Did you know what you wanted to do at an early age?  Is what you are doing now what you set out to do?  Have you got a career path mapped out and, if so, are you on track?

I ask these questions because I have never known what I wanted to do in advance of doing it.  I left school without having a clue what I wanted to do (fortunately long enough ago to have been rescued by two years compulsory National Service).  I only chose to read psychology at university because an uncle suggested it and I didn’t have an alternative to offer.  Since graduating, if I’m honest, my whole working life has seen me drifting from one project to another; all of them fascinating and rewarding but none of them actually initiated by me.  In fact, all my significant achievements came about at the behest of other people; Neil Rackham interpersonal skills and Alan Mumford learning styles.

I’m a classic drifter – and I don’t think I’m alone.  I have often asked senior managers whether they actually set out to do what they are doing now and never found one who did.  A striking thing about the biographies and autobiographies of famous people that I read is how the majority made it by being in the right place at the right time. I suspect that the few who claim to have been ruthlessly purposeful are rationalising after the event.  With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to claim that you knew what you were doing as opposed to reacting to events and hoping for the best. Why, even I, when pressed, can rationalise and get my career to sound as if it was orderly and under control.

It was gratifying to see a recent piece in The Sunday Times with the headline ‘Management by muddling through’.  Chris Rodgers, an honorary senior visiting fellow at Cass Business School, claims that most managers he speaks to privately acknowledge that they muddle through but assume they are alone in doing so.  ‘They think that’s not what they are supposed to be doing.  They think that everyone else is doing it the ‘proper’ way’.  This exactly mirrors my conversations with managers and describes my own professional life.

Here is my philosophy for muddling along.  Have a realistic goal to aim for so long as the route towards it remains flexible, constantly adjustable in the light of happenings.  I believe that the real key to a successful career (step 1, decide what ‘successful’ means for you) is to remain alert to the opportunities that come along (some earned and some entirely fortuitous) and to make sound choices with whatever information is available to you at the time.  Inevitably there will be missed opportunities, incomplete information and wrong choices but, on balance over course of a career, you need to make more correct than wrong calls. 

I’m reading a remarkable book at the moment, ‘Why the West rules – for now’ by Ian Morris.  Here is a delightful quote about tinkering – another word for muddling along. ‘We humans are just much better at tinkering than other animals because we have big, fast brains with lots of folds to think things through, endless supple vocal chords to talk things through, and opposable thumbs to work things through’. 

Brains, vocal chords and thumbs, lucky aren’t we?

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