by Kassandra Lamb
No, I’m not going to tell you how to dress or what to say to your boss to get promoted.
The way I define success in a career, and in life for that matter, is doing work that utilizes our talents and strengths and brings us satisfaction. So this post is about how to identify the job/career that will do that for you, and also the strengths you bring to that career and where you might need to bolster those strengths.
I was inspired by a recent post by author and editor, Jami Gold–What Helps You BE a Writer? She lists several internal traits and external factors that can help writers be successful (i.e., keep at it long enough to reap the rewards), and then asks her blog readers (mostly writers) to make their own lists of the things that help them stick with writing. (If you are a writer, definitely check out her post.)
I’m going to give my list here, and in the process, extend some of her ideas to all careers.
Under this category, Jami says: “We might have personality traits that help us want to be a writer, such as a love of storytelling or a desire to entertain, educate, or inspire others.”
I love that she starts off with this. Our jobs/careers need to satisfy some inner desire. That inner desire might be self-centered – just to satisfy our love of the task – and/or it may be more altruistic – to help others in some way or to make the world a better place.
I’ve always been a storyteller, but the part of Jami’s sentence that rang most true for me was a desire to educate others. My life calling has been to help people, myself included, better understand our psyches and live mentally healthy lives. I fulfilled that calling as a therapist and then as a college professor, and now as a writer. I used storytelling in all of those professions – I told stories to my clients and students to illustrate my points and get past their defenses. And now my stories spread awareness of certain psychological disorders and issues in a pleasant and entertaining way.
So first and foremost, the work we chose must fulfill an inner desire about which we are passionate. If it does, we will (a) be satisfied by it and (b) apply that passion to learning to do it well.
Jami goes on to list a lot of inner traits – beyond talent obviously – that may help writers stick with it when the going gets rough. These range from being so clueless you don’t recognize the obstacles until you’ve stumbled past them (I can relate ) to being stubborn, patient, and having a thick skin.
It is VERY helpful to objectively list the inner traits needed to succeed in any job/career we are considering. Then we can compare that list with our own strengths and weaknesses.
I am definitely stubborn, but patience has never been one of my virtues. However, writing was important enough to me that I had to do something to overcome my impatience.
Lacking a trait doesn’t mean we can’t do the job, but we do need to somehow compensate. For me and my lack of patience, two things helped. One, I am sooo stubborn that I refused to give up when my impatience made me want to quit (most often when I looked at my shrinking savings account; I was spending more money than I was making).
And two, I did an internal reframe. I told myself that I don’t need the money from writing. I’m retired with a decent income. I should think of writing, from a financial standpoint only, as a hobby. Retirees who can afford to do so put some money into hobbies; mine happened to be writing. That worked! I stopped ruminating over sales and focused on enjoying the writing and editing. (And eventually my bottom line did shift from red to black.)
As for a thick skin, I can’t say that I normally have this. But I have learned through the years to judge my own capabilities fairly honestly. I’m good at stepping back from what I have produced and comparing it to the objective criteria for good work, as defined in that field of endeavor.
And most important of all, I am good at focusing on those who like my work, rather than those who do not. And as long as the likers well outnumber the dislikers, I feel pretty confident that I’m doing a good job. So I can dismiss the one and two-star reviews as long as there are many more four and five-star ones. (And, thank God, there are.)
Which brings us to…
In Jami’s second category of things that help writers stick with it, she lists the support of family, friends, teachers, agents and publishers, readers, and, most of all, other writers.
That list pretty much applies to all careers. We are more likely to succeed if our families, friends, teachers, etc. (substitute bosses for agents and publishers, and customers/clients for readers) are behind us and are telling us we’re doing a good job.
But what if they aren’t? If our family members and friends aren’t behind us, then we probably need to rethink those relationships. Maybe we need to stop talking about our work with unsupportive family members, and maybe we need new friends if those we have are bringing us down rather than encouraging us.
As for bosses, customers and clients, if most of them like our work, then we’re probably good at it. You can’t please all of the people all of the time. If a boss dislikes your work without offering constructive feedback on how to improve it, but others have often praised it, then consider that it may be that boss, not you.
Dealing with unhappy customers/clients/readers is when we really need that thick skin. Keep reminding yourself that you do indeed do good work, but it may not be this person’s cup of tea, or they may be particularly picky. Try not to get defensive since that will only prolong your contact with them. 😉
The other support system Jami mentions, other writers, is also pretty darn important. I seriously doubt I would have stuck with writing or had the fortitude to get through the publishing process without the support of my friend (and cofounder of misterio), Shannon Esposito. And she introduced me to a wonderful online writers’ group that has been a Godsend more than once.
Likewise when I started teaching, I had a great mentor who kept me going through those early stages of self-doubt in a new vocation. She gave me guidance, but she also normalized the new things I was experiencing. One day I complained that the students just sat there staring at me during the lecture that I thought was the most fascinating of the entire semester.
Jean laughed and said, “Yeah, sometimes you do your dog and pony show and they just sit there.” I felt so much better. This also happened to her, an experienced teacher.
So find a support group and/or a mentor in the field, who will advise you but also cheer you on.
Other Tricks and Tools
Under this category, Jami lists miscellaneous helpful things – everything from gallons of coffee to extra skills we bring from other jobs and life experiences. This last item struck a chord with me.
When considering changing careers or jobs, we shouldn’t just consider the skills that obviously carry over but also subtler capabilities we may have honed in our previous work.
When I was writing Someday Is Here! A Beginner’s Guide to Writing and Publishing Your First Book, I was trying to figure out how to help novice writers improve their dialogue. This required some thought because writing dialogue has always come easily for me.
Then I realized that this wasn’t a natural talent I’d started out with. I had spent twenty years, as a psychotherapist, carefully listening to people. I knew how folks tended to phrase things. I’d also carefully observed body language and tone of voice – when a person paused or looked down, etc. – because all this gave me additional information about what was going on with them, beyond the spoken words.
So that’s the advice I gave to novice writers–observe, listen, pay attention to how people talk and not just what they say. But I’d already had a head start with this skill, because of my previous profession.
How about you? What inner traits, external supports and other skills do you bring to your job? Are there areas that need bolstering or compensation? Are you rethinking your current vocation?
Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological suspense series, set in her native Maryland, and a new series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida.
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