Monday, June 13, 2011

If You Think You are Too Vanilla to Have a Calling... (Part 1)

A lot of my students say things like “I’m not sure what I want to do with my career. I just know I like working with people.” My follow-up question is always: “How do you like working with people? There are a million ways to do it. What is your way?”

My response is a little more diplomatic than the one my colorful ethics professor gave me when, at age 25, I went to his office to bemoan my lack of career direction. I fretted to him, “I don’t know what I want to do. All I know is that I want to help people somehow.” His testy response was: “That’s B.S.” (he didn’t use the acronym) “You know a lot more about yourself than you suppose – if you’d just take the time to think hard about it.”

That got my attention. I sheepishly began the hard work of asking myself specific questions about my gifts.

So, OK, let’s say you like working with people. But what are you really great at doing with people? Are you an astute observer of emotions? Are you gifted at offering genuine praise? Are you the person others seek out to share problems with? Can you tell a story that spellbinds your listeners? Are you good at running a meeting?

“Working with people” isn’t a talent. It’s a massive constellation of talents. Until you identify what your precise gifts are, it’s almost impossible to figure out what type of work you are best suited to do.

If you think there is nothing particularly unique about your gifts – that you are just one of millions who are good at some general thing – then (pardon my bluntness), you just aren’t thinking hard enough. My ethics prof says so.  

What is your way? You have a unique flavor… if you will just do the work of discovering it. Nobody is just plain vanilla. 

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this post, which will include a special guest. I can’t wait to share it (and him)! 


  1. I really love these posts, Jeff, if only because they help me remember that it's ok to have unusual hobbies/passions/gifts. I know what I'm good at, I know what's captured my attention for over 20 years, I know that I want to Do Something with that--it's getting to the Doing that's hard to figure out. I mean, I'm 36 and considering grad school (and significant debt) in another state. It's hard to think about leaving my pretty decent job and starting over, but I think I can make it. Once I get the logistics more concrete...

  2. Sometimes you just have to shut your eyes and leap, Heidi! On a much smaller scale, that's what I finally decided to do last fall when I ended up on stage with you.

  3. professor thompson,
    yesterday i had an experience that totally reminded me of you. when we got off our airplane ride and hopped onto the airport bus shuttle to the parking lot, we had the most fantastic bus driver. he mentioned that he has been driving buses for the past 17 years for various companies. I asked him which company had been his favorite and he responded by saying that EVERY experience had been his favorite and how every day he gets to drive a bus is his favorite day. He was genuinely one of the happiest and self-fulfilled people I've ever met. Although my family and I were all tired and exhausted from our travels, we couldn't help but smile and get joy from this man's happiness. What a great reminder to find the joy in each of our jobs.

  4. Great story, Beka! I had a business student once whose dream was to drive a bus. He loved the feeling of moving heavy equipment and talking to people at the same time.