At a basic level, career (and business, for that matter) can be thought of like this:
- What you have to offer.
- What the market wants/needs and is willing to pay for.
- Getting in front of your market.
- Telling the market the story of what you have to offer such a compelling way that they want to hire you.
As you progress through your career—or even change your career—you will continue to touch on all four of these points repeatedly.
Peter Drucker’s essay, Managing Oneself, is about item #1 above: learning what you have to offer.
Most people think they know what they are good at. They are usually wrong. More often, people know what they are not good at—and even then more people are wrong than right. And yet, a person can perform only from strength. One cannot build performance on weaknesses, let alone on something one cannot do at all.
Drucker advises that you need to identify where you are strong and build on those strengths. Building on weaknesses will only lead to mediocrity.
Throughout history, people had little need to know their strengths. A person was born into position and a line of work: The peasant’s son would also be a peasant; the artisan’s daughter, an artisan’s wife; and so on. But now people have choices. We need to know our strengths in order to know where we belong.
We all have a vast number of areas in which we have no talent or skill and little chance of becoming even mediocre. In those areas a person—and especially a knowledge worker—should not take on work, jobs, and assignments. One should waste as little effort as possible on improving areas of low competence. It takes far more energy and work to improve from incompetence to mediocrity than it takes to improve from first-rate-performance to excellence. And yet most people—especially most teachers and most organizations—concentrate on making incompetent performers into mediocre ones. Energy, resources, and time should go instead to making a competent person into a star performer.
The conclusion bears repeating: Do not try to change yourself—you are unlikely to succeed. But work hard to improve the way you perform. And try not to take on work you cannot perform or will only perform poorly.
It is also necessary to find work that is A.) congruent with your values and B.) plays to your strengths while minimizing reliance on your weaknesses.
Many years go, I too had to decide between my values and what I was doing successfully. I was doing very well as a young investment banker in London in the mid-1930’s, and the work clearly suited my strengths. Yet I did not see myself making a contribution as an asset manager. People, I realized, were what I valued, and I saw no point in being the richest man in the cemetery. I had no money and no other job prospects. Despite the continuing Depression, I quit—–and it was the right thing to do. Values, in other words, are and should be the ultimate test.
… most people, especially highly gifted people, do not really know where they belong until they are well past their mid-twenties. By that time, however, they should know the answers to the three questions: What are my strengths? How do I perform? and, What are my values? And then they can and should decide where they belong.
Or rather, they should be able to decide where they do not belong. The person who has learned that he or she does not perform well in a big organization should have learned to say no to a position in one. The person who has learned that he or she is not a decision maker should have learned to say no to a decision-making assignment….
Equally important, know the answer to these questions enables a person to say to an opportunity, an offer, or an assignment, “Yes, I will do that. But this is the way I should be doing it. This is the way it should be structured. This is the way the relationships should be. These are the kind of results you should expect from me, and in this time frame, because this is who I am.”
And finally, he hints at the zig-zag nature of building a career where you can be an outstanding performer.
Successful careers are not planned. The develop when people are prepared for opportunities because they know their strengths, their method of work, and their values. Knowing where one belongs can transform an ordinary person—hardworking and competent but otherwise mediocre—into an outstanding performer.
It’s quite a short read at just a few pages, but it contains a lot of advice that you can start implementing right away to improve the quality of your career and the value you can offer others. The ideas and quotes above are just a taste.