What’s Your Answer to “How Did You Get Here?”

mm Russ Finkelstein

“And you may ask yourself

Well…how did I get here?”

—Talking Heads, “Once In A Lifetime”

Not many of us begin a workday by asking ourselves how we got here. According to LinkedIn, 25 percent of us are active job seekers, and 60 percent of us are passive job seekers who would be open to a new opportunity if it happened to come along, so many of us are more likely to seek out a strong cup of coffee get through an unhappy workday!

We might be asked to write a professional biography for our website at work, but given other priorities, it’s not a request that’s likely to make us embark on the crafting of a memoir, or on too much introspection.

“It was the best of jobs. It was the worst of jobs.” You know.

But I just celebrated my birthday again this week, and I’ve noticed, the more times I’ve turned 29 ( and it’s been quite a few times in a row, now) that people tend to ask me more often, in my career, how I “got here.” 

It’s a question that makes me a little wary, because people only tend to ask it of people who’ve had some obvious success. As a career coach and founder of a few start-ups, I don’t tend to consider myself as a “successful professional” terribly often. Maybe I’m just too modest. But I’m also wary of being asked the question because there’s only one other type of person who gets asked often “How did you get here?” And that’s someone who’s a cautionary tale, someone whose life is being explored in the media, for example, because the public can’t grasp how they ended up doing something so awful.

The truth is that all of us have elements of both in our lives. We’re all complex, and there is real value in asking people questions as you seek to understand their professional narrative or story.

However, life is not about one story, or one piece of advice. It’s not like a career depends only on making one decision, or on learning from a single experience. People are combinations of choices they make, and sometimes those choices are in the moment, partly a result of luck, about our passions, or the people we are around. There are just a whole variety of things that go into them.  

How we got here isn’t ever as simple as saying “I always took the greatest challenge”, or “I was always honest.”

There isn’t a skeleton key than unlocks the story of an entire career. But there are experiences which shape you, and which shape your outlook.

It’s just as important to explore your own professional narrative, as it is useful to explore those of others. I suggest to people that they start with themselves, because obviously we are all most fascinated by the person in the mirror. But, once you’ve done that work, it’s a good time to start asking others how they got where they are. You may find that it starts a fascinating conversation with a return on the investment of your time or that it reveals a practiced response that might not be as revealing.

The rest of this blog is in two sections. First I’m going to reflect on how I got where I am, to illustrate how this all works, and then give you some advice about how to look into your own career to understand who you are, where you come from, and what your professional goals and motivations are. Then, as I say, it’s a good idea to start sharing your story with others as you ask them how they got where they are.

The idea of thinking in this way is to help you establish a little more clarity in your career. By considering how you got here, in a little more depth, you will, I hope, develop a little more clarity about where you’re positioned to be going next. Such a process can feed very usefully into your networking activity.

I also want to talk openly about my career in a way that people don’t tend to in America, because we all get so crouched, fearful, and defensive. The aim is to demonstrate the value in doing so. At ClearyNext, we’re trying to create more space for people to have this kind of dialog, but it may feel quite unusual to you at first.

I got here because I felt diminished

I did every piece of work in my adult life, in some degree, because of my experiences as a young man, growing up in New Jersey in the 1980s. I was gay, socially awkward, and many of my teachers had dismissed me as less intellectually able than many of the other kids. I had a guidance counselor who, whenever I said I wanted to try something challenging, would tell me I lacked the intelligence or ability to succeed. They often suggested I should “set my sights lower.”

I always knew that I was somehow different, and that there was, to some degree, no guarantee that I would ever fit in, anywhere. So, early on, I realized I’d have to work pretty hard to figure out where I fit in the world.

Because, in my own experiences of trying to figure out where I fit, I didn’t find many supportive voices or people like me, I think that spurred me on, a bit. I felt an ambition bloom, that I would prove that guidance counselor wrong.

The main thing about feeling diminished, I think, is that I became super-aware of not making others feel diminished. I had respect for everyone I met, didn’t often feel superior to others and recognized the hurdles they might be facing in themselves, those limiting beliefs about their ability to achieve things. I didn’t always know what to do about it, but I knew others felt the sting of perceived limits, because I’d felt that sting myself.

Growing up fearful of homophobia, I also developed something of a masochistic moral streak. I knew I was going to be judged for my sexuality, so I wanted to be above reproach in most other ways. I wanted to be so good and decent that nobody could ever pass judgment on me. It’s not always a healthy drive, that. But I have learned to channel it reasonably well, particularly when I’m on deadline to create a really killer PowerPoint presentation.

I got here because I didn’t believe others should outwork me.

That desire not to be judged by anyone, professionally, was also accompanied by a strong work ethic. My father was, and still is, a salesman, although he travels in smaller geographic areas than he once did. He would not be outworked or out-organized by others and that inspired me.

I also learned that by working hard, I could develop a stronger sense of being part of something, and belonging.

In the early days of founding the organization Idealist.org, for example, my co-founder and I could work 14 or 16 hours a day as well as most weekends. It didn’t feel right that he should do all the work, for some reason. But I just have never been somebody who has expected other people to carry my weight.

My first job out of college was as a program director in a youth program, and I’d spend my Friday nights calling every parent of every child just to say hello and check in with them, because it seemed to be the right thing for every parent and child. There are obviously work/life balance issues that come along with that mentality, and I have struggled with those. But that work ethic has typically made me an appealing person for others to engage, in part, because I tend to be willing to make myself available at a moment’s notice for those in real need of a conversation. No matter what.

I got here because helping people achieve in every way is what I love

As I forged my career, I realized that I loved helping people to achieve. I wanted to right the wrong for others, the wrong of low expectations. Then I began to realize that I had stamina for doing this kind of work, and I began to derive more and more pleasure from it.

As I got into coaching, I found that many people felt professionally isolated and alone. They were unaware of the possibilities in their professional lives, and to be able to help people open up like one of those pop-up books you see as a child, in that situation, became an intoxicating experience.

People would have a flat notion of the professional possibilities they might have, and when they suddenly saw all of the stuff they might do, and that nuance, people were so appreciative, and the positive feeling built on itself. The more I was able to coach, the more people voiced their appreciation, and it built my professional desire and momentum. I found more desire to do more and more things.

All of my board service, pro-bono work, consulting projects and work have been in this space. Equity in access to opportunity and possibility is the problem I most want to solve.

I got here because there is a need for what I do

Professionally, unless we happen to be very lucky indeed, most of us need to earn money. It’s the definition, in most people’s eyes, of what it means to be professional at anything, to exchange money for it.

I am a co-founder of a careers website because people don’t want to, and/or can’t, pay for one-on-one career coaching, and as much as I would love to speak to every human out there one-on-one, I do also enjoy my downtime spent in front of Netflix. I love what I do, and I’d rather be someone that some people can look to, without charging them money, so that I can have some kind of effect on people, and help them figure out what’s next.

In ClearlyNext, I’ve found a great intersection between my professional skills, my interests, and filling a massive void in many people’s professional lives, to do something at scale for so many who are struggling with the road ahead.

I got here because I found people along the way that I could work with who allowed me to by my best self much of the time

Part of any work is finding people that you like, and respect, that you enjoy being around, that allow for your shortcomings and quirks in some ways. Earlier in my career I was drawn to issues, more than to people. But since then, I’ve become a lot more directed at finding people I like, respect, laugh with and trust, that I want to engage, and I’m very mindful of that in all of the choices I make now.  

How Did You Get Here?

Now I’ve told you some of the big reasons for how I got here, it’s time for you to tell me your story. I’ve grouped the questions under four headings, and I want you to spend ten minutes on each, drafting a few notes in response to each.

Tell me about how you see yourself as a person in the world, from childhood to now

What do you carry with you from your life’s experiences that are your primary motivators? What are you reacting to? When you think about your goals, what’s the reason behind them? For example, if you care about making a lot of money, did you grow up somewhere where money was a struggle or an expectation? Did that become your primary motivation? Or perhaps there was a lot of money around, and you realized you had to go down a certain route, or that you wanted to rebel against it? How do you see yourself fitting into the world around you, when you meet people in different kinds of roles, and in different ways? How does where you come from play a role in the choices you think about in your priorities from work?

What do you love doing, and who are you when you are doing it?

I have shared in a previous blog that deciding to seek a job you love is choice of a sort. You are welcome to choose a job you like, or a job you merely tolerate. But if you do want to pursue something you love, I would consider the following: What do you derive your energy from? What is the thing that makes you feel excited and alive at work? Is there something that you are excited to direct your work life towards? Do you have a specific curiosity about a field or role? Also, who are you in a workplace? What’s your work style? Can you see it fitting in?

Where is the market for your skills?

Are you trying to push your way into a professional field that’s already crowded or contracting? What about your professional approach is different, and is there an emerging market for that approach? If there might be, is it a possibility where you are currently located? Are there specific voids that you are responding to?

Who do you like being around?

Who helps serve as a counterbalance for your strengths and weaknesses? Look back, as well as ahead. What are your red flags? Are you prepared to tolerate narcissists, for example, because of their creative imagination, or would you prefer to just chill out with your colleagues, and not pile on the pressure? Will the temperaments you seek be hard to locate?

If you take the time to consider the answers to these questions, you can get much closer to being articulate about your unique background and strengths, and how they can support you in achieving your goals.

I have likely fallen into the too much information rabbit hole yet again, but it is in service of you. I’m looking forward to hearing the answers you come up with.

Russ Finkelstein is Managing Director of ClearlyNext, a guided online career program that helps people of all backgrounds and incomes figure out what to do next. Read more >