Careers, Logic and the Above-Average Effect

About 18% of Americans are satisfied with Congress according to the latest Gallup poll. Yet over 90% of Congressional incumbents win reelection. That seems so contradictory. Why do we say we are dissatisfied with someone yet then turn around and vote them back in? There are a few common answers:

  • We think it is “everyone else’s” person who is bad. Our representative is okay
  • We believe the alternative to the person we have now is a worse option
  • We believe we are (relatively) logical beings. We don’t recognize we are not always logical about what we like/dislike. So we make inconsistent – or sometimes contradictory – decisions.

This is not a political blog, so I am not going to analyze that. But I am going to use it as an entry point for the same kind of thinking that goes on in our jobs and careers.

Careers and Logic don’t always mix

Why do people stay in a job they hate? Why do job seekers ignore the best practices for finding a new job?

The answers are often the same as the voting contradiction. We don’t always do what is logical.

Maybe it is because we dream up reasons why the alternative is worse.

The person in the job thinks: “If I quit this horrible job, how do I know I will quickly find a new one that is any better?” So they stay in a job, never really exploring opportunities.

The job seeker thinks: If I try more networking, I will be uncomfortable and lousy at it, thus making myself feel even worse. I will embarrass myself by asking for help. I don’t know what to say. I am not good at approaching strangers in a social or a business setting. So, I will keep looking at online job postings and applying.

Sometimes we convince ourselves that our way will eventually work for us, despite the odds against it.

The disengaged working person figures they can “last a few more years at this position before moving on. By then, my financial situation will be better and then I can do something different. Perhaps I will have a new boss. I know I can hang on”.

The job seeker thinks, “it is just a numbers game. I need to keep applying. One of these will hit. I can’t give up now.”(BTW, my opinion is this is the same thinking that people have when buying lottery tickets). Most studies indicate that 60% of jobs are found through networking. But most people spend a majority of their time on everything but networking.

Sometimes it is misplaced loyalty that drives inconsistent decisions

The person in a job thinks to themselves that they “owe their loyalty to a company or boss or their co-workers to stick around and make things work”. Is that loyalty reciprocated?

Perhaps the job seeker has received advice from a well-meaning person who has told them “this process will work for you”. The job seeker “logically” believes they need to give the other person’s advice “a chance” before moving on. But do you really need to be loyal to someone’s advice?

Think you are the exception to the rule?

Don’t count on it. After all, we are all human. Ever tried to lose weight? Do that home improvement project that won’t take much work? Been in a relationship that will “eventually get better”? Decide to take up exercising? We all think we are from Lake Wobegon, where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average”. The Lake Wobegon effect, also known as the above-average effect, is a natural human tendency to overestimate one’s capabilities. We all do it.

So what can you do about putting a little more logic into your career?

Recognize that you are going to make some of the mistakes noted above.

Take some time for self reflection.  Once a month, go back and look at your activity. Does it look logical? Have you fallen into any of the traps our minds sometimes get us in?

Want some help? Ask a friend. Ask someone at a networking meeting what they think. Talk with a neutral observer (or two) like a coach or mentor. Like so many things in life, if we just hit the pause button for a short while, we just might find out the truth.



“Useless” can be helpful?

I recently watched a TED Talk by Simone Giertz called “Why You Should Build Useless Things.” She tells her story in a funny and enlightening way. What struck me is the message she had for all us.

We put so much pressure on ourselves to be

  • Brilliant
  • Successful
  • The perfect me
  • Well Known
  • Pursuing Our Passion
  • Being the exemplary mom/dad/sibling/friend/doctor/accountant/engineer
  • Fulfilling the destiny others have set for us or we set for ourselves
  • At the “right” job that pays us enough money to not have concerns
  • (Put in whatever other “goal” you have here)

She summed up her journey away from that pressure so beautifully with these words:

And as soon as I removed all pressure and expectations from myself, that pressure quickly got replaced by enthusiasm.

I built myself this job. and it’s something that I could never have planned for . . . Instead it happened just because I was enthusiastic about what I was doing and I was sharing that enthusiasm with other people.

“Pressure got replaced by enthusiasm”

Doesn’t that sound wonderful? Sound like a better outcome than many of the others listed above? Do you have something in your life that brings enthusiasm? Is it work?

Studies show that more than 70% of people are feeling stress from jobs. This stress affects their lives, their families and their own health. People out of jobs face as much, if not more, stress. Does enthusiasm ever come into their picture?

I suspect some people will say, “she is young, she can afford to do something crazy.” Or perhaps, “I have no idea what I would do!” I would ask, “what are YOU enthusiastic about?” Wouldn’t it be wonderful “to turn that voice off in your head that tells you that you know exactly how the world works”? The world is changing ever faster it seems.  Maybe the nontraditional job is the wave of the future (Simone runs a YouTube Channel on robots).

I highly recommend investing 11 minutes in this TED Talk.  Great TED Talk Simone Giertz

It will leave you laughing. You might scratch your head a bit. But I hope it leaves you a little inspired to look at things differently like Simone did. After all, she is doing the job she loves, and is having a great time doing it.

Isn’t that the goal in life for every one of us?

Connecting, Not Networking

For many people seeking jobs, Networking (“the N word”) is a source of anxiety and dread. The thought of going out and “selling” yourself to strangers is intimidating. And let’s face it, for many of us, it is no fun. We ruminate over a series of questions. How do I introduce myself? What should I say? Who do I walk up to? Do I need an elevator speech? How much is enough? Anxiety builds and our sense of self diminishes.

Having said it is uncomfortable, study after study shows that the best way to get a job is through an inside connection – the result of networking. Talk to most people who have gotten a new job, and they will tell you a story of how they got the job through a networking connection. Most job seekers go through a cycle of spending much of their time early in job search on the computer. Searching for jobs. Applying. Sorting through tons of emails touting jobs that may or may not be a fit. After a number of months, they begin to realize they have to meet people. And that’s when good results happen.

Rethinking Networking

First off, let’s call networking what it really is. It is reconnecting and connecting. Connecting comes from the Latin word to “join together”. One definition is to “join together so that a link is established”. So a reconnection is joining together something that was connected before. You aren’t necessarily breaking ground with a stranger. You are reconnecting with someone you know.

Three types of connections

The first type of connection is people you know. Start here. These include neighbors, former coworkers, customers, people from church, people you volunteered with or people who you know through your children. They may be close friends or acquaintances. The key is they know you. Maybe you have not seen them in a while. But it should not be awkward to reach out to them. What’s the best way? Ask for input – but not a job. Here are some great openers:

“You know me pretty well. I am trying to write down what I am good at. What would you say to me?”

“I am working on updating my LinkedIn profile (or my resume). Would you be willing to take a look and give me some thoughts? (or, “what is one thing you believe I should put on my resume or LinkedIn?”)

Better yet, invite them to coffee, lunch or a beer and try one of those questions above. These should be more comfortable conversations. You already have a relationship! You don’t need to concern yourself with an opening. You don;t have to explain who you are and what you are looking to do. You can be yourself.

Next type of connections are people you want to know. There might be four groups in this set

  1. Influencers – people who can help you because they have influence in the community or a company (think business owners, Chamber of Commerce Presidents, etc.)
  2. Connectors. These are people who seem to know everyone else in  town (a Mike Bevis, Don Gray, Bill Powell or Ann Reigle Crichton for example). They can open doors for you
  3. Hiring managers
  4. Recruiters

This group is great because they are deeply involved in job search from the outside. They have worked with hundreds of others. They have a natural network (sorry, “set of connections”) that can be of great value to you. Utilize their accumulated wisdom to gain insight. This may be a one-time connection. But these people live to make that next connection for you.

The third group are people you don’t know that you want to know. Many of these are fellow job seekers. Think about it. These are people in a similar situation to you. They can empathize. But they can also give you some hard-earned lessons. They can provide insight into things that worked or did not work for them. They might have a connection inside a company – or some insight about a company that you are interested in. Where do you find them? There are at least four job search groups in the Dayton area alone – Panerians, Library Job Seekers, Third Thursday and Springboro Group.

The first and third groups are also great leads toward the middle group.

So how many connections is “right”?

You will hear a broad range of numbers. Some people strive for that “500 LinkedIn connections” goal. Worthy, but unnecessary in my mind. Find a number that is comfortable for you. I think a goal of 1-2 reconnections a week is really good. Attending at least two different job seeker groups a month to determine which are most valuable to you seems reasonable. Keep it to a number that is achievable for you – but also stretches you a little.

And remember, you are trying to “connect”, not “network”.


The Element

In his book, The Element, Ken Robinson Ph.D. describes a concept critical for our careers and lives. He urges us to find our element. The Element is “the point at which natural talent meets personal passion”.

The Element is “the point at which natural talent meets personal passion”.

Another way of looking at it is this: “the place where the things we love to do and the things we are good at come together”. He believes when people get to their Element, they “feel most themselves, most inspired and achieve at their highest levels.” Sounds like something all of us would like to do.

As I have worked and talked with many people, I find that we are all different in many ways. But one thing holds true for the majority. People are not happy with the job they currently have (according to a Gallup survey, about 75% of people are this way). If you have ever looked at any surveys on “happiness”, “fulfillment” or “contentment”, you will see that as people reach the “post-employment” part of their lives, their happiness increases. Why is that? Wouldn’t you think as you get older, you would be less happy because you know the end is getting nearer?

Study after study shows this curve:

 We end our lives much happier in the “post-work” part of life. Might it be the fact that these people are no longer spending 40 hours a week (or more) doing something they did not enjoy?  Why do we allow our careers to be part of what makes us less happy in our 30’s, 40’s and 50s?

We all end up some place in our career and life that we cannot always explain. Perhaps it was schooling that got us there (Robinson talks a lot about how the regimentation of learning diverts us from our Element). Maybe it was family circumstances. A lot of us just “ended up here” through a string of events. Some of us were pushed in a direction by other well-meaning people and we just listened.

Those few people that are in their Element are often a curiosity to the rest of us. Are they extraordinary in some way? Have they been the beneficiary of luck? Were their family circumstance such that they were in the right place at the right time? Were they born with the “right” set of genes? Who knows. But I do know this. We all have something we truly love to do. It is our choice whether we pursue that or not.

We hear we should “pursue our passion”. But that doesn’t always seem practical. Nor is it always realistic at this particular point in time. The journey from where we are to where we would love to be may take multiple steps. So it seems overwhelming.

In this era of “pursue your passion”, I like what Robinson has to say about different ways at getting to your Element. It may not be practical today to pursue your passion for a number of reasons: financial, family, current skill level, educational background, opportunity. But he notes that you might want to go for your Element in a recreation part of your life (think of volunteering, joining a music band, pursuing ballroom dance, being an actor or a mentor).

Achieving your Element outside of work brings the proper balance to your life – a balance between making a living and making a life. “Whether or not we can spend most of our time in our Element, it’s essential for our well-being that we connect with our true passions in some way at some point”.

Reflect for a moment on where you are in life. Further reflect on how you would describe your Element. These are things worth spending a little time on.

“It’s essential for our well-being that we connect with our true passions in some way at some point”

Why The Job Seeker Needs to become the “Question Asker”

( this post takes about 2 1/2 minutes to read)

When we are interviewed, we go in thinking we are going to be the person answering a lot of questions or providing the “right” wisdom. So we prepare out STAR stories. We practice answers to behavioral questions. We research the company to gain insight. These are all great things to do. But do they, by themselves, help us get across the finish line? Not always.

What if you turned that around and decided you were going to be the one asking questions? Might asking great questions do a few things for you? I think so.

  1. You stand out. You are much more memorable than every other person that was interviewed
  2. You learn. You gather information you might not have gathered otherwise
  3. You provide value. Asking a question, hearing the answer, and then describing how you could fit that situation connects the dots for the interviewer. You are helping the other person understand much better how you can solve their problem or meet their need.

It’s the execution of wisdom, not it’s reception, that’s difficult

The writer and blogger Ozan Varol had this to say:

. . . it appears more efficient to deliver a quick dose of advice and flood the other person with all that “wisdom” we accumulated over the years. But wisdom has never been cheaper. All of the world’s knowledge is at our fingertips. As Derek Sivers puts it, “if information was the answer then we’d all be billionaires with perfect abs.” It’s the execution of wisdom, not its reception, that’s difficult. And we’re far more likely to execute if we come to a solution on our own terms. . . 

Instead of saying “Here’s why you should hire me,” ask “What would make this relationship a home run for you?”

Instead of saying “Here’s why my product, service, or business is awesome,” ask “What exactly are you looking for?”

This doesn’t mean you completely shun affirmative statements. It simply means that you resist the initial instinct to give advice or deliver an assertive pitch and begin the discussion with a series of questions instead.

It is a pretty simple concept in the end. You are allowing some of the discussion to be the other person talking about themselves or their organization. We all know people like to talk about themselves. At the same time, you put yourself into “listening mode” rather than speaking mode. If you are really listening, you gain insight.

By the way, this works well for networking sessions also. It doesn’t have to start with, “here is who I am and what I am looking for next”. Try, “You have gone through job search, what would you have done differently? “If you were in job search, what would you do?” What do you notice are the biggest problems faced by you and your company every day?”

Take some time to think about what you would like to learn, as opposed to what you would like to impart. It just may make you wiser and more prepared. And perhaps more memorable.


Defining Your Skills

In my career coaching experience, two of the hardest things for most people are to:

  1. Truly describe a skill they have
  2. Provide a complete inventory of their skills

What do I mean by the first one? Here is an example. When I say “creative” what comes to mind? Dictionary says this: ” involving the imagination or original ideas, especially in the production of an artistic work”. Creative is a very rich word. It has so many different incantations, depending on your frame of reference. But if you limit it to “artistic”, you miss a lot

Artistic? I joke that I cannot draw a stick man. Painting? Ha! I am not a singer. As a dancer, I can get by passably with Rose as my partner, but no one would confuse me with someone who has great rhythm and flows on the dance floor. I am not a flower arranger. Nor can I look at a room or a stack of cloth to create something beautiful from it. So, does this mean I AM NOT CREATIVE?

No. I think I am creative. I am a real out-of-the box thinker. I am good at looking at situations from a totally different frame. I think most of my clients who have gotten to know me would say that I am very creative in coming up with the right questions to stimulate thinking. I write a blog every week, so I am a pretty creative writer.

My point is this. If I allow others to define “creative”, I just might come out with a really low score. Additionally, if I look at “creative” in a narrow sense, I might hold myself back.

About my second point above, I was reading a fascinating passage in a book talking about the “senses”. If you ask most people “how many senses are there?”, they would probably answer “Five” -sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch. Some people might add a sixth sense, intuition. But the consensus is pretty clear at “five”.

Until you stop and think a little more. What about the sense of direction? The sense of balance? Some consider the ability to know the differences in temperature (hot and cold) in our environment (“thermoception”) a sense.  A sense of balance is an imperative skills for a gymnast. We all would prefer a taxi (or Uber) driver or a hunting guide with a great sense of direction. The point is that the original consensus need not be right.

When we think about skills, we tend to underestimate the richness of the skill. When we start to look at the senses from a new perspective,we see much more than was originally there.

So what does this have to do with job seeking and careers?


Do we really think deeply about our skills? Probably not. We think through the most apparent ones. More dangerously, we default to the skills we have used the most at work, whether we like to use them or not. Does our familiarity with what we have done put blinders on us?

In job seeking, are we so focused on getting the basics done first – the resume, the LinkedIn profile, the networking meetings – at the expense of this deeper thinking? When you expand your thinking, you realize you have skills you did not originally think about. Or, you remind yourself of skills that just don’t come to mind initially. Maybe there is a latent skill not being used. We have skills not used at “work” but used in other parts of our life. We all have the habit of underestimating ourselves. Don’t do it!

Self reflection is a great way to expand your list of skills. It can be enhanced by talking with another person. When you work with another person, you get the opportunity to benefit from a different perspective. They have a different definition of a particular skill. They might challenge you to look at things a little differently.

Think about it this way. Someone asks you a question about what you are known for or what you are good at. If you have done your preparation, you might have a really great answer. It may make all the difference.

Tell your Story vs. Fill in the Blanks

As job seekers, we are often told to “tell your story”.

But what does that mean?

It means being in control of your narrative. You choose to be in charge. Otherwise you allow someone else to be your biographer. You are trying to fill in the blanks for the other person. If you don’t tell your story, the other person will fill it in with their own assumptions. That is just the way we are wired. In the absence of information, the other person will make assumptions.

Most of us don’t like missing information. Like a puzzle missing some key pieces, we are drawn to filling them in. Face it. When you see someone of a certain age, you make some assumptions (for example, who doesn’t do that for Millenials?). See someone with their face buried in their phone. What do you assume? See someone dressed a certain way. What story do you narrate? If I asked you to draw a picture of a “boss”, what does it look like (male or female? how are they dressed? What facial expression?). I could ask the same question with “accountant” or “engineer” or “cook” or “teacher”.

I was speaking with someone the other day who said they “liked to manage people”. What might that mean to you?

  • They like to be a manager of people?
  • They like to mentor/coach/help others?
  • They want to be in charge of a large group of people to direct them towards achieving some goal?

In the absence of more information, you will fill in your own version of the story. Their story, but with your spin on it.

In this case, after some conversation, it became clear the person got their energy from working with others and helping them navigate the corporate world. Whether it be mentoring others on how best to deal with a coworker, providing career guidance, or being a person that just listened, they enjoyed themselves. They did not need to be managing a large group. They didn’t even really want the burden of managing big projects and the stress that comes with them. They simply wanted to be able to make a (sometimes informal) difference in people’s work lives.

Take a moment to think about this. Do you want control over your story? Or do you want to cede control to another? It is not necessarily an evil person taking control. It is just human nature. Why not tell your story? Why not fill in the blanks for the other person?

Lets make this real. Lets say someone is 57 years old, has been a higher-level manager, worked in a particular functional area of a company for multiple years and was making a salary over $80,000 for a long time.

In the absence of more information, which of these assumptions might someone make?

  • This person is going to want a job at a similar or higher level of prestige, responsibility and challenge
  • They will want to be compensated at the same amount (even if they say differently)
  • They are probably set in their ways
  • They are only going to want to work for another five years or so, then retire

As the job seeker, you have two choices. Skirt around those assumptions. Or hit them head on. Which of those choices gives you the best chance of getting a job? It might be awkward telling someone you want less money and responsibility. It might feel odd having to tell someone that you want to work more years than they might expect. You might feel like you don’t have to justify yourself to someone else (especially someone younger or less experienced). But you do.

Be your own storyteller. It will work out better for you. And the tale that is told is closer to the truth!