Mythology

30Oct13

Barring “the man, the myth, the legend”-style hype, most people in the consider themselves to be post-myth. What is mythology, though? In essence, it is a system of stories, bearing some element of truth, that explains the world.

Few, if any, of us are truly post-myth. Even the classic mythology that we think of — Greek, Roman, and Norse — were not myth to the ancient Greeks, Romans, or Norse, but religion to be actively practiced. Today, the religious among us believe in their religion, drawing a distinction between it and myth (though they may consider other religions mythological). The non-religious pretend that they are beyond all myth, including the mythology they consider all religion to be.

In truth, we all live our lives according to the myths that we understand as truths about the world we live in. Here are some of the major employment myths that we enact:

  1. Education is the key to a successful career. As with all myths, there is some truth to this statement. As a general trend, the more education or training one achieves, the more likely they are to be gainfully employed. There are strong reasons for this: technical training can give a person a leg up when starting their career, while a broad education in the liberal arts develops the ‘soft skills’ required to a successful career as well as a level of intellectual flexibility. However, education does not necessarily guarantee success, nor is it necessarily required for success. There was a story circulating recently about an adjunct professor, a PhD, who died in poverty. On the other hand, it is reasonably well known that both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates dropped out of college, and that LeBron James was recruited for his first (multi-million dollar) job right out of high school.
  2. Working hard will give you career success. Again, there is some truth to this. It is hard to get ahead without putting in the time and effort, at least at one stage in one’s career. However, hard work is no guarantee of career success. There are plenty of people working two or three jobs, and barely (or not) getting by.
  3. Talent is your key to a successful career. This question is more complicated, because it’s not entirely clear what, exactly, talent is. Certainly, people have differing abilities  in all areas, but how does a natural gift express itself any differently than a natural interest followed by 10,000 hours of hard work? Talent without effort or interest will not lead to a successful career.
  4. The most successful people people just got there by luck — whether accident of birth or timing. I don’t doubt the importance of timing, and certainly don’t underestimate the advantage of starting adulthood debt-free. However, you can’t count on luck, as demonstrated by the short duration of many lottery winners’ wealth. The biggest advantage that luck comes when someone is prepared to take advantage of the opportunity that comes along.
  5. Your success is down to who you know. Your network is important and can help you get to where you need to go, but it can’t help you get anywhere unless you’re prepared.

In truth, every success is a unique stew of education, work, talent, and luck. Unfortunately, a failure only requires that one element be missing. How do you overcome the obstacles, then? Here is my three-step answer:

  1. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket: Don’t count on education, hard work, talent, luck, or your network being your ticket to career success. Invest your time and energy into all the elements that you can control.
  2. Be flexible: Your career will probably take you in directions that you don’t expect. Prepare yourself for the unexpected.
  3. Be prepared to use your education, work ethic, talent, and your network until your luck comes along.
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