One of our mentors has been singing the praises of a book he's read which argues that effort is twice as important as natural talent, and gives suggestions about how to improve persistence as a skill. The book is called Grit: Why Passion and Resilience are the Secrets to Success* and is written by Angela Duckworth, 2013 MacArthur Fellow and an associate professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.
Finding your purpose: Angela's personal story
In this post, I wanted to share Angela’s personal journey, which she describes in the book. To me, it is an excellent example of finding your purpose, even though you can wander through different experiences or professions to get there.
“I was twenty-one when I first experienced the power of a purposeful top-level goal. In the spring of my junior year in college, I went to the career services centre to find something to do that summer. Turning the pages of an enormous three-ring binder labelled SUMMER PUBLIC SERVICE, I came across a program called Summerbridge. The programme was looking for college students to design and teach summer enrichment classes for middle school students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Teaching kids for a summer sounds like a good idea, I thought. I could teach biology and ecology. I’ll show them how to make a solar oven out of tinfoil and cardboard. We’ll roast hot dogs. It’ll be fun.
I didn’t think, This experience is going to change everything.
I didn’t think, Sure, you’re premed now, but not for long.
I didn’t think, Hold on tight – you’re about to discover the power of purpose.
To be honest, I can’t tell you much about that summer. The details escape me. I do know I woke long before dawn each day, including weekends, to prepare for my classes. I do know I worked long into the night. I remember specific kids, and certain moments. But it wasn’t until I returned home and had a moment to reflect that I realised what had happened. I’d glimpsed the possibility that a child’s connection with a teacher can be life-changing – for both.
When I returned to campus that fall, I sought out other students who’d taught at Summerbridge programs. One of these students, Philip King, happened to live in the same dorm. Like me, he felt a palpable urgency to start another Summerbridge program. The idea was too compelling. We couldn’t not try.
We had no money, no idea how to start a non-profit, no connections, and in my case, nothing but scepticism and worry from parents convinced this was a catastrophically stupid way to use a Harvard education.
Philip and I had nothing and, yet, we had exactly what we needed. We had purpose.
As anyone who has started an organisation from scratch can tell you, there are a million tasks, big and small, and no instruction manual for any of them. If Philip and I were doing something that was merely interesting, we couldn’t have done it at all. But because creating this program was in our minds – and in our hearts – so overwhelmingly important for kids, it gave us a courage and energy neither of us had ever known before.
Because we weren’t asking for ourselves, Philip and I found the gumption to knock on the doors of just about every small business and restaurant in Cambridge, asking for donations. We found the patience to sit in countless waiting rooms of powers-that-be. We waited and waited, sometimes hours on end, until these authority figures had time to see us. Then we found the stubbornness to keep asking and asking until we secured what we needed.
And so it went for everything we had to do – because we weren’t doing it for ourselves, we were doing it for a greater cause.
Two weeks after Philip and I graduated, we opened the doors to the program. That summer, seven high school and college students discovered what it was like to be a teacher. Thirty fifth-grade boys and girls discovered what it was like to spend their summer vacation learning, studying, working hard, and – though it may have seemed impossible before they actually did it – having fun at the same time.
That was more than twenty years ago. Now called Breakthrough Greater Boston, the program has grown far beyond what Philip and I could have imagined, providing tuition-free, year-round academic enrichment for hundreds of students every year. To date, more than a thousand young men and women have taught in the program, many of whom have gone on to pursue full-time careers in education.
Summerbridge led me to pursue teaching. Teaching led me to an enduring interest in helping children do so much more with their lives than they might ever dream possible.
And yet… For me, teaching wasn’t enough. Still unfulfilled was the little girl in me who loved science, who was fascinated by human nature, who, when she was sixteen and had a chance to take a summer enrichment class, picked – of all the courses in the catalog – psychology.
Writing this book made me realise that I’m someone who had an inkling about my interests in adolescence, then some clarity about purpose in my twenties, and finally, in my thirties, the experience and expertise to say that my top-level, life-organising goal is, and will be until my last breath: use psychological science to help kids thrive.”
* PROTAGION is a participant in the Amazon EU Associates Programme, an affiliate advertising programme designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.co.uk. The links with * participate in this programme.
Ever feel like your career is going round and round the same carousel, with the same music playing over and over?
Here's another real-life example I read about on LinkedIn that I’d value your perspectives on please: https://www.linkedin.com/feed/update/urn:li:activity:6295735484547239936/
This one’s written by a director of an Australian executive and specialist search company (Tier One People). He shares his own experience of an accountant who was struggling to get back into Finance roles after spending two years gaining commercial skills in a Business Development role. I’ve copied (some of) the text below for ease, and paraphrased comments he received:
“I really do wonder sometimes what recruiters (internal/agency and hiring managers included) are thinking when it comes to hiring. I met a great Commercial Manager yesterday who is struggling to find a role. After spending 8 years as an accountant, they made the bold move of becoming a Business Development Manager. The idea being it would bring them closer to the business and expand their commercial awareness. Now 2 years on from that move, they really miss the financial and strategic elements but are struggling to find a role back in finance. Their resume is being dismissed outright because they have spent two years out of finance. Why are some recruiters/hiring managers so scared to consider someone who doesn't fit the mould? Ironically this person has exactly what a business needs from a commercial finance manager.”
His post resonated with people who commented on aspects like:
This real-life example and the comments struck a chord with me too, especially as I believe in variety and adaptability myself (both personally for my own career, and when hiring people). For professionals in a business context, gaining commercial experience, including engaging with customers, is invaluable. It broadens your experience, and gives you a much greater appreciation for what your business actually does (rather than the structures it has set up to manage internally). And, as the original post highlights, the combination of commercial, financial/technical and strategic awareness is powerful.
I’m glad too that Tier One People later reported that they were successful in securing a dream job for the candidate, with their dream company. Their director praised “forward thinking and progressive [companies] who recognise talent when they see it”.
Please let us know your thoughts on what causes these challenges, including how the professional, the hiring manager, the HR team, and the recruiter might be contributing.
And, please share any tips you have for how we as a collective can improve things, in order to make work more meaningful for professionals, in a way that adds more value for companies too.
Last week, I attended an informal get-together for psychologists to meet people with other professional backgrounds. It got me thinking about our professions, and how we feel about them. This gathering included mid-career practising psychologists, interns, coaches, business development executives, and university professors. One networking attendee joined an amicable circle I was part of, and introduced himself as on various boards, and with specific qualifications (which largely went over my head). In response we gave short summaries of our backgrounds, with mine covering financial services, people development, and mentioning (given the specific purpose of the get-together) that I’m not a psychologist. He immediately interrupted with “you shouldn’t be embarrassed about it”, to which I replied that I’m not. He felt that my body language said otherwise, to which others in the group indicated disagreement. The woman to my right sighed, leaned over to me, and said “there’s nothing wrong with your body language...”. It made me chuckle: a debate on body language at a gathering of psychologists…
This experience reminded me that we can be proud of our professions and qualifications, even to the extent that we rush to defend them if we perceive someone saying something negative about them… Our professions can be deeply ingrained into who we are, partly because of the significant personal effort and time commitment it took us to qualify, partly because of the status they might afford us, and partly because of the sense of community / connection they can provide us.
Generally professions include lawyers, engineers, medical professionals, actuaries, accountants, architects, economists, and psychologists, among others. ‘Professions’ tend to have a number of similarities:
The most well-known of the codes of ethics is the Hippocratic oath. Mostly, codes of ethics cover elements such as competence, integrity, and the promotion of the public good within the specific expert domain.
In my international work experience, I’ve found that different cultures can have different perspectives on the professions, with some viewing them as highly aspirational. Those cultures tend to view education as a privilege, and respect the effort and commitment required to become a professional. Others view professions more cynically, especially where past bad apples have tarnished its image by association. And, preconceptions of given professions can be limiting, appearing for example as the basis for jokes e.g. shark lawyers, introverted accountants and actuaries, or non-committal economists.
Preconceptions and stereotypes can sometimes discourage us from speaking freely about our backgrounds and accomplishments. One of the senior leaders in a business I previously worked in always introduced the members of my wider team as ‘actuaries’ even if they were actually from a legal or investment banking background (and she knew this). An expert in choosing her words to create specific impressions, she was encouraging others to apply their preconceptions and stereotypes. I suspect it was because she headed a different area, and wanted to emphasise how ‘technical’ the product team were, while she wanted her team to be seen as market-focused, commercial and extroverted. My personal preference is to see the individual, rather than the label, and consider the person as a combination of formative events and experiences. In my view, what someone chose to study is but one part.
It is a privilege to be a professional (especially given their rich history of thought leadership and social contribution), and I very much enjoy attending events that my professional bodies arrange. The variety of disciplines and thus career paths is also positive, with many opportunities to learn different things within them.
As sage parental advice conveys, a profession does indeed give you “something to fall back on”. Looking back on it, I’m glad that I chose that path, while also recognising now that it shouldn’t limit who we are and what we can do. And, some of the most inspirational people I’ve worked with changed direction by building outwards from their professional roots.
To what extent does your chosen profession contribute to your sense of identity? What aspects of your profession are you most proud of? And, what one thing would you change if you could?