles’ exercise in identifying the people we would “most enjoy being with for the longest time” measures our interests, but not our abilities, so let’s add them to a simple algorithm that sorts our interests and abilities into four broad categories:
- I’m bad at it and I hate it.
- I’m bad at it but I love it.
- I’m good at it but I hate it.
- I’m good at it and I love it.
Ideal for all of us is a job where we’re good at it and take great pleasure from the doing of it. Here some things to keep in mind as you figure out what kind of work is best for you.
- Our “good at” level must be defined by others, not just ourselves. Being good at something means being judged by experts as having above average skills.
- Make sure you love it enough to do it all day every day. Over extended periods of time, grooves turn into ruts, you know.
- Also make sure you look into what the job really is and not just what it seems to be. When I was a kid, I couldn’t imagine any job more thrilling than driving cars. It never occurred to my teenage mind that a chauffeur’s job was very little driving and a whole lot of waiting around. For every hour driving, I spent three or four hours killing time, bored to tears, constantly checking the time, wishing I was busy.
- Stay open to evolutionary change. After decades of watching my objective, rigorous, and disciplined research reports get mutilated by gatekeepers high and low, I gave up doing research and started writing about research, which led to my discovering I get a lot of satisfaction from teaching people what I’ve learned about how to plan research, which is what I do now in 2-day workshops.
If you’re at a professional crossroads, try What Color Is Your Parachute? All you have to do is be honest with yourself.