Monday, October 22, 2007

The Foggy Career Path

I was listening to Jeffrey Toobin discussing his new book on the U.S. Supreme Court when he gave a brief review of his career. He talked about serving on the Iran-Contra investigation and writing a book about Oliver North and at one point he slipped in a line to the effect of "And then I got a job at The New Yorker."

Whoa, I thought.

But he went on to chat about his book.

I hate it when successful people do that. They mention some significant career move and, because it is ancillary to their story, they shoot past the really interesting part of their commentary. Paul Theroux, the often caustic but fascinating travel writer, once noted that too many writers talk about Abdul the cab driver picking them up at the airport and taking them to some famous monument and then they go on and on about the monument when you really want to hear more about Abdul.

That's my reaction to career tidbits. As a person who wishes he could stop at large residences and, without triggering a call to the police, quiz the inhabitants about their career moves, I've long been frustrated by foggy career path stories. It is understandable that Toobin probably doesn't want to talk about the connections and/or campaigning that landed that New Yorker gig but the rest of us would love to hear it. We suspect he didn't just get there by sending in a resume.

In this oddly open yet closed world, many people would rather tell you about their sex lives than about their promotion secrets. Organizations fearing lawsuits build durable domes of silence over any selection decision. Why weren't you selected? Well, another highly qualified candidate was chosen. End of conversation. Don't ask anything else or your potential for advancement will sleep with the fishes.

The truly valuable story tellers are the ones who are willing to reveal the real reason why they got the job: "The boss hated my competitor." "They mistook me for someone else." "I was the safe choice." "I had just worked on a project that was near and dear to them even though I didn't know it at the time." "They wanted someone who'd worked in Asia." "I'm close friends with the general counsel who told the CEO that I was clearly the best person for the job." "They were impressed by my superficial knowledge of French." "I was willing to travel and the other candidates weren't."

The real reason may be irrational, foolish, and a "luck of the draw" sort of thing, but it is the real reason.

And that is why you want to hear about it.


pawnking said...

My current job I received above all else because I reminded the manager doing the hiring of herself. She's gone now but I still have the job. Life is funny.

As an aside, I once lost a job because someone fell into the laps of the firm I was at who was doing what I was doing but who had about 15 more years of experience. Sometimes being told to leave isn't something you can have a lot of control of, either.

Michael Wade said...


Those are good examples of the intangibles that can affect careers. What they say they want and what they really want can be two very different things and some exits are far beyond your control.