On a beautiful spring day nine years ago I was teaching an undergraduate business course at Westminster College. The students and I – most of whom were seniors – were having a conversation about careers. One student asked me, “Is there one piece of advice you’d give us based on your own experiences?” I thought about it for a minute and said, “You only get one story, so make it interesting.” When he gave me a perplexed look, I added, “You should pursue your dreams, but make sure you know yourself and use that knowledge to become the very best version of yourself. Take risks – but make them thoughtful – and most of all, remember you only get one story and you don’t get any do-overs.”
Over the years I’ve done a lot of both coaching and mentoring – both formal and informal. My dad was a teacher and I always believed I have teaching in my DNA. During discussions with people about their aspirations at work, I start by asking them about the themes that define the story of their careers. Typically, they respond with regurgitation of their job titles and timeline. I tell them to go back to the timeline and examine the “why” behind each decision they made and to find the common themes beneath those decisions. Identifying those themes is the key to answering the three questions everyone should reflect on and be able to answer with certainty:
- Where do you find the most meaning and purpose in your work?
- How will you stay relevant in the face of continuous change?
- How can you make a difference that matters to more than just an audience of one? More recently, adding what will be your “small dent in the universe?” to quote the late Steve Jobs.
The second question was the toughest to answer because I had to set aside the ego and identity that comes with “I was CEO of this” and “I was a vice-president of that,” and see my career experiences for what they really were—a history on which I could build, not laurels on which I should rest. That shift in mindset gave me the courage and conviction to invest in remaining relevant and keeping my story interesting. That has enabled me to pursue work in which I find deep purpose and social good.
As our careers and lives progress, we all face the questions of purpose, relevance, and legacy. I’ve found that people who are most conscious about answering those three questions tend to be more successful, happier, and enjoy greater wellbeing. They spend little time lamenting what could have been or lauding the glory days that lay behind them. They are too busy writing interesting new chapters in their life story, being conscious every day that we only get one chance to write it. There are no do-overs.