When in Doubt, Take Poetry

Question: What’s the worst career advice you’ve ever received?

James Martin:  The worst career advice I’ve ever had was when I was at the Wharton School studying business. I went to my faculty advisor. Wharton students are supposed to be focused really on the business and I said that I would be interested in taking an American poetry class and he said, “That is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”  He said, “Don’t take an American poetry class.”  “It’s a waste of time.”  “No one will care if you ever studied American poetry when you want to get a job at GE, so I would strongly advise you not to do that unless you want to be thought you know not serious about your job.”  So fortunately I didn’t take his advice and it’s one of the few courses I remember very well from school.  The best career advice I’ve ever gotten was from the psychologist who said, “What would you do if you could do anything you wanted to do?”  I think that’s a question I ask a lot of people and it’s very clarifying for people because we frequently have these expectations put on us by family, by friends about what you should do.  A friend of mine called that shoulding all over yourself, s-h-o-u-l-d-i-n-g, rather than saying, “What are my desires?”  “What do I like?”  “What gets me excited?”  And I tend to think that you will do better at things that you’re really interested in because you’re going to spend more time with it.  You’re going to read about it outside of work and you’ll be enthusiastic about it, so when I was at GE working in business I realized that the people who were going to do well were the people who loved it.  You know my friends would read The Wall Street Journal and say, “This is fascinating.”  And I would say, “How can you read that stuff?”  And they’d say, “This is fantastic.”  “How can you not read it?”  And so this notion of you know following you desires is really important. What would you do if you could do anything you wanted to do is probably the best career advice or the best question I’ve ever been asked about career.  

Recorded on March 26, 2010

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