Put Horse before Cart

In matters of career, I suggest we start by listening to our heart–an ancient discipline that has fallen into disuse due to the primary place of logic and reason in our culture. Of course, there is nothing wrong with using our heads, but it’s a little like trying to put the cart in front of the horse.

When explaining this principle to clients, I often draw a picture of a cart in front of a horse. It looks ridiculous, doesn’t it? This person is not going to get far. And yet, this is exactly where many of us end up in our careers when we learn early in life to adapt to the expectations of others.

Our social conditioning starts very early in life, as we learn to please significant others in our lives, such as parents, teachers, peers, coaches, and so on. There’s tremendous pressure on each of us to make career decisions based on certain social values and priorities—such as measuring our success according to the power, prestige and material wealth we accumulate.

Many individuals are channeled down a certain professional path using ‘can do’ skills long before they’ve had a chance to discover and nurture their natural talents and motivations.

So, many of us go to college because that is the expected thing to do. We select a major because we have to select something. In the process, we fill up our cart with what we told are the essential tools of success: education, qualifications, credentials, skills, knowledge, contacts, relevant experiences, awards, recognition, and so on. Then we look for and land a particular job for all sorts of reasons, most of them related to pre-conditioned notions of money, prestige, power and status.

What is true for college is true for trade school, the family business or the army. From grade school through high school and college and on into our careers, we strive to become somebody, some ideal. Inevitably, that somebody is different from who we are already. This is the result of developing only our social self at the expense of our authentic self.

I’ll never forget Ken, a second generation Canadian I met at university in Vancouver. He had just graduated with a BSc, and was enrolled in a Master’s program for Pestology. British Columbia is full of bugs threatening various kinds of natural resources, and Ken was going to specialize in destroying those bugs. However, he was first going to treat himself.

As a dutiful son of Asian parents, Ken was brought up to respect and obey his elders. Family honor is a primary value among Asian communities, so Ken had dutifully taken math and sciences through high school and university. But he harbored a secret passion for art. Growing up near Commercial Drive in Vancouver’s Chinatown, his home had been situated next to a sign shop where Ken spent many happy hours of his youth helping the proprietor draw and paint signs with vivid and wonderful colors. Although he found some opportunities to draw, this artistic side of Ken was neglected as he nurtured the social side of his self and worked hard to meet the expectations of his parents and community.

But, after entering grad school, Ken decided he was entitled to finally indulge his strong desire to learn more about art, and so he took an evening art class. That was it! He was hooked. He dropped his Pestology program, and focused on art. Finally, he was working with passion using his natural talents and motivations. He completed a BGS in Arts & Culture and went on to become an internationally-renowned artist, and teach art full-time at university.

His story is particularly poignant to me not only because I knew him way back when but because I’ll never forget the double-take I did when I saw four large billboard banners hanging on the outside wall of the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography in 2002. His exhibition paired life-size studio portraits of individuals and families of various ethnic backgrounds with bold-coloured, corporate style logos of their names on enamel and Plexiglass. They appeared as huge signs!

And, the text with the photos raised questions of identity, gender, race and class. They took me right back to the long and heated discussions I often heard at university on those issues. A review in The Ottawa Citizen at the time slammed the exhibit for its “politically correct tone.”

But Ken succeeded in doing what artists are suppose to do—get the public talking and debating about what is often taken for granted in everyday discourse and behavior. Art is suppose to foster strong opinions on both sides of a question! I can just imagine how pleased and happy he would’ve been to see his ideas bandied about in a nationally recognized newspaper.

The point is that Ken had traded in his ‘can do’ skills for his passion. And he was making his mark. For me, to see his art hanging on huge signs on the outside walls of a national gallery was like a loud shout of joy declaring Ken’s love of life! It was a validation of his passion and purpose. What I saw was a triumph of natural talents and significance over the safety Ken could’ve had by sticking to a career as a pestologist using his ‘can do’ skills.

That is not to say he may not have destroyed bugs in B.C. that deserved it, and gone on to make a contribution of significant economic impact, using his ‘can do’ skills. But I can’t help but think that the world would now be a poorer place if Ken had not honored his authentic self and nurtured his talents and motivations through his passion for art.

I encourage individuals to discover and develop their passion into work that will sustain them for a lifetime of employment and enjoyment. The key to self-fulfillment is to enjoy what you do day-in and day-out. Why would you stop doing something you love?

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