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What Career Are You Meant to Do?

By:  John Searles Aug 18, 2013
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Author Robert Steven Kaplan

When it comes to careers, some people seem born knowing exactly what they want to do, while plenty of others are just not sure. Thanks to the new book, What You’re Really Meant to Do: A Roadmap for Reaching Your Unique Potential, by leadership expert and Harvard Business School professor Robert Steven Kaplan, finding your dream career just got a whole lot easier. We ask Kaplan to share some of his advice.

Q. You say that too often, people charge down a path leading to “success,” only to end up dissatisfied. Why do you think this happens?

Robert Steven Kaplan: Too frequently, people allow others to define success for them, —whether it be owning a house in a certain neighborhood, driving a certain car, or making a certain amount of money. As a result, people spend years trying to achieve goals that please others but not themselves. That’s why I stress the importance of striving to reach your unique potential — meaning going after a successful career on your own terms. It starts with the crucial first step of understanding your strengths, weaknesses and passions. Once you have a clear sense of those things, you’re better able to assess what it is you want to do. Keep in mind that it might not be the career your friends and family choose for you, but it will be one that leaves you satisfied.  

Book jacket of 'What You’re Really Meant to Do: A Roadmap for Reaching Your Unique Potential.'

Q. What’s the best way to understand your strengths and weaknesses in order to make sure you’re being honest with yourself? 

RSK: Start by making a list of each. No matter how big or small, if you think a characteristic is a strength or a weakness, put it down. When it comes to your strengths in particular, it is important to be as specific as possible and to focus on things that are skill-based: —meaning, your natural talents and areas of expertise that are unique to you. Say you’re good at baking or mountain climbing or have a way with numbers — those are skill-based traits that can help you on your path to finding what you’re meant to do. And once you have it down, ask a few trusted people in your life to give you feedback on the list. Hopefully, they will have a good sense of your skills and talents from observing you. Chances are, they can help open your thinking and help you determine how to put those strengths and weaknesses to use.

Q. What advice do you have for people who know what they want to do but it just hasn't come together?

RSK: Reaching your potential involves matching skills and passions to a job or profession. Sometimes that profession is a tough one. Maybe there are very few opportunities (for example, becoming an astronaut), maybe it involves some luck to get a break (such as landing a big acting job), maybe extraneous factors can have a great impact on your ability to get ahead (needing to live in another location, for example). Understanding yourself is important, but you also have to face the reality that some professions are very difficult. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go for it, but it does mean that you have to have a Plan B in case of failure.

Q. What do you do if reaching your potential means working all the time? How do you factor in life balance?

RSK: In order to be successful and satisfied, you need to set priorities at work and in other areas of your life. In my experience, many careers rely on judgment and sustainability. If the demands of your work and home life are highly imbalanced, your judgment may be worse and you may have a hard time sustaining high performance in your career. For that reason, you have to find a sustainable combination that gives you balance and allows you to be your best over a long period of time.

Q. You say that one of the most important things people can do in their careers is to simply believe that “justice will prevail.” But is that realistic?

RSK: Injustice happens every day — people get promoted and it seems unfair; compensation mistakes get made. So the question is not whether injustice will occur but rather how you deal with it. If it causes you to be cynical and fail to help others, then you will undermine your own performance. Believing justice will prevail is about not allowing inevitable injustices to cause you to sabotage your own character and leadership behaviors but to focus on the positive aspects of your career and the good things that happen instead.

Q. How do you advise the person who chronically changes career paths and never feels certain if it is the right fit? 

RSK: Reaching your potential will ultimately require you to stay with something for a period of time. Success doesn’t happen overnight: It usually comes after a period of many years of striving. You have to ultimately pick something that you are willing to dedicate yourself to for a number of years. Knowing that is helpful to many people.

That doesn’t mean you should stay stuck in a rut. No matter how certain someone is about what they want to do, in my experience, people change their minds. The world changes, they change, industries change. So it is perfectly acceptable to change paths now and then.

Q. Recent college and business school grads are facing a tough job market, so the idea of doing exactly what they want might sound like a luxury. What advice do you have for them?

RSK: Of course, you have to face reality. However, don’t let the economy or a crisis cause you to permanently put off thinking about what you might love to do. Focus also on how to add value to others in a way that ignites your passion and uses your skills.  

Q. You say we’ve all got a “clock in our heads” keeping track of our progress and how far along we are on the path to reaching our goals. Is this clock ever harmful? 

RSK: If it causes you to be unduly impatient, then the clock is harmful. Keep in mind that it usually takes years before you reach a high level of effectiveness in a job and the ultimate level of success you want. But if the clock is something that regularly helps you to reevaluate where you are on your journey, then it is helpful to you.

Q.  Many people find success only to be plagued with the question of “What now?” Do you have advice for people facing a career plateau? 

RSK: Realize that you are not alone: The “what now?” question comes up for all of us from time to time. Rather than be scared of it, realize that it’s a natural part of life. It helps to do more with your life outside of your day job: Engage in community service, take up a new hobby, read about things that are unfamiliar to you. It’s a big world and chances are, you’re not going to want to do the same thing your entire life, or you may even be forced to consider other options. So do your best to live a full life and it will help when you’re faced with that nagging “what now?’ question.