What Can Trevor Noah Tell You About How To Find a Good Career Path?

Trevor Noah Born a CrimeTrevor Noah, the host who replaced John Stewart on The Daily Show, has written an extraordinary book about his experiences growing up in South Africa. The title of the book is Trevor Noah: Born a Crime. I enthusiastically recommend it!

Trevor Noah was the offspring of a South African mother and a white man who was her friend but not her husband, at a time when in South Africa, relations between the two races was against the law. He was raised by his adventurous, rule-defying, and yet deeply religious, caring, and wise mother. She taught him not to believe in limits.

“My mother took me places black people never went. She refused to be bound by ridiculous ideas of what black people couldn’t or shouldn’t do. She’d take me to the ice rink to go skating. Johannesburg used to have this epic drive-in movie theater, Top Star Drive-In, on top of a massive mine dump outside the city. She’d take me to movies there; we’d get snacks, hang the speaker on our car window. Top Star had a 360-degree view of the city, the suburbs, Soweto. Up there I could see for miles in every direction. I felt like I was on top of the world. My Mom raised me as if there were no limitations on where I could go or what I could do.”

This wonderful image and great insight explains so much about how Trevor Noah could come from apartheid South Africa, where he was only able to make it as a local hustler in the ‘hood in his early adult life, to become the talented, creative and quick-witted host of The Daily Show.

Trevor Noah writes this:

“We tell people to follow their dreams, but you can only dream what you can imagine, and, depending on where you come from, your imagination can be quite limited.”

This is true for so many people. When I work with clients to figure out a better career direction, one of the first things we do is to imagine a different future, one that plays to their strengths. I ask them to imagine a workplace they would want to go to every day. I ask them to think about a mission or missions that excite them. We talk about what they would do if they won the lottery. We talk about how they would fix their present job. We mine their pasts for information that will unearth strong interests and motivators, as well as aptitudes or natural talents that will help them rise to the top of their chosen field. This doesn’t always get them everything they want, but usually gets them a lot closer to a work life they will enjoy.

If you have not had the experience of imagining a different and better future for yourself, it can be very hard to dream of a career that goes beyond the norm you know in the corner of the world where you live and grow up. Ask yourself what you want to do in life and then stretch that idea further. If you can dream it, you can try to work your way toward it. Identify the goal, and then plan the steps you want to take and start out on that path. Even if you do not end up getting to the exact goal you set, you are on a new and challenging path, which is in itself more gratifying.

I counsel many people who, when looking forward to an alternative career will say, “I cannot imagine being able to achieve the goal I am setting.” But I also counsel many people who, looking back on their lives say, “I am amazed about what I have accomplished in my life. Who would have thought I would someday be the head of the Chicago Bar Association?” “Who would have thought that someday I would be able to run this company and have it be a success?” “Who would have thought that I could become a well-known broadcast journalist?” “Who would have believed I would be able to write blockbuster novels?”

I want to be clear. Just because you have an idea of what you want to accomplish in your career doesn’t mean that you will actually get there. But often the goal is less important than you might think, because the process itself is also gratifying.

In my own life, when I was in college, I watched some of the Chicago Seven Trial in federal court. After that, I got it in my head that I wanted to be an Assistant US Attorney. At that time being a prosecutor was not considered to be a viable career path for a woman. It was a goal that was beyond the range of what I thought was possible. But after seeing a few days of that federal trial, I was so excited, I didn’t care that it was not supposed to be a good career for a woman. I did not know I would actually be able to achieve my goal, but I took the necessary steps to try to get there by studying hard for and taking the LSAT, going to law school, landing a job as an Assistant State’s Attorney, and working in the Official Misconduct Unit because it was similar to the work done by federal prosecutors. I also networked in a creative way to meet key people who could help me interview at the U.S. Attorney’s Office. I am happy to say I was able to achieve my goal, and it was a fulfilling job. But even if I had never become an Assistant US Attorney, I had decided on a path I believed in and felt challenged by, and that was gratifying in itself. If you believe in the road you are on, the journey is actually part of the reward.

As Trevor Noah says:

“… the highest rung of what’s possible is far beyond the world you can see.”

So dream beyond the highest rung! You might surprise yourself.

What Advice Would I Give my Younger Self?

Recently I did a talk for the Posse Scholars in Chicago about how to develop relationships that can open doors for internships and jobs. The audience consisted of about thirty very engaged and interesting young men and women who were either in college or about to go to college. They had qualified to be Posse Scholars, participating in a rigorous process designed to find high-school-age leaders with smarts, good judgment, and motivation, and chosen to participate in a support program at some of the top universities and colleges in the country.

49 woman-thinking-sm

After my presentation, I opened the conversation to take questions from the audience. One young man asked, “What advice would you give your younger self? What would you say to yourself when you were our age, now knowing what you know?” That was a very interesting question. Here is the answer.

When you start out in a career, you never really know for sure where it will lead you. You want to begin with a goal based on self-knowledge, which includes understanding what you do well and what you find deeply interesting and satisfying in terms of content. As you make your way to that career goal, your ultimate objective might well shift and change. It often happens that along the way you find a path that takes you off the road you envisioned and in an interesting and appealing new direction. That’s okay. Do not think you have to stay with the goal you set for yourself originally.

However, it is really important to have a goal. Without a goal you can feel adrift and lose your sense of purpose. I counsel many people who have been “wandering around in the career woods.” They chose a path or simply started on a path because it was easy or it was something they were told ought to be good for them. But they did not affirmatively choose it. As time went on, it proved to be unsatisfying. They come to work with me to try to figure out the right career direction. Sometimes they just need to find a career direction that plays to their strengths based on shifts in the world or changes in their own priorities. It’s all okay.

One of my favorite songs is Gerry Rafferty’s “Get It Right Next Time.” Here are some of the lyrics.

Out on the street I was talkin’ to a man
He said there’s so much of this life of mine that I don’t understand
You shouldn’t worry yes that ain’t no crime
‘Cause if you get it wrong you’ll get it right next time, next time…

You need direction, yeah you need a name
When you’re standing in the crossroads every highway looks the same
After a while you can recognize the signs
So if you get it wrong you’ll get it right next time, next time…

You gotta grow, you gotta learn by your mistakes
You gotta die a little everyday to try to stay awake
When you believe there’s no mountain you can’t climb
And if you get it wrong you’ll get it right next time, next time…

I would tell my younger self it is perfectly okay to feel confused at the crossroads. Know that it will be a worthwhile journey if you are true to yourself: follow your talents and strong interests, affirmatively choose your goals, and learn from your mistakes. Don’t worry if the goal changes over time because you never know where life will take you and if you get it wrong you’ll get it right next time.

The Mentoring Dilemma at Busy Law Firms

“I‘m supposed to talk with you about why I‘m not performing well.“

I could tell by her voice over the phone that she was not happy about this. Kelly‘s law firm asked her to contact me, an executive coach, to learn how to improve her game. She was a fifth year doing transactional work at a large New York firm.


“What do you think is the problem?“ I asked her.

“It‘s not what they think,“ she said irritably. “They think I am not performing at the level of a fifth year, that I need to be more organized and use better judgment, and stop procrastinating.“

“And what do you think is going on here?“ I asked.

“I think they are not mentoring me enough. They are not giving me the support I need to do the job well.“

We discussed her situation in more detail.

Kelly had begun her career at this firm as a litigation associate, but after a year she had requested a move to the transactional group where she felt more comfortable with the role and more interested in the work. She made that transition without losing any seniority, but she felt under pressure to perform at the level of a second year even though she was more appropriately a first year associate. Nonetheless, she worked hard and was gaining confidence at that point in her career, she told me.

However, the transactional group experienced a slowdown in business. Kelly was asked to return to the litigation group to help out doing discovery on a big case, or risk being let go. She went back to the litigation group with reluctance, hoping to return to the transactional group as soon as possible.

After the litigation matter settled, Kelly requested and obtained a return to the transactional group. When she returned to that group, however, there were fewer attorneys in the group. A year had gone by. All of the junior partners had been let go or had left of their own accord. Partners were doing the work that had been relegated to junior partners in the past. Consequently, the partners were extremely busy.

“And a lot more crabby,“ Kelly assured me.

Kelly returned to the group as a fourth year associate. She was also the most senior associate remaining in the group.

She struggled to get up to speed. Faced with a difficult question, or an instrument she did not recognize, or the need to make a crucial judgment call, she would ask one of her two partners for guidance. Very often they reacted to her requests with annoyance, telling her to use her own best judgment. But when she made a mistake after doing just that, the partners expressed their frustration with her.

Her reviews suffered because she was seen as inappropriately unsure of herself.

Understandably, after receiving this feedback, Kelly hesitated to ask for additional help from these two partners, for whom she did most of her work. She tried to get assistance from another partner in the same practice group, but he too was very busy.

Her reviews continued to be negative. Her partners now faulted her for procrastination and a slow turn-around time.

“What do they expect?“ she said. “When I get stuck I have no one to turn to for help. So I just sit here unable to figure out what to do. I feel sort of frozen. When I try to make a decision, I just don‘t have enough information to come up with a solution.“

Kelly‘s dilemma is not an isolated occurrence. With an increasing focus on managing costs, I am seeing many lawyers with similar problems. Some law firms have scrambled to keep associates, moving them into busier practice areas, while reducing the ranks of junior partners. Firms have made these strategic shifts to ramp up productivity and preserve senior partners. Kelly and others like her get into a Catch-22 situation. In her case, she could ask for help and risk being labeled as lacking judgment, or she could avoid asking for help but risk being labeled as a procrastinator. The underlying problem is that she needs more training and education to function well as an associate at her designated level.

These days more than ever before, busy partners want associates who will do their jobs without needing what partners think of as “hand holding“ and what associates think of as “mentoring“.

What are Kelly‘s options?

  1. She could try to find a partner, junior partner, more senior associate, or even a paralegal who would be willing to teach her.
  2. She could try to formulate one or two approaches based on what she does know, and request assistance from the partners who assigned the work when she is able to present more well-developed ideas or strategies. This would show the partners that she is capable of advanced legal thinking.
  3. She could try to find a mentor/teacher outside of the firm.
  4. She could ask to be removed from the ranks of the fourth years and “demoted“ to a third year status. (This approach would have been better at the time she moved back to the transactional group to keep the pressure down, but she did not anticipate this problem.)

Kelly‘s dilemma will probably require that she try to find a tutor/mentor/teacher on her own. She can try her law school professors. At least she could start there. Perhaps a recently retired attorney who practiced the same kind of law would be able to help her. She needs a sounding board for her questions and help developing better judgment. This approach has worked for some of my clients with similar problems.

Large law firms would do well to consider an internship system similar to the medical profession where new graduates could learn the basics, ask basic questions of their mentors and teachers, and gain experience without the threat of a negative review.

Is “Do What You Love” Good Advice?

“Do what you love and the rest will follow.”
“Don’t be afraid to follow your dream.”

How often have you heard this advice? It can be an exciting invitation to leave your boring job behind and try something adventurous, daring, and new. There are stories about people who did follow their dreams who landed on their feet. But there are also stories about people who tried to do that and ended up bankrupt or in a bad situation: the actress-to-be who moved to Hollywood, could not get any jobs in the film industry, and ended up waiting tables; the would-be blockbuster author who left the practice of law but did not become the next Scott Turow. One size does not fit all. Good advice for one person is not necessarily good advice for everyone.

thinking womanWhen people give the advice – follow your dream – what they are often encouraging is an entrepreneurial aspiration and a break from traditional work life: the creation of a whole new line of fashion footwear or candle scents or brownies or a new app that will change the world. And sometimes that advice is given by people who are themselves tired of the routine nature of their own lives, and give advice to others that they wish they could follow themselves. The decision to leave your current career path for something that has a low probability of success is something that needs to be thought through very carefully. Sometimes it is the right career move. Sometimes it is not.

What goes into a thoughtful career decision about actually following your dream is a mixture of many elements, including how you will manage risk. The ability to manage risk is both financial and emotional. It includes whether you have enough money in reserve to support yourself if the venture is not an instant success. You want to make a thoughtful assessment of the current economic situation in the world at large and how hungry it might be for your new idea or venture. And there are personality traits that will make a difference in your success. You want to think about your ability to follow through on tasks you give yourself and your ability to face problems and solve them as they arise, as well as your ability to take advantage of opportunities when you see them to push your agenda forward. Do you have responsibilities to your family that will cause you sleepless nights if your venture is not a success? Do you have a lot of debt? This combination of personality traits and economic forces will shape a venture and make it more or less likely that you will realize your dream if you do decide to follow it by taking action. Some people should follow their dream but others should not.

However, even if taking action to follow your dream is not the best advice for you, daring to dream is always good advice. Daring to dream is different from acting on your dream. Daring to dream about what you want in your work life is always very valuable. When you imagine what you really want and need in your dream career, you can learn the building blocks you should have in your actual career.

I ask my clients to imagine a job they would enjoy doing so that we can mine that “dream” for elements that will indicate the right career direction. I ask my clients to “fix” their current job so that we can see what is missing or making them particularly unhappy, and what they yearn to have in a career or a workplace. Once we talk in these terms, we gain a lot of information that is useful for career planning.

Many of my clients imagine a work life where they have a job with a mission shared by other people they respect and who respect them as well. They imagine a collegial group of supportive people, doing work they are very interested in with the opportunity to be challenged and to become an expert, as well as mentoring others. When you dream or envision your career in this way, the specific dream you have that is uniquely your vision becomes very instructive. It guides and defines your aspirational career goal.

Part of the process of dreaming is figuring out your strong interests as well. In fact most of the time I would not say “follow your dream,” but I would say “follow your strong interests.” And if you do not think you have any strong interests, you are probably someone who does have a strong interest, namely, an interest in having a life that allows you time for friends and family and outside activities. Strong interests are important because you want to like what you are thinking about for most of the waking hours of your life. That sounds obvious but I continue to be amazed by the number of people I work with who did not factor their strong interests into their career path choices. I counsel hundreds of unhappy lawyers who do not like thinking about the law. I counsel many new graduates who think they should go into finance or sales because their friends have done that, even though they personally have no interest or aptitude. Interest is a huge motivator. It inspires people to want to get up every day to go to work. Identify your interests and get creative about how to express them in your career. You will be more likely to enjoy your work life if you do.

Not everyone has the ability or chance to follow their strong interests, but even something close or added in your off hours can help to enhance career satisfaction. If you cannot have a career as a musician or author, for example, you might enjoy working with creative people to help them be successful. If you cannot be a sports reporter, you might enjoy writing a blog about sports after hours. If you are a people person and you love making people feel welcome, you might not get to be the host of America’s Got Talent, but you do want to search for jobs where you can have the role of the person who welcomes and embraces others. Maybe that job would be in a restaurant, or perhaps it is in sales, or as part of a hospitality team doing installations and events. When you think about work in this way, mining your dream for the elements that bring you happiness, you can identify the right career path far better.

The key is to dream first. Because buried in your dream are the elements of a work life that you will want to get up and do every day.

Know Yourself When Opportunity Knocks

These days LinkedIn has become a vehicle for employers to search for people to interview and possibly hire. Recruiters search the Internet, and most specifically LinkedIn, to find good people and invite them to apply for a job even if these people were not actively looking for work. For job seekers, that means showcasing your skills and telling your story in a compelling way on LinkedIn can open doors for you in a way that creates a better chance for success in the hiring process. When an employer finds you, instead of you banging on the door of the workplace, the employer is more psychologically ready to want you to succeed in the hiring process. There is a bias in favor of people who are not out of work and are currently gainfully employed. These are just the kinds of people employers would like to poach.

But just because you are found by a workplace that would like to vet you, does not mean the job is right for you no matter how flattering it is to be asked.

One of my clients, a freelance video content producer, was recently contacted by a recruiter working for a high profile nonprofit. The recruiter was hunting for the right hire for a full-time in-house producer job. The nonprofit thought it needed someone who would be good at “telling the story of the nonprofit” and this freelancer had done a great job of showcasing those skills in her LinkedIn profile. However, when the freelancer spoke with the recruiter by phone the job description became much clearer. The workplace was looking for someone to shepherd the many freelancers already shooting videos for the various branches of the organization, but the job itself did not include the role of shooting or editing video. The producer role for the nonprofit called for administrative, organizational, and communication skills rather than production skills, editing, or an artistic eye in the filming process.

My client called to see if she should take this job. It appealed to her because of the stability of the job and the benefits. But she realized that it did not play to her strengths. We went back to the template she had created when we worked together to identify the right career direction for her.

She had identified a number of essential elements for happiness in her work life. Some of the top elements were these: the freedom to come and go and be physically independent of a work setting, the chance to develop her skills as a film maker, an entrepreneurial venture with the ability to support her current life style, and the opportunity to learn more about the complex camera equipment she had invested in to launch her business. She had in fact already launched her business and was becoming successful by building her brand. All of this was very exciting for her. She would be giving it up if she took this full time job.

After a brief review of her career goals, and thinking again about the reason for the essential elements she had identified, she was easily able to make the decision not to take this job.

With a template to guide you, it gets easier to avoid the temptation of taking a job that sounds great until you vet it for your own needs.

Work on your own template and figure out your essential elements. The template tools you can use are in the downloadable Appendices of my book Job Quest: How to Become the Insider Who Gets Hired, which you can find on my website www.nielsencareerconsulting.com.