By Dan Coughlin
Great organizations are defined by what they say no to. The same is true for great individual careers.
A great career is one where the individual made the type of contribution he or she believed was the optimal use of his or her talents, passions, and values and generated the types of desired outcomes that he or she wanted. In other words, the person generated both the desired input and output.
Manifesting such a career requires saying yes to a few key opportunities and saying no to a huge number of good, and possibly great, opportunities.
Dedicate Yourself to a Proposition
What’s up with Abraham Lincoln? There have been literally hundreds and hundreds of books written about him. These include the most introductory of children’s books to the most sophisticated of adult books. Why did he have such a memorable career? I think it all comes down to one thing. He dedicated his professional life, his career, to two propositions: “united we stand, and divided we fall” and “all men are created equal.” These two propositions guided his career choices and his decisions within his various jobs. In the end, I think that’s what made his career so successful: he remained committed to two very clear, important propositions.
What is the proposition that you are dedicating your professional life to? This will help you a great deal in deciphering what to do and what not to do in your career.
More than twelve years ago I dedicated my professional life to this proposition: mastering business basics drives better sustainable results. Not quite as catchy or life-changing as Lincoln’s propositions, but it’s been clear enough to help me make decisions on what to do and what not to do.
I then determined that the best contribution I can make toward improving performance in organizations across all industries is to uncover these business basics, these processes for improving results in a sustainable way, and then explain them in a user-friendly manner. In other words, I see myself as a teacher. Not a teacher who has all the answers because there are no set answers in business, but rather a teacher who causes people to focus on understanding and executing the basics of business at a very high level. In choosing to be a teacher, I simultaneously chose not to be a manager or an executive.
Before reading on, take out a sheet of paper. Decide on the proposition that you are willing to dedicate yourself to. Write it down. You may end up rewriting it many times over the months to come. With a clear proposition in hand, you can then decide where to place your time and where not to place your time. Your proposition will help you to choose which roles you will want to fill and which roles you will not want to fill.
Choose Your Opportunity Costs Carefully
My third-grade son, Ben, came home with his folder of papers. One of them said, “Explain the idea of opportunity costs using the example of Pizza Hut.” Ben smiled and said, “That’s easy. I like sausage pizza and I like pepperoni pizza. If I choose the pepperoni pizza my opportunity cost is the sausage pizza.” What a great explanation. He learned something valuable that day from Mrs. Edwards. When you choose something that means you are also choosing not to have something else.
As you go about building a great career always take the time to clarify your opportunity costs, the things you are choosing not to have. If you choose to work as an employee, then you are choosing not to be an entrepreneur. If you choose to be an entrepreneur, you are choosing not to work for someone else. Both choices can be good, but you can’t have both simultaneously.
Fifteen years ago I was considering starting my own business. I was a full-time, tenured teacher at a very well known high school in St. Louis. I wrote down my opportunity costs if I left, which included the following: really wonderful students would no longer just show up for me to teach, I would not have colleagues to bond with between classes or at lunchtime, I would not have a guaranteed paycheck every month or a guaranteed job for life, I would not have three months off in the summer time, and I would not have my curriculum to teach handed to me. To me that was a lot of opportunity costs to give up. Only once I became comfortable with what I was giving up was I able to go out on my own. However, once I left I didn’t go back and try to teach at the high school while trying to run my own business.
I know people who did just the opposite. They were entrepreneurs and chose to teach or to work for someone else. They had considered their own opportunity costs of not running their own businesses and they chose to work inside an organization. My point here is you have to choose what you think is the best route for your career. I’m just encouraging you to step back and clarify what you will do and why you will do it and what you won’t do and why you won’t do it.
You have to choose your opportunity costs as much as, and maybe more than, your opportunities. As you consider your next career move, take out a sheet of paper and write down all the things you are not going to get as a result of going in the direction you are considering to take. Make sure you are comfortable with what you are giving up BEFORE you get comfortable with what you are going after.
The Choices of Charlie Rose
Charlie Rose is my favorite interviewer. I knew who he was, but I didn’t really study him until I recently read an article about him in Fortune magazine. Here it is if you want to read it: http://money.cnn.com/2009/09/25/magazines/fortune/charlie_rose.fortune/index.htm?postversion=2009092811
The proposition that Charlie Rose has dedicated his career to is, “wanting viewers to feel like they were eavesdropping on a conversation each night – fully engaged if not actually participating.” He honed his craft over a number of years until he got the opportunity to do The Charlie Rose Show on PBS Television in 1991.
He had walked away from a well-paying program called Personalities in 1990 because he wanted to do a more serious talk show. He also said no to a full-time anchor slot on Sixty Minutes II in 1996 that would have earned him a great deal more than he makes on his own show on PBS. He turned it down because he felt doing his own show was, as he said, “the chance to find your own reality – for yourself, not for others, what no man can ever know. In the end I have not finished the journey.”
In saying no to a variety of opportunities, Charlie Rose defined who he was and who he wanted to become. He wants to do serious interviews with people on important topics without any pretense whatsoever. And he does it very well. I encourage you to invest a few hours at www.charlierose.com and soak in the lessons that are extracted during a variety of his interviews.
Actively Accept Limitations and Consequences
At some point, and I happen to think this is as good a time as any other, you have to get comfortable with the ideas of limitations and consequences. You can spend your whole life trying to be everything in the world and keep chasing one career dream after another. Or you can say, “I’ve chosen this path for my career. Here is the general path where I believe I can make my greatest contribution.” And then be ok operating within the limitations and consequences of the career you have chosen. Actually, there’s real power in deciding on the limitations you are going to accept. It means you are willing to get seriously focused at work that you have chosen to pursue.
In studying hundreds of really successful people, I’ve noticed that the best of the best stick with their chosen path. What’s Steven Spielberg doing these days? He is still making movies. What’s Oprah doing now that she’s made billions? Still interviewing people to find out what they have to offer her audiences. What’s Steve Jobs up to? He’s working on guiding Apple to make electronic technology incredibly useful for consumers. What is Charlie Rose at the age of 67 doing tonight? He’s interviewing one of the world’s movers and shakers. Now that Bruce Springsteen has turned 60, what’s he doing? Putting on great concerts. What’s my mom doing today at the age of 80? She’s still being a great stay-at-home mom as she has been for the past 54 years and caring for other people.
Be OK with who you are and who you are not. Stop wasting time always wanting to be someone else and always wanting a different career path. To manifest a great career you have to stick to the path of your own choosing, and not feel bad about all the paths you have chosen not to pursue. In reality, the more you consciously say no to alternative paths, the more sincerely you say yes to your life’s work.
About Dan Coughlin
Dan is a student and teacher of practical processes that improve business performance. His purpose is to work with executives and managers so they achieve great performances. He is a business keynote speaker, management consultant, executive coach, and author of three books on management performance, including his newest, The Management 500: A High-Octane Formula for Business Success (AMACOM 2009). Read Chapter One from this new book free of charge. Dan’s clients include Coca-Cola, Abbott, Toyota, Prudential, Shell, Boeing, Marriott, McDonald’s, and the St. Louis Cardinals.