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If you're on the wrong bus, get off.

Updated: Jul 12, 2022

In his exceptional book ‘So good they can’t ignore you’, Cal Newport posits the insightful notion that whilst it’s a nice idea to ‘follow your dream’, the harsh reality is that this approach to career fulfilment is far less successful in practice than we are often led to believe.

He clarifies the point by discussing several cases of those who have done exactly that and learned, to their detriment, that following your star requires a lot more than desire and determination. It’s just as cruel a world in the career market as it is everywhere else and to think otherwise is to set oneself on a potentially heartbreaking, and expensive, path.

Far better, he says and I agree, to ‘stay on the bus’ and build what he calls ‘Career Capital’.

To begin with the more obvious of the two analogies: ‘Staying on the bus’ requires that we look at the particular career path we’re on, even if it is something we consider less than ideal, and see how we can learn from it.

Staying the course has several benefits:

  • We are still earning, which is, of course, no small achievement.

  • We’re saving money. That is, not sinking our previously earned cash into an expensive endeavour that could, ultimately, fail – at least whilst we have, as yet, only the same set of skills and experience as the next aspiring entrepreneur.

  • We’re still learning. Whilst enjoying the benefits of the previous two points, we are able to use the lack of pressure to become masters of whatever skills are needed to move into other areas. This last point is important because, initially, our focus could very well be on learning about whatever ideal job it is that we’d do if we were allowed follow our heart.

But the crucial point Cal makes is that many people find, in the process of staying on the bus, that they begin to become experts in totally unexpected arenas, often directly related to the job they were so desperate to escape not so long ago.

This is where Career Capital comes in. Many a dissatisfied employee has found that, in biding their time before moving on, they have unexpectedly picked up so much experience in the role that two things happen:

They become genuinely knowledgeable in that field; to the extent that they frequently become unexpected thought leaders – able to push the boundaries of their sphere of influence into new and exciting areas and, as a result of this new-found expertise, they also, and just as unexpectedly, begin to enjoy their job.

Again, this is no small feat: beginning to gain satisfaction from a job we had previously thought mundane can open up possibilities not previously considered. Where formerly we were looking for a way out, we are now being paid to get better at something we enjoy and are valued for.

The 10,000 hour rule comes to mind here: this type of Career capital can only be accrued from practice, lots of it. Like money in the bank, consistent investment of time and effort slowly builds the type of capital that can be used to grow our skills portfolio.

But, there is a caveat: As much as I agree with the premise of Cal’s book, and as an avid reader of his work, especially relating to deep study, I have to add the proviso, having coached so many employees over the years: if you really are on the wrong bus, get off.

As much as I dislike the use of clichés, it's impossible not to think of square pegs and round holes here - some people really are, not just way outside their comfort zone but, occasionally, out of their depth, too.

This seems to apply to management more than anywhere else. On the frontline you are soon found out if you are not up to the task but, given the numbers passing through any reasonably sized organisation these days, it's not surprising that one or two manage to make their way into management positions they are neither comfortable with or suited to.

In such cases, I lean toward advising such individuals to do themselves and their organisation a favour and, taking reasonable precautions against leaving yourself or your team in the lurch, ring the bell to stop the bus at the next stop. Don't just sit there, get off.

Strangely, this has, on more than one occasion, resulted in a conversation that led to a new position which suited both sides better. But even where this hasn't happened, the individual is generally happier divesting themselves of the stress, the company is able to fill the position with someone more suitable and the people around them are able to breathe easily knowing that they are no longer having to carry or cover up for the mismatched employee. But where do they go once they are off the bus? This will be the subject of a future post.

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