May 31, 2008

Quirkology: there is no career path, but there is luck

Last week Bernie Goldbach took me out to dinner with about a dozen of his third year graduating students, all of them working with social media in some way or other (there was also a lovely first year there, who dared to come along to chat with a strange Scotsman and had to go to the trouble of getting a babysitter - much kudos).

The thing that got me: they thought that their careers would be plan-outable, that there was some pre-determinable path on which to travel in order to get their dream job. I tried to pop the bubble gently.

They're not alone. Last year NESTA commissioned Demos to produce the Ready For The Future? report, and it reveals how fair young people reckon the world is. 90% believe that if you work hard at something you'll get what you deserve, and only 30% think that getting on in your life involves any luck.

This is borne out further still. The majority of young people feel that qualifications are the most important factor, by far, in getting a job. In fact, they feel that being hard working is twice as important as being a good communicator and four times more important than being creative. Schools have never done as well, with constantly 'cleverer' kids getting their grades A-C. Parents are over the moon, with certificated 'proof' that their child has really been working as hard as they said they were. But have government policies over the years and around the world on attainment, attainment, attainment "emphasised what's measurable rather than what's important"? Bill, who's currently assessing said attainment, seems to think so.

Yikes - our economy depends on creative, innovative youngsters to thrive, yet they feel they're doing their bit by doing what they think school expects of them - getting good exam results at the cost, if need be, of creativity and communication skills.

No wonder employers complain bitterly about never having the personnel they need.

I want to get back to this idea, though, of having a set path, and that hard work alone will get you through this imaginary path and towards success. Speak to anyone who you might frame as a mentor and the words 'luck' and 'opportune moment' will crop up somewhere. Luck does play a part, serendipity leads to wonderful things and it's only the fact that some take that serendipity and do something with it that makes the difference between those who are 'lucky' and 'unlucky'. I've also started to get the distinct feeling these past few years that the more connected you are to more people, the more these serendipitous moments crop up. It used to be something to meet someone who knew someone you knew. With Facebook, it's not so uncommon to find you're related to them.

I'm also reading a bit of Richard Wiseman's Quirkology, where research showed that those who feel lucky generally are better off than those who feel unlucky. It's something I notice the minute I land to start working in the USA: people are incredibly confident in their ability to pull off something really good, regardless of how much or how little preparation, fundraising or graft they've done. It's often referred to as an "enterprising attitude" or "self belief". I think it's just that the people in the USA who I've been fortunate to work with feel that they've been lucky in life, and it rubs off on the amazing work they have done (of course, there's also plenty of hyperbole of mediocrity in good measure). People in Scotland have long held the belief that we are crap at everything, especially football (we're historically on the same level as the USA, did you know, and currently doing a lot better).

So, the message for those sitting their exams at the moment or about to set out on that non-existent yellow brick road of employment: do all the revision you can, work as hard as you can this summer in the real world and, of course, start feeling lucky.

Or, as the late design legend Paul Arden put it in the title of his superb book on creativity:

It's not how good you are, it's how good you want to be
(The world's best-selling book by Paul Arden)

A comma's omission can make all the difference, eh? But it made me buy the book. And it is good.


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I'd have to agree with this. I never had a career path, but where I have gotten to now is part luck, but hard work dis play a part.

As a recent graduate, I can empathise with the students that Ewan met. It seemed that most people I knew during my final year expected to walk into graduate schemes or at least a well paid job. Almost two years down the line I'm still working hard to gain some relevant work experience before I return to uni in September. Although qualifications may gain you a foothold on the ladder, it is definitely hard work and luck that helps you to climb it.

Another great post, made me smile even more than usual.

My take on what most people call luck is that it's where preparation meets opportunity. Hard work is (usually/often) a necessary but insufficient condition for good luck. By and large you also need to have the awareness, self-confidence and attitude to risk to make your own luck.

On a personal note I feel more than lucky than unlucky (:


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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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