Five signs that your career is about to get vapid

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You can tell if you are avoiding personal growth in your career because you are not feeling challenged. You can tell if you are not feeling challenged if you are not scared. Being scared is what makes life interesting. You should be scared that you are going to fail at something because if you are not then you are not trying hard to do something difficult.

Most people think they are challenging themselves, but most people are avoiding personal growth on some level. There are many paths to personal-growth avoidance. Here are five ways people do it in their career.

1. You aim to be a generalist.
The best way to see what you're great at is to specialize. Pick a type of work that suits your personality, then pick a field that is a specialty within that. Usually you will pick wrong. So what? Keep trying. When I was trying to figure out what I was great at, I wrote a lame novel, I pitched stupid articles to Marie Claire and I got dumped as a feature writer for an alternative Weekly. This is how I learned that I should be writing career advice. The process of becoming a specialist is finding out what makes you special. How could you not want to know that?

2. You are consumed with getting a book deal.
Ninety percent of you do not need a book deal. What are you going to do with that? A book will not make you rich. It will probably drive you nuts because a book is very hard to write. If you have so many good ideas, put them in blog posts. The ideas get out faster and you get more feedback. A book is good to promote something. But you need to know what you're promoting. Maybe a company, maybe a project, maybe you want to build a community. But in most cases, a book is not the most time-effective way to meet that goal. So in fact, people who are focusing on the need to get a book deal are avoiding figuring out what they really want. A book is a means to an end, not an end. Uncovering your real goals is what personal development is about.

3. You have never had a long-term relationship.
If you have never been in a relationship for more than nine months, then you have not let anyone really see you. Nine months is how long it takes for that crazy, being in love feeling to wear off. (There should be a link here, but it would be to my therapist, who told me in last week's session.) So after getting through nine months the clouds dissipate and you start to see your true self reflected back to you from someone who knows you well. Before that, it's pretty easy to cover up your true self. You can manage personal development much more effectively if you are looking at yourself through someone else's eyes. It always feels different because you can't hide from the stuff that you wish would go away.

4. You lack strong opinions.
The only thing you get to do in this world is choose what a good life is and then aim for it. But that requires being opinionated. Every day you are choosing what's a good life for you. If you are scared to have opinions because you're scared of being wrong, then how are you making choices? If you can't think of stuff you have strong opinions on, you are probably living someone else's vision for a good life. Not your own. Being wrong is way better than not having opinions. At least if you're wrong you are trying.

5. You think career advice is stupid.
We read the most about stuff we know the most about. It's not optimal, but it's how we are. Do you read about how to make tutus from materials other than tulle? See? That's my point. It may be an interesting topic, if you knew anything to start with. So it's a good bet that the people who read career advice are very consciously navigating their personal development through their career. And people who think it's stupid to read career advice are ignoring the fact that adult life is about getting smarter and smarter answers to the question: What should I be doing?

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  1. jrandom42
    jrandom42 says:

    “You can tell if you are not feeling challenged if you are not scared. Being scared is what makes life interesting.”

    Tell that to the troops doing patrols throughout Iraq and Afghanistan. Being scared does NOT make their lives any more interesting, I can guarantee that. Finding that next roadside IED is difficult, precisely because failing to do so and getting yourself or your friends killed is something that most people would find unacceptable.

    In this context, personal growth is living to grow another day older.

  2. david rees
    david rees says:

    Great post. I like the “right between the eyes” style, it suits you – even if it does seem like something you hammered out in 30 minutes (only because this seems to be your truest voice).

    Breaking into the recruiting field was tough because my first several jobs were about 6 months each and I hated that. You don’t get to know them, they don’t get to know you and it sucks.

    Now I am some 16 months into my current role and I love it. I love the people I work with and they have had time to get to know me.

  3. Neil C
    Neil C says:

    I agree in general that objective self analysis & challenging yourself are both very important but you kind of lost me with some of the specifics.

    I am not sure that a long term relationship is necessarily a net positive. The relationship can bring you up or bring you down it really depends on the person in the relationship.

    Also, having strong opinions is good but there is a fine line between a “know-it-all” (a characteristic that runs rampant in gen Yers)and someone who can listen to all viewpoints but still make critical decisions. Being known as opinionated with the higher ups will short circuit a career. This is a good post though because it does make me critically look at some things.

  4. david rees
    david rees says:

    @jrandom42 That is asinine.

    Way to take a comment out of context. I doubt Penelope is advocating people putting themselves in life threatening situations just to make life more interesting.

    Relationship threatening, career threatening, status quo threatening, even lifestyle threatening are on the table but you are just trolling.

    I will offer this – take the risks when you are young. I was willing to lay it all down at several points in my younger days because
    1. I believed I was right
    2. I was willing to lose a job before being controlled by fear
    3. The main fear was “loss of lifestyle” and I refused to let my stuff own me (and yes, I ended up losing a lot of “stuff” and it was not that bad.
    4. I did not have kids. Yeah, I am willing to suffer the consequences of my own personal crusader complex, but I am not willing to let my boys suffer. Personal growth has resulted.

  5. czen
    czen says:

    lets deconstruct this

    2, 3, 4 can be ignored.
    1 is to do what you are excited about.
    5 is to create the need for career advice.

    nice sandwich structure

  6. Tom
    Tom says:

    You nailed it. PT is a specialist at self-promotion. She may be more subtle than Julie Allen, but she’s often just as vapid.

    Enjoy the naughty bits and the train wreck that is her divorce, but take her career advice at your peril.

    I hire people, and I hire generalists. Men and women who have broad knowledge and multiple interests are more flexible and adaptive to change than specialists. For those rare occasions when the Pareto principle doesn’t apply, I contract with the needed specialist.

  7. Marsha Keeffer
    Marsha Keeffer says:

    #2 is very true. We’ve all got the power available to us, just a question as to when, where and whether we choose to put it to use. And it’s also an analog for how we manage our careers and our lives.

  8. Chris Mahan
    Chris Mahan says:

    1) ENTP here. Not strategist. Definitely.

    2) Good at writing (ENTP supposed to be good at that) but not interested.

    3) Been with spouse 13 years. Nothing goes away until dealt with.

    4) Not a problem there!

    5) The “What should I be doing?” question should only be asked once “What do I want to get out of live/What do I want my life to mean” question has been answered. Doing for the sake of doing isn’t motivating enough.

    @tom and czen: If you don’t have anything nice constructive to say, please don’t say anything.

  9. Ben
    Ben says:

    Reading some of the comments, I do agree somewhat with many of them. 2 and 5 could have been played a bit more true to life (I don’t know many people who are waiting for a book deal to solve their problems.) I did really like the first paragraph however. Perhaps it has been said before, but it was the first time I have heard it phrased like that. Thanks for the post and for forcing me to ask myself if I am ‘scared’.

  10. prklypr
    prklypr says:

    @chris mahan: amen! If you can’t say anything constructive – whether it’s nice or not – don’t say anything at all. You’re wasting our time and giving blog commenters a bad rep.

  11. John
    John says:

    It seems like everyone who’s trashing #2 is overlooking the analogy. It’s not about book deals, per se, but about people who are delaying pushing their lives forward but kidding themselves (and others) by putting forth a seemingly admirable, but unfeasible goal.

    For example, I have a friend who hates his job. He gets paid a ton of money, doesn’t work that hard, but his boss is a bi-polar egomaniac. However, he’s concerned with the “credibility” of his resume. He doesn’t want to find another job and quit because he thinks that 5 years in his current job will have more “credibility” on his resume than 4 years. This guy is waiting for his “book deal”, and not dealing with his life and pushing forward to his career goals.

  12. Phil
    Phil says:

    1.) When I was trying to figure out what I was great at, I wrote a lame novel, I pitched stupid articles to Marie Claire and I got dumped as a feature writer for an alternative Weekly. This is how I learned that I should be writing career advice.

    Wow, I definitely think you could have used some better examples for that one. I failed at this and that job, so I decided I should be writing career advice. Typically it is after success with real jobs that you can possibly become a career advice authority. From your resume and what you have posted, you have not been at any particular job very long and typically the end wasn’t an amicable one to put it politely. I fail to see how your background and experience makes you a career advice authority, and especially how it all just “clicked” to be a career advice writer. Just because you can blog about something doesn’t mean it is fact. It would be like someone stating that they are editor for an encyclopedia because they went to wikipedia and edited one or more of the entries in it.

  13. Lynda
    Lynda says:


    I like this post a lot. Mostly, #1 because I am always challenging myself and just now looked at myself and realized I’m not challenged. I need to live on the career edge and grow versus sliding by on what is easy.

  14. Steve
    Steve says:

    “You have never had a long-term relationship.”

    What if you’re not physically attractive enough to get a significant other?

  15. Grace
    Grace says:

    Steve, I know many people that I may consider very physically unattractive, and yet they have (and make) wonderful partners (Remember the 80’s? Rick Okasic from “The Cars” married a supermodel!). People are attracted to confidence more than looks. Work on the confidence.

    Don’t let a relationship be your “book deal”.
    Be afraid. And go get ’em.

  16. leslie
    leslie says:

    Point 2: The more the demise of the book is predicted the more people will want to write them.

  17. Charles
    Charles says:

    That was a random!

    As noted above, it pays to be a generalist at times. One of the nice things about being a generalist is that you can be flexible and respond to changing career conditions keeping an eye on emerging opportunities thus having a reasonable chance to respond. (and becoming a quasi-specialist.)

    Being a specialist often requires training which locks you into a career path that often requires serious retraining when the specialized skills are no longer in demand. The key to specialization is to keep an eye on trends in your specialty and anticipate changes so you will be ready for them.

    On the book deal: I know some people who have finally landed deals. Doesn’t mean anyone will read them or they will make money. If it is what you truely wnat to do, then do it. Otherwise take Penelope’s advice.

    I’m not quite sure about #3 as there are many successful single people.

    #4 is more representation of doing something that engages you. If you don’t have an opinion then you don’t care, and your career will sit in limbo.

    #5 As one who peddals said advice for a living: Some career advice is stupid. Most is good, but you need to know what advice is best for your situation. I think it has to do with personalities and situations more than the actual advice. The best advice is keep an open mind and be proactive in managing your career.

    Also, as a side note: I personally don’t mind the negative comments I read. It keeps such blogs from becoming groupthink-cheering sections. If nobody is allowed to dissent then the blog comments are pretty worthless to read.


  18. D.D.
    D.D. says:

    To start a career, you need to specialize in something. To advance in your career, you need to generalize. This is called management.

  19. rainie
    rainie says:

    Thanks for the reminder that I’m not challenged! I thought maybe I just needed a vacation but maybe it’s more than that.

  20. Aaron
    Aaron says:

    Nice post Charles. It never fails to amaze me how people can be so insecure that they cannot stand to read something that contradicts their beliefs. It was Robert Frost who wrote: Intelligence is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self confidence.

  21. Laura
    Laura says:

    I just got off the phone to read this after receiving a job offer. A more challenging job, no more pay, less flexibility and an equal amount of bureaucracy. I negotiated for more – but my BANTA is too easy for me. I know I’m worth a big pay increase – I just can’t seem to negotiate it.

    Penelope, I’ve been reading your posts for so long. I know I could succeed if I could just heed some of your advice. Take a step forward. Risk it all. But I’m also so practical. I hear your advice. But I’m missing something. A mentor? A f*k-it-all attitude? I’ve done it before…

    What’s missing?

  22. Karen
    Karen says:

    This post was very useful to me, and here’s why:

    I’m up for a promotion and while I really want it, I’m also scared of what will happen if I get it. It will be a huge change and I have a fear that I won’t be successful in the position. I’ve grown very comfortable in my current position, and this new one won’t be nearly as easy.

    My fear has caused me to wonder if I’m going in a completely wrong direction. Should I even be applying for a job that scares me?

    But this post has made me think that it’s exactly the right job, because challenge is better than complacency. Thanks for the post.

  23. J
    J says:

    One particular line in this post stuck out for me as going way beyond simple career advice:

    “The only thing you get to do in this world is choose what a good life is and then aim for it.”

    I love it when you can find such a profound truth in such a simple, direct statement.

    @Aaron, though i am one that dislikes overly cynical, rude ‘dissenters’ (i just find them annoying and unnecessary)I really like that Frost quote.

  24. Yu Ming Lui
    Yu Ming Lui says:

    I appreciate this post as it sets me thinking about not resting on my laurels.

    I have never reached a solid conclusion on whether it’s truly your demise if you are a generalist though I can see many examples of those who are specialists. I have to say that being flexible and adaptable are also extremely valuable qualities.

    Your point on commitment resonates well, too, as it is all too easy to hop to the next gig when the glitter fades.

    Thanks for yet another thought-provoking post.

  25. G
    G says:

    Something to think about – especially asking whether your scared. Being afraid of failure shows that at least you care a little. I worked for a long time not caring whether I did a good job or not. That sucked – sucked the life, creativity and desire to do more — right out of me.

    Overly critical people are insecure. You hit a nerve. Keep hitting.

  26. Shefaly
    Shefaly says:

    @ Aaron and @ J:

    That is a good quote but Frost said ‘Education’ not ‘Intelligence’.

    Considering all the discussion here on Penelope’s blog against ‘grad school’ (which really is about specialising, also point 1. in this post), I find the quote mildly amusing :-)

  27. avant garde designer
    avant garde designer says:

    In regards to the fear factor:

    I’m self-employed and often have a pit in my stomach as I strive to complete projects and satisfy customers, all in a timely basis. I once commented to my mentor that I wished, for once, I could catch up on my projects and get rid of the pit.

    She said, the day that happens is the day my business is not going well. No pit in the stomach means I do not have enough customers lined up for the future. It means I’m not challenged in my job. It means I’ve become complacent.

  28. avant garde designer
    avant garde designer says:

    In regards to Phil’s comment on PT’s failed jobs:

    How does that quantify her as an authority? Well, typically we learn most from our mistakes. We learn most on the journey.

    I’m very right brained, but for years hopped from job to job in finance and insurance. I did okay, but never excelled. Yet, in each position I learned many things about the job, people and myself, all of which I successfully apply to the creative work I do today.

  29. chris
    chris says:

    I think that being afraid must be a lot like being off-balance, which can also be a good thing. In “combat,” you aim to keep your opponent off-balance . . . and PT makes the point that we do well to accept, and even embrace, being off-balance ourselves.

    I watched a public TV pgm last night, called CARRIER. The pilots and Marines on the aircraft carrier were scared to death, non-stop, for the last 15 min. of the show. They admitted being scared (to land in the dark on a pitching deck). They laughed at themselves, albeit nervously. None of their colleagues blamed them for their repeated failures to land on the pitching deck in the dark. Their fellow pilots and Marines just cheered for them and rooted for them, until all 15 aircraft landed.

    I think you know you are in a good place (career?) when it is safe to admit that you are scared and when your colleagues don’t blame you for being scared or nervous. PT seems open in this, the same way that she is open to and advocates criticism.

    We learn a ton from our fears and from our mistakes.


  30. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    Good post! It motivated me to finally apply for a job I’ve been considering for the last week. I’ve been coasting long enough in my current role long enough and if I want to grow, I need to move. Thanks Penelope.

  31. Rich Milgram
    Rich Milgram says:

    Great post. In my experience, I have found that it is important to learn more about yourself and recognize your strengths and weaknesses so you can understand what motivates you in the workplace. It is important to not let your fears get in the way of continuing to challenge yourself and grow in your career.

  32. Maggie
    Maggie says:

    I love this post–excellent advice. But I’m crushed about the book deal thing–I always thought book deals meant money. I guess that would only be true if the book is a bestseller that then gets turned into a movie or, better yet, a series on Showtime. Oh well–good news for me because the chances of me ever getting my act together enough to write a whole book–or even a pitch for one–are slim, while I love to blog and haven’t run out of ideas yet.

  33. Dan
    Dan says:

    I find it odd that you quote “what white people like” when you are the whitest person on earth, the epitome of a white liberal. You live in Madison, are married to a minority (or were) which makes you feel “diverse” even though you live in an otherwise all white suburb, you are getting a divorce (comes with the white liberal territory), you have espoused how great Barack Hussein Obama is (even though he offers nothing of substance other than empty words of “hope” and is a Bill Clinton repeat who’s just skinnier and taller).

    I have an idea for the blog “stuff white people like.” How about, “reading career advice from a white liberal with a failed marriage.”

  34. Lauren
    Lauren says:

    Hi Penelope,
    Your comment about being in long-term relationships really resonates with me. It may be hard to find the right person, but once you do it can still be a challenge to deal with them for over 9 months. In my experience, the 6 month mark is when the infatuation ends and you start letting the real you show. This experience teaches you how to resolve conflicts, improve your communication skills, be more patient, etc. All of those lessons can also be applied to the business world. Great article.

  35. adela
    adela says:

    For a link about long-term relationships and neurotransmitter changes related to being “in love”, try the book “A General Theory of Love” by Lewis, Amini and Lanin.

  36. rennie
    rennie says:

    The nine month relationship thing can be applied to all our relationships – love, friendships, work.

    By 6-9 months in any of these scenarios, the honeymoon wears off and the true natures of all involved become apparent.

    Secondly, I never have a problem with anyone who critiques the blogger. It promotes conversation and offers a broader view.

    But I have extremely poor respect for the dolt that says something lame, like “your career advise is stupid” but says nothing to back up their statement. They offer no intelligent information to correct the “stupid advise.”

    If anyone has ever taken a writing or art class, you’ve likely participated in critiques. You never get away with saying anything positive or negative without supporting your claim. It’s just not done.

    Random opinions without support come from idiots.

  37. Kiersten Mitchell
    Kiersten Mitchell says:

    @Dan–does that explain why you’re here?

    Seriously…get a life (and perhaps a blog). If you’re going to be so negative and racially motivated then atleast be relevant.

  38. Chris
    Chris says:

    I would agree with the first part about challenge….everyone needs challenge in both their work life and personal life. Most people have challenges in either one or the other, while others are lucky enough to be challenged in both. It is through challenge that we know we are alive and grow as a result.

  39. dennis
    dennis says:

    As a generalist in an uninteresting job and lacking credible alternatives, I agree with the need to specialize. For better or worse, specialization allows potential employees categorize you. Being categorized helps them make the connection between the job opening and your skills. I’m an English major and naively believed it when people would say that you can do anything with an English degree. It’s just not true.

    With that said, I think a “so what” approach about picking a field of specialization underestimates the time it takes to transition from one career to another, and it underestimates the time lost in career advancement had you stuck with a field or found the one you liked sooner.

    Thanks for another great post, one that obviously strikes a chord with a lot of people.

  40. Maurice
    Maurice says:

    hhm the register had pos completely countering point #1

    “In other words, IT skills are still very much in demand – €“ so long as they are in reality “IT-plus”. The days of the specialist application developer are not over. But the spotlight has moved on. Employers now want IT generalists: individuals with a good grounding in different aspects of IT – €“ and with the ability to think outside the box as well.”

  41. Christine
    Christine says:

    I just got a promotion; I believe in specializing in my field (which is how I got the promotion) – and I never take my skill level for granted which keeps me from getting too comfortable. Great post as always.

  42. Shawn
    Shawn says:

    I’m glad to see the honeymoon period now only lasts nine months. I always thought any relationship worth saving should go at least a year before the bliss starts to fade a little. When my friends are bickering with their love interests three weeks into it, I know they’re going to need a shoulder to cry on.

  43. bob
    bob says:

    I’m amazed that people listen to this. I agree completely with the commenter who says “PT is a specialist at self-promotion”.

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