The best career tool is self-knowledge

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Most career questions are actually identity questions. It seems like maybe we need to know which job to take, or which boss is better, or which line to delete on our resume. But really, we need to know who we are.

I learn the most about identity when I’m lost and I have to make a tough career decision. Here’s the first time it happened:

When I graduated from college, I knew I wanted to play professional beach volleyball, but I was actually in Chicago, being a bike messenger in the snow, and I had no idea how I was going to get enough money to get to Los Angeles.

So I answered an ad someone ran for posing nude. I thought I could do it and get enough cash to get to LA. I went to the guy’s apartment. Insane, right? You are thinking this was not a safe move. I know. But I was young and sheltered, and I had never been faced with the problem of not having money.

I knocked.

The guy opened his door, and while I was still standing in his hallway he said, “Nice legs. But I can look at you and see this isn’t going to work.”

I said, “Huh?”

He said, “Well. What can you do? You can’t just stand there. That won’t work.”

“What should I do?”

“See,” he said, “I told you this won’t work.”

He told me to stand on my toes and toss my hair.

I couldn’t do it.

He told me to practice and then come back.

On my way home, I thought. “That guy sucks. And I should be in Playboy. In the centerfold. I could do a great job at the written interview.”

But by the time I got home, I was thinking how stupid it would be to spend my time figuring out how to get into nude modeling. That is only a stop-gap measure. Not a long-term way to make a living.

And I asked myself why I was doing that? Why wasn’t I doing something I’d be more proud of? I realized that the ways I choose to make money reflect who I am and how I see myself, and I need to start seeing myself as smart and clever. I always knew I was smart, but I didn’t present myself that way in the world.

That’s the moment I decided to switch. It seems obvious in hindsight, right? Of course getting paid to be smart is better than getting paid to be naked because it’s getting paid to be who I really am inside.

But we each struggle with this constantly, throughout our careers. How to figure out who we are inside and what career will be right for how we see ourselves now. It’s a constantly shifting alliance — what is our identity and what is the career that will reflect that.

Don’t be so arrogant as to think you do not consider such mismatched career moves for yourself as my nude modelling was for me. It’s very hard to define a career that honors our identity. Identity changes as life changes And it’s hard to know what’s true to us at any given point. It takes a lot of vigilance and honesty and a willingness to shift when we’re totally off base.

45 replies
  1. Ben Overmyer
    Ben Overmyer says:

    I agree. Developing self knowledge, though, requires trying a lot of things to discover what it is you’re really interested in. Modeling didn’t work out for you, but the attempt obviously had some impact on your life.

    Though it’s trite to say it, trying new things is crucial to developing as a person.

  2. Jenny
    Jenny says:

    I graduated from college with an English degree and had no idea what to do with it. So I did what was easy and what I thought I loved: I took a job teaching preschool. I kind of panicked about joining the workforce because I never bothered to do any internships, how the hell do you break into business with an English degree and no internships? So rather than cope with that I chose to sit in a circle on the floor in my keds and sing Itsy Bitsy Spider. And it was fun. And it was rewarding and I’m a very touchy-feely emotional person. And it was only seven bucks an hour. And one day I said, This is not enough. And I sucked up my fear and went and interviewed for a coordinator position with an advertising agency. I didn’t believe I had it in me, but when I stopped hiding from my future and switched the keds for some pumps, I surprised myself with what I could do.

  3. Dan Schawbel
    Dan Schawbel says:

    I agree. I learned blogging by diving right in, making mistakes, taking in some knowledge and then I built a community.

    I learn by doing and I think many other people choose this path as well. Making mistakes is part of the game, especially if your in a startup company. The great part about blogs is that people forgive you.

  4. Curmudgeon
    Curmudgeon says:

    Getting paid to be smart is something you can do for a lifetime. Getting paid to be naked has a way of declining over time. Then there’s some of us who never had a time in our lives when anyone would have paid to see us naked.

  5. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    You definitely made the correct career choice here even though you could do nude modeling. You were true to yourself. This post was well written, easy to follow, and has a clear message…with no bullets or line items!

  6. Brett Legree
    Brett Legree says:

    Great post, Penelope.

    I’ve found that sometimes I’ve gained the greatest insight into myself, when I’m at the lowest point.

    Ask someone like Steve Jobs about this. He gets it, and I know you get this too.

    Thanks for the words.

  7. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    Absolutely true! I’ve learned far more about myself when I’ve been lost. At the end of 2004, I found myself unemployed for the first time since I was 16 years old. I had no idea what to do. So I just started looking. Just over 2 months later, I found the first job that I have ever really gotten on my own. Everywhere else I had worked, I got in through a connection (nothing wrong with the networking, but sometimes you have to prove to yourself that it’s you and not your network that’s employable). I love what I do now and have been here 3 years.

    Hey Jennifer. Thanks for seconding the idea that we learn when we’re lost. I think the more times people hear this — and the more types of people who say it — the more comfortable people get with being lost. All of us.


  8. Jim Eiden
    Jim Eiden says:

    In 2001 when I was an IT refugee from the dee precession, I worked 5 part-time jobs at once. Some of them were just for money, others were an attempt to mput myself in a different place.

    I caddied on a golf course and made $100 a day cash. Not only did I make great money and have great exercise, but I was also able to network with executives who were members of this private course. How did I get this stop gap measure? I was at the career center and asked the coordinator if she thought Caddying was a great way to network for a new job. She thought it was a brilliant idea and personally knew the Caddy Master there. My idea was that a lot of business was done on the golf course and I wanted to get as close to the decision makers as possible.

    I had an MBA, so I was able to teach college courses at night. I learned that I loved to teach and that my experience was broad and deep so that I could draw from that.

    I also wrote freelance articles for the Chicago-Sun-Times. I got about $150 per article, by I got a by line, and it looked great on my resume. In addition, this helped me get a press pass so I could get into conferences and trade shows for free so I could network even more.

    Each of these choices not only helped bring some money in, but they had a dual purpose as well.

    Don’t be afraid to think outside the box and innovate to get to were you want to go. As long as you do it ethically.

  9. Dorothy
    Dorothy says:

    Interesting. However I would say that your brief stint in nude modeling did reflect who you were and still are. Early on, you were willing to expose yourself, to be vulnerable and reflect the pride you had in yourself regardless of your imperfections. In a way, with this blog, you are doing the same thing.

  10. Jerry Matthew
    Jerry Matthew says:

    PT –

    I agree wholeheartedly. If you don’t know yourself you don’t know what you have to sell. And how can you be true to yourself if you don’t know who or what you are?

    Many of the answers we seek about oursleves are inside but we need an external stimulus to bring them out. We need the courage to interact with others and situations beyond our comfort zone to bring out who we are. Only then can we build on ourselves.

  11. Deano
    Deano says:

    I could take a lot of the articles I’ve read here, and read this post in an entirely different way – that you:

    1) Thought nude modeling was easy money, not realizing the skills involved beforehand;

    2) Got angry that the potential employer didn’t appreciate you despite your lack of fit for the position;

    3) Wrote off the job prospects as short term/not relevant to your future career… Which for two jobs you’re talking about (nude modeling and volleyball) that are basically all about keeping in amazing shape, seems a little odd.

    I guess this is one of those stories we’re supposed to take a particular way, due to the overall message (be true to yourself), but at the same time it looks like you have a little something against the career track that rejected you, and you’re trying to justify your way out of it.

    How many nude models would agree that they are entirely different people outside and in? How many of them would feel that by stripping themselves down, they’re helping to peel the societal masks away, and help get down to who they really are? Don’t get me wrong, the photographers and photoshop artists may want to impose their own warped reality on the situation, but being comfortable being naked is probably one of the highest bars of knowing thyself one can set. No?

  12. Peter Fletcher
    Peter Fletcher says:

    Two years ago I sold my business after 17 years and went back to uni. On occasions too many to say I’ve been asked what I’m going to do when I’ve finished the degree. I have no answer but do have a sense that I’ll know it when I see it. In the not knowing I’ve learned more about myself and what I stand for than if I’d stayed “described” by my career and business for another 100 years.

    Yes, it truly is wonderful to be lost.

  13. Andrea
    Andrea says:

    Thanks for this post. (Seemingly) Unlike many people on this blog, I’m feeling like I’m more at that “lost” point, observing a swirling shitstorm of professional currents and wondering just how my brand of smart fits in (not to mention ethics, money, and any other unanticipated complications).

    Since receiving my degree, I’ve also *almost* done nude modeling – well, OK, it was for a foot fetish site. Although being stoked that someone out there was stoked on my hairy toes, I also decided it wasn’t quite “me”. So…I still don’t know what “me, working” is, but it’s good to know it ISN’T that, I suppose? Hopefully this process of elimination becomes a bit more efficient!

    (Brrrr…bike messengering in the snow? Good thing Michigan Avenue’s so pretty when it’s 20 degrees and snowing. Me, I had enough trouble getting on the bus without falling on my ass! Or rather, looking cool when it actually occurred.)

  14. Victoria
    Victoria says:

    Wow, I just blogged about this today myself. I had known from a very early age that I wanted to be a professional dancer, and a year ago a blown out knee ended a barely started but very promising career.

    This year I’ve held 5 part-time jobs, a few contract jobs, new hobbies, an internship, and a foray into a second career. I found that I can’t handle being in dance administration if I can’t dance, I’m good at PR but really don’t want to be in it long term, and I also learned that life’s going to throw some crazy and exciting but off-putting curves at you if you try to control it.

    I didn’t realize I had learned so much until today, where this compulsive planner who’s never had a spontaneous moment in her life booked an international trip (I leave in a week!) on a complete whim. Losing focus and your carefully laid out plan is probably the best thing that could happen to a person. When the obvious choice is eliminated, a certain amount of exploration is necessary, and you’ll find some incredible things!

  15. michael cardus
    michael cardus says:

    PT – wow what an open and honest post. I often find the true being of people when in a training activities push them out of their “honeymoon” phases and become the real person. WHen we reveal some of our typical stress point behavoirs then the truth and our search for ourselves and self – discoverey takes place.

  16. Bally
    Bally says:

    Interesting post. I considered things things in this way before. Thanks for that Penelope.

    I have spent a number of years doing the same job & quite enjoying it. And I didn’t even have to take my clothes off…at least not very often. Now a change of country & job combined with a change of personal circumstances has left me feeling totally lost.

    Perhaps I am on the brink of learning something profound about myself but it doesn’t feel like it. So far all I’ve managed to do is identify lots of things I don’t like (e.g. my new job, house, country of residence…even the driving habits of Dutch people!)

    What I have found is that being lost leaves you questioning many choices and decisions that previously weren’t up for debate. It isn’t a pleasant process and now I find myself lacking goals and direction. Your post has given me hope that the process will help me find some appropriate new goals.

    I suppose change, like growth, is often difficult and painful. What I have found is that a change to your sense of identity is twice as complicated and fraught with peril.

  17. 40  - €“ - €“ Now What?
    40 - €“ - €“ Now What? says:

    Very candid post, and thank you for being willing to share such a personal story.

    I’m undergoing a rethink of what my true career dreams are now that I’m halfway through working life, and while it’s not nude modeling, I have done some work that isn’t me.

    The real problem is what comes next — if I know what’s not me, how do I figure out what is? That is my dilemna

  18. Reynolds Atkins
    Reynolds Atkins says:

    Wonderful post. I have held 6 jobs in 31 years, and finally watched the company I have been with for the past 12 years disappear, taking my job with it. Terrified? You bet. But 2/3rds of my kids are just about through school, my wife of 30 years is happily (at least occasionally) employed, and I am trying to decide if this is it, or if some other path beckons. I never expected to spend my mid-50s scrambling for employment — never in a thousand years — but a part of me feels the hard part of this career “stuff” is finally over and it is time to do something for myself.

  19. John Feier
    John Feier says:

    You really spoke to my heart with that one, Penelope. Thanks.

    I’m still trying to find my center.

    I am absolutely convinced that once I find that center, the rest will come really easy. I’ll have a goal to shoot for, a purpose.

    I’m just wondering if I can find it by thinking about it, by doing, by putting myself in a different environment, by going to the Himalayas to talk to some shaman or whatever…I just can’t seem to find my core.

    If I make it my goal to find it, then I’ll find it. I know I will.

  20. Dale
    Dale says:

    For some of us it doesn’t get any better with age. I’m forty++++++ and I still struggle with who I am and therefore who I am to become from a career standpoint.
    This is especially poinant as the who I think I want to become does not pay the cost of supporting a family etc – and the courage to do the dangerous thing just isn’t there. So what comes next?
    Myers-Briggs again I guess:)


  21. Steve Cook
    Steve Cook says:

    What a great post. It certainly shows that you have guts as well as smarts. My comment is, I’m wondering why folks don’t avail themselves of the career tools at the local one-stop Career Centers. I worked for a Career Development non-profit some years ago, and was stationed at a Career Center. We had some great occupational/career assessment tools available, O’Net comes to mind, but there were others and probably newer ones that I don’t know about. Someone mentioned Myers-Briggs, a nice personality tool, but not designed for business applications. There are behavioral assessments out there that can specifically match you up with possible career fits. Smart companies use these assessments when screening job applicants. The really smart ones assess their high performers to develop a benchmark, or pattern, which they can use to profile the characteristics of their high performers. Then they compare your results to see how you fit in. Why not get a jump on them by using one of these tools to assess yourself, then add the results to your portfolio/resume when you submit one to a prospective employer? The top of the line ones will cost you $175-$200, but I think it is money well spent and certainly could give your portfolio an edge over the others. You don’t have to be a corporation to purchase these assessments. Thanks all, I enjoyed your comments.
    Steve Cook

  22. littlepurplecow
    littlepurplecow says:

    Penelope, you are one of the most fascinating people I know. Enjoyed reading this.

    During my junior year in high school, I took a job selling cemetery plots because I liked the idea of commission sales. I’d drive out to the cemetery after school, sit at someone’s cluttered desk and make calls to a hit list of aging folk. Thankfully, my boss suggested that I resign after the first week. Experiencing the wrong career choice can often be the best guide for defining the right one.

  23. Steve Errey
    Steve Errey says:

    Finding work that fits with who you are is absolutely on the money. Getting paid to be who you really are inside is the best way to give you the kind of success that really matters.

    Don’t put too much stock in tests like Myers-Briggs – the easiest way to crack this is to figure out your personal values – the building blocks, cornerstones and foundations for who you are; the things you have 10,000 feet down inside that are most important to you.

    Your values are the things in yourself, others and in the world that are most important to you, and when you know what they are you can align different elements of your life around them. The times when you’re buzzing, on a roll and feeling like you’re at your best are the times when you’re living in line and demonstrating one or more of your values.

    Know your values, demonstrate them and both your self-confidence and the richness of your experience improves massively.

    Nice post Penelope.

  24. Abbey Todras
    Abbey Todras says:

    Wow these comments are all amazing. I’ve never been so moved by the blog community, or seen this sort of display of compassion online before. This has been truly inspiring. Thanks to everyone who commented (including PT)– you are all making the world a better place for some of us!

  25. William Mitchell, CPRW
    William Mitchell, CPRW says:

    For me, it was thinking I wanted to follow in my dad’s footsteps. My dad was an optometrist and I’d been helping in the laboratory since I was a 6th grader. It was all I ever knew. I operated in this charade until my 5th semester in college. After finishing that 5th semester with a GPA of 0.00 (yeah … you heard that right), I finally took some time to figure out what my true calling was.

    I’d always had an entrepreneurial spirit, and finally figured out that business was my calling. I went back to school, changes my focus, and graduated cum laude. I now run my own business and love what I do.

  26. Amanda Janicek
    Amanda Janicek says:

    I agree with this article. I feel that when we are looking for a job, we are looking for who we are. If you don’nt know who are, it’s going to be very difficult to find a job and sell yourself in an interview. Many people go through many jobs throughout there lifes to try and figure out which one fits them best. It’s all about making errors and growing from them to find out what you do best.

  27. edo deweert
    edo deweert says:

    i am a mature male and have been a naked model at 8 different institutions, with over 100 instructors… most places models, whether they are experienced, or just starting, are getting paid the same (WRONG!)
    there is an erotic side to the act of getting naked in front of a bunch of people who have come to draw , paint, photograph or sculpt you.

  28. huberq
    huberq says:

    Although I agree with most parts of this article, there have been many advancements in the career aptitude testing methods in the last decade. For instance, usage of artificial intelligence to evaluate suitability of a job for a person is one of these techniques which has been proposed in the last several years. You can take a complete version of the MBTI test plus many others such as memory, IQ, and patience tests in the following website. This website's expert system tries to find the most suitable career path for you using artificial intelligence. Moreover, salary of different careers will be considered in the final analysis of the test results to provide a more insightful advice for you:

    Your can also take a look at the following article:

  29. Ali J
    Ali J says:

    I am going to use an analogy of being a parent and finding a job….stay with me here if you can. Before I had my 1st child the thought of the commitment and responsibility needed to  being a father freaked me out and many friends of mine told me you went to being a person who was never going to have a child to becoming the best dad ever. The point is you do not know yourself unless you are in that situation in the now where you have to act. Its no longer a theory or fiction you can think this or that. You can not know yourself 100% but thats ok…its ok to be in the unknown so long as you accept life the way it is and go with the flow.  I know many successful people who pursued their careers of their choice and by the time they were 40 they were miserable. There is no guarantee of “future happiness”….happiness starts with us all “in the now” where ever we are and it starts with accepting certain things…. 

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