The Top 10 Career Myths We Should Stop Believing

The modern working world has its own language and culture.  A language and culture that is rooted in many myths. Myths that worked for many years but are increasingly out of touch with reality or at best, limit people’s options and imagination for what they might do with their lives.  

I explored these myths with Jeff Hittner, the founder of Your Project X, a social venture with a mission to help 1 million people find more purposeful work.  The conversation focused on the biggest myths around, money and expectations around money, the status quo and what we tend to believe is the best way to do things, misconceptions of purpose and passion, and fear and making transitions.

Career Myth #1: “Once I land my dream job / make $X a year, I’ll be happy”

Early in my career, I was restless.  My first job was a two-year leadership development program.  I left after ten months. I moved jobs five times before I realized I should experiment with a different way of working and stop chasing the impossible goal of the “dream job.”

Early in one’s career, when a clear “path” seems to be available for the taking, it is easy to believe that there is a certain point one reaches in which you’d finally be happy.  “Wow, I finally make $100,000, isn’t this incredible?”

But this is rarely what happens to most people.  You adjust. You and your friends all make a little more so no one questions it when our friend orders the $60 bottle of wine at dinner to split evenly.  Suddenly $250,000 seems like the right number. Then I’ll finally have enough.  

Research shows that we compare up.  We look to the people that have more than us.  A better job, more stuff or more money. This makes us feel crappy and gives us the sense that we never have enough.

This is not a game you can win.

While most people would accept that these are not the best goals, it is hard to shift past these.  When thinking about a career, it is much easier to target a specific type of Vice President role than to specify a vague role centered around learning, mission and discomfort.

Re-Frame: Finding a “dream job” or targeting a certain salary is the wrong question.  Instead, think about asking “which one of these opportunities is going to help me be the type of person I want to be?”

Learn more: Self-determination theory from Professors Deci and Ryan says that extrinsic factors such as money and status are not very predictive of a high level of satisfaction or motivation.  Instead, people are intrinsically motivated and are driven by three elements:

  1. Competence: Are you challenged beyond your current level of competence?
  2. Autonomy: Do you have ownership over the work you are doing?
  3. Relatedness: Are you able to help other people or be connected to something you care about?

Career Myth #2: “I just need to find my passion”

Jeff runs a month-long purpose accelerator that helps people align more closely with their purpose and experiment in new career directions.  Within the context of this work, he defines purpose as working towards something that is greater than yourself. This could be a personal mission or even an organizational mission that you are aligned with.

So why purpose and not passion?  Passion is something that is a lot more egocentric – it is something that energizes you.  The problem with this is that it doesn’t necessarily involve directly working with or impacting others.  The second problem with passion is that it is not singular. Second, few people have one passion.  The authors of Designing Your Life found that 80% of people either had no passions or many.  

Morten Hansen, the author of Great at Work studied 5,000 employees of a company and found that people with high purpose and passion were the highest performing employees.  What was surprising is what she found were the second-highest performing people:

people with only passion (but no purpose) placed in the 20th percentile, and people with purpose (but not passion) placed in the 64th percentile.

Action: Instead of trusting your gut on what fires you up, email your friends, former colleagues, or even a former professor with the question, “When is a time you’ve observed me at my best?”  This is often a powerful activity to help you see your best self in other people’s eyes.

Career Myth #3: I can’t take a pay cut from my current salary

Think back to your late teens or early twenties.  If you were like me you weren’t eating at Michelin-starred restaurants or taking expensive vacations in the Maldives.  Yet if you were also like me you still met all your basic needs like food, shelter and had time to spend with friends.

Too often we accept the idea that we should always be trying to make more money as a fact of life.  I’m not arguing against saving for the future or earning more money, but I would argue that this expectation of increasing income has a subtle but powerful effect that is often called “lifestyle creep.”  As we make more, we use that money to pay for convenience, paying essentially outsourced labor to do stuff for us (e.g. daycare, housecleaning, restaurants). As people increase their spending with their income, they don’t realize there is a hidden cost of giving themselves less freedom in the future rather than more.

In 2017, I was making a six-figure salary in New York City.  I also was living a six-figure life, never thinking twice about what I was spending on food, travel or convenience.  When I took the leap to self-employment I realized that spending $6,000 a month was going to be a bit limiting to extending my journey.

Giving up a certain and predictable salary was a challenge not because of the loss of income but because it meant grappling with the possibility that the way I was living may not have been the best or only way.  For me, as I made different choices and steadily lowered my cost of living I faced many moments of discomfort but I also found a new, lower-cost-of-living path that was a lot more fun.

Re-frame: Focus on your spending instead of your income.  Treat your life like a business and start tracking your monthly expenses.  What could you cut? What could you think differently about?

Career Myth #4: You need to have a “steady” income

When many people talk about doing something outside the scope of full-time employment we often get to the moment where they say something along the lines of, “it would be nice, but I like the comfort of having a steady job.”

I recently had a friend whose job was eliminated twice in six weeks.  Yes, that’s right. As he says,

the new position I was going to accept was then re-orged into oblivion as part of an unrelated org change that wasn’t coordinated with the first one – effectively laying me off for a second time in six weeks

You can’t make this up.  As this friend reflected, “whatever cachet I had as a high-potential general manager was evaporating before my eyes as part of this acquisition.”

A steady income or career would be fantastic if it didn’t come with a price.  To have a steady path it often requires reinvention, reflection, network building and self-promotion to always be in a position to go after new opportunities or jobs.

The belief that your task is to secure stable employment can also present a challenge when one faces an inevitable crisis at work.  For many, losing their job is a deeply shameful experience that can be immobilizing and lead to depression.

Action: David Whyte offers us three deep questions about our work:

  • What is the work that brings you alive?
  • What are the places that bring you alive?
  • What are the conversations that vitalize you?

If the answers are not your current situation, you need to ask yourself, “am I willing to do anything about it?”  If not, are you okay with the consequences of that choice?

Career Myth #5: “I’ve got to know what I want to do before I begin thinking about changing directions”

David Autor, a labor economist from MIT, has used the term “frontier jobs” to describe emerging high-wage, high-skill jobs.  Today these jobs might have to do with autonomous vehicle technology or alternative energy technologies. However, if we look back only 20-30 years, we find that many of the frontier jobs of the era no longer exist.  How many “word processing supervisors” have you seen work?

Many forward-looking career paths are an illusion.  Perhaps there is a clear path from intern to resident to attending physician, but there is no way to predict what kind of technology and tools you will have to learn to be the “best” five years from now.  If you were a radiologist, how were you supposed to prepare for AI outperforming you on your job?

So if you can’t really figure out what the best path is, what are you supposed to do?  It takes tremendous courage to just acknowledge that the current situation isn’t working and then commit to making a change.  It takes a different type of courage to say “I’m not sure what’s next, but I’m ready to embrace the journey” The mistake many make at this choice is framing the decision as an all-or-nothing leap.  

A friend recently shared that he was considering leaving his sales job to become a monk…for the rest of his life. I told him this seemed like a false choice, one that enabled him to avoid making a shift.  I urged him to consider other lower-risk ways to test this. Could he live on a monastery for a month? Could he first do a multi-week retreat?

Action: Shift from thinking about access to opportunity to thinking about the skills you need to develop that give you the confidence to move forward. Start by identifying the smallest step you could take towards a new path. Instead of focusing on applying for a certain type of job, write down 15 elements of someone who would be doing well in that job. How can you do something in your current job in the next week that might help you build that skill

Career Myth #6: Taking an extended break is irresponsible and needs to wait until retirement

I took 27 months off after three years of full-time employment.  I spent over $100,000 of my own money to do this, spending time reading books, making friends and learning across a number of different disciplines.  I didn’t have a single person criticize me for this choice. Why? Because it goes by another name: business school.

Taking time off for grad school fits into the acceptable narrative for taking a break.  Unfortunately, if you propose taking time off to “contemplate life” people will look at you like you live on another planet.  I’ve written about why vacations don’t cut it for quenching our need for rest. This is because the effects of a typical one or two-week vacation wear off almost immediately and that the whole point of most vacations is to merely take a break from work instead of resting for its own sake.

Many people are struggling and admit that they really would love to take a break.  Yet what holds people back is the fear they won’t be “hireable” afterward. This may be true if you spent a year doing nothing, but most people find that instead of idleness, they are filled with active energy, doing things like volunteering in their community, spending time with loved ones, writing books or even taking an entirely new path altogether.

Action: Make a list of the twenty experiences you want to have over the next ten years.  Which ones can you take action on over the next year? How could you design extended breaks to experience some of these things sooner, rather than later?

Career Myth #7: “It’s fine to take a risk when you are young, but you can’t do it when you have kids”

The Silicon Valley stereotype of a founder is someone who is in their early twenties with unbridled energy and no attachments is a myth.  An MIT study found that the actual average age of a startup founder is 42, and the average age of entrepreneurs who founded high-growth companies is 45.  

There is never a right time to start a company.  This resonates for Jeff, who started his company three weeks before his son was born.  Having a child and starting a company has their inherent challenges, but it also helps him focus.  It has forced him to be incredibly efficient with his time and avoid the trap of work being a 24/7 endeavor.    When he is with his son, his goal is to be 100% present.

Action: If you have kids or plan on building a family, what are the values that matter to you and your partner?  Who is the person you want to be for your son? Beyond making money, what It is easy to default to the mindset of earning more money.  Who is the person you want to be for your children? What are the values you want to prioritize as a family?

Career Myth #8 “I should go to grad school to figure out what I want to do”

Going to grad school used to be an easy (and cheap) option for people that weren’t really sure what to do next.  But to blindly go to grad school in today’s world is a mistake. There has been an explosion in learning experiences, both free and paid, that can help you learn new skills and make a shift in your career.  There is only one thing that has increased as steadily: Grad school tuition.

Why do so many people default to thinking a grad degree is an answer? Many people look at people in their field who are a bit older than them and see that they have certain credentials.  Sure if you are a doctor, you need an MD, but in the business world, do you really need an MBA or does the type of person that wants to climb the ladder in the business world pursue an MBA? All I ask is that you spend a couple of hours researching alternative experiences that might help you achieve the same thing such as altMBA, Smartly, long-term travel, Remote Year or even a self-taught MBA.

There are still tremendous benefits to graduate degrees, but it’s important to be clear about what you are going for.  Is it access to certain types of job markets and networks? Then perhaps a top-tier MBA or law degree makes sense. But also be mindful of all the “unemployed lawyers” and that the return on investment of an MBA continues to shrink.  

Action: A key question to ask yourself is “what do I want to do after grad school?”  And then ask yourself, “how could I do that without a grad degree or at least do it for a lot cheaper?”

Career Myth #9 “I can’t make a change now after years in this field”

About a year and a half ago, Jeff was hit by a drunk driver and almost killed.  He was rescued by the jaws of life (and his seatbelt) and is still dealing with the effects of a brain injury.  This was a challenging period for him, but during his recovery, he decided to double down on his commitment to his family, and the work he had already started doing.

Similarly, I dealt with chronic illness for almost two years after grad school in which I really wasn’t sure if I’d be healthy enough to stay employed full-time.  During this time I was forced to sit with my thoughts and contemplate my identity, which up to that point had been someone who was a high-achieving worker and student.  Through months of painful reflection, I shifted my mind to realize that was not the person I wanted to be or at least it was not going to be central to my life. While recovering, I started the slow process of experimentation with writing, coaching, speaking and other creative outlets that started to give me the courage that perhaps I could take a different path.  In my final year of working full-time, I was making more than $175,000 a year which to other people seemed like an insane thing to give up (I did grapple with some insecurity of course)

What holds most people back from making a shift is often not a decrease in income, but the appearance of self-doubt.  Steven Pressfield calls this the resistance:

Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates to the strength of Resistance. Therefore the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul. That’s why we feel so much Resistance. If it meant nothing to us, there’d be no Resistance.

The only thing that can help you overcome this is to start.  Think about a heart surgeon. The first time they perform surgery there is no way I can believe that they are not facing some self-doubt.  But every heart surgeon does their first surgery at some point.  The key is that they are surrounded by others who are there when they need support.

As Jeff says, “the question is not who are you to do this, but who are you not to do this?”

Action 1: Create your own learning experiment that you can actively quit after a certain period of time.  If you want to start coaching or consulting, find a few clients and offer them pro-bono consulting (sometimes a small fee works too) with a catch: they have to take the engagement as seriously as you and that they need to give generous feedback about what you can do better.

Action 2: Bryan Grazer gives credit for his entire career to thousands of “curiosity conversations,” conversations focused on learning without an agenda.  Who can you connect with that might be able to give you more information about your next step or want to join you on your journey.

Career Myth #10 “Working as an entrepreneur or working on my own will give me the happiness I seek”

Many people share some version of wanting to work on their own.  Yet when I talk to people about this, it is always at some vague distant point in the future.  When we dive deeper into the realities of self-employment – uncertainty, insecurity, unpredictable income and discomfort – people quickly retreat and say that’s not really what they had in mind.

If you look at self-employment through the lens of full-time employment it doesn’t look like a fantastic option.  There is no steady paycheck or predictable work and community. But to pursue self-employment is to actively step into that uncertainty.  Into a path that might not make sense and a story that others may not understand. What many people quickly realize, however, is that self-employment, because of the inherent uncertainty, provides a surprising upside: that the uncertainty and discomfort is a constant forcing mechanism for re-aligning your energy towards the work that calls you.

So if you are someone that has that vague notion of wanting to “work for yourself” the most important thing is to figure out how to let more uncertainty and discomfort creep into your life in a way that doesn’t throw you into a full-blown crisis.

Action: What can you create or put into the world that will enable you to experiment while feeling a bit of discomfort?  There are many different options, but the best ones include writing publicly (post on medium, linkedin), launching a podcast, hosting a dinner event around a topic, volunteering at a conference or asking to help someone whose work you admire.