By now, nearly everyone knows that what makes a particular type of work fit is that it fits you. Squeezing yourself into the wrong career has dire consequences in terms of your self-expression, fulfillment and health. But what makes up the you that the career is supposed to fit? Let’s take a look at
HOW YOU GOT TO BE THE WAY YOU ARE
Families have long recognized the genetic basis of various traits because they “run in the family”: things like a strong chin, dimples, a stubborn streak, creativity, good looks, and so on.
Some of the most telling studies have involved sets of identical twins separated at birth and adopted by different families. These sets of twins grew up amazingly alike, even though they had no contact with each other. One pair of separated-at-birth twins left school early at the same age, met their husbands at the same age and in the same setting, miscarried, and then each went on to have two boys and a girl. Both had the same odd little personal habits. They both used the palms of their hands to push their noses up, which they both called by the same made-up name, “squidging.” They both laughed the same odd way, dyed their hair the same shade, drank their coffee cold, feared heights and experienced discomfort around blood. They scored the same in psychological and IQ tests, used the same brands of personal care products, and had the same thyroid problems, heart murmurs, and allergies. After they discovered each other, they sent each other identical birthday gifts, and when they met for the first time they were wearing nearly identical clothes. This pair of twins is an especially dramatic example of what the studies revealed.
The point is that genetics determines much more of our personalities and talents than we sometimes think. Much of who you are came pre-formed from the factory. You know that the most beautiful girl and most handsome guy in school didn’t create themselves that way. Their good looks are a happy accident, the gift of their genetic heritage. If they also naturally learn quickly, they didn’t plan that either. So if you daydream in class, or talk too much or not enough, or your left zorch is too small or your hair sticks up, it is not your fault. If you came out cool or hot or sweet, you didn’t do that either. It is all a part of the package the stork delivered.
Simpler critters, like reptiles, arrive with their software fully programmed. A newborn snake knows all it needs to know to get by in life without lessons from Mom. It is for the most part a miniature adult, ready to fend for itself. That may be why there aren’t any snake training schools in your town. You just can’t train a snake to do anything it isn’t programmed to do.
Other animals, including most mammals, are more complicated. Their parents teach them how to survive. Although you may think you learn much more these days than when you were little, quite the opposite is true. By the time you were six years old, you had learned the vast majority of what you will ever know, including all the basics such as walking and talking, and a good chunk of your basic personal strategy and attitude about life.
Throughout our lives we learn from the influences around us: parents, friends, television, the “tribes” we belong to, our culture and society, our experiences, our decisions and mistakes. Zoologists call us “tribal primates,” just like our hunter-gatherer ancestors. In ancient times, each of us belonged to one tribe. Now we belong to and are influenced by the wisdom, values, and rules of multiple tribes. Each of your tribes contributes to your personality, no matter how much of an independent-thinking person you consider yourself to be.
We absorb most of this without thinking about it. Mostly we don’t know there is anything to think about. We tend to take our point of view for granted, as if it’s a universal truth and not the product of our upbringing and genetic heritage.
You Are an Accident That Already Happened
Scientists are still arguing about how much of you comes from your ancestors and how much from your environment. In terms of figuring out what to do with your life, it doesn’t really matter. The basic structure of your talents and personality will not likely change very much no matter what their original source. You will master new skills. You may develop and expand your personality and your abilities. But you are not going to become a different person. Who you are now is a lot like who you will be years from now.
When you combine all you have been given by nature with all you have learned through nurture, you get this marvelously complicated and completely unique creature: you. There is no one just like you out of all the billions of people alive. Nobody has the same mix of talents, personality traits, and history.
What does all of this have to do with choosing your career? It obviously makes sense to design a career that fits who you are, not someone else, and not some fantasy character you wish you were. If you are a quiet, private person, you may wish you were the life of the party. But it would be a mistake to pick a career that fits the fantasy instead of who you really are. That doesn’t mean you can’t grow, improve, and learn to be more outgoing. But you would be smart to pick a career that fits the real you rather than some imaginary character. You turned out exactly as you are now. You are perfectly designed to be the best possible you. That’s why it is so important to get to know as much as you can about yourself, your talents and your personality.
THE HUMAN SPIRIT
Right now you might be wondering: “Are you saying I’m just some animal or elegant, complicated machine without freedom of choice and self-determination?” No, not at all. What we have been talking is just one side of human nature. There is another part that changes everything.
Nature and nurture cannot explain the totality of what it means to be human. Yes, there are things we cannot change. At five foot two as an adult, you will not be scouted by the NBA. That’s the way it goes. It would be wise to consider a career other than basketball.
Where we humans surpass every other creature on earth is our ability to imagine a possible future that isn’t going to happen automatically, to create a commitment to that future, and then to make it real. I’m not just talking about our human capacity to plan. I’m talking about the ability to invent a future we desire, even one that seems nearly impossible, and make it happen. That is the power of the human spirit. It is the ability to create.
When John F. Kennedy was president, he created a possibility, a vision for the future: the United States could land a man on the moon within ten years. Even though such an accomplishment seemed nearly impossible, Kennedy created a commitment to that possible future, convinced the American people to share his commitment, and then generated a project to make it happen. Many experts said it was impossible to predict whether we could actually pull it off. We went ahead anyway, and, as we all know, it was a brilliant success. Against all odds, we did it.
Human history is filled with stories of people doing what others considered impossible: Hannibal crossed the Alps with his elephants; the Wright brothers flew; a small group of American colonists created a vision for a brand of democracy that had never existed on the planet before. Vision alone, however, was insufficient. Next, they turned this vision into a commitment, even with all their doubts and fears about whether or not they could fulfill their dream. Then, in the case of the colonists, they declared that commitment to the world through an extraordinary document called the Declaration of Independence. They essentially said: “This is how it is going to be. We stake our lives on fulfilling this dream.”
Vision, commitment, and declaration are not sufficient either, however. Those colonists also had to do all the hard work necessary to make the dream a reality, including hammering out agreements with each other and the part we call the American Revolution. The project of making this dream come true is still one of the major themes of American politics.
SO WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH ME?
Everything. You have the ability to turn dreams into reality every bit as much as Kennedy, Hannibal, the Wright brothers, and James Madison did. It is built into you. I have seen many thousands of people who shaped their own lives, often far beyond what they thought was possible, once they discovered the degree of power they had to create a new and extraordinary future for themselves.
We are all potential inventors, creators, artists, authors, entrepreneurs and discoverers—not necessarily in the traditional ways, but in our own lives. We have the power to invent our own individual futures, create a vision of the kind of life we most want to live, and then find a way, against all odds, to make it happen.
So what’s it going to be?