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DALE DAUTEN | THE CORPORATE CURMUDGEON

Cannibalistic butterflies in the job market

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Dale Dauten
March 16, 2008

"The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones." - John Maynard Keynes

Odds are, you'd like a new job. Odds are, you won't try to get one. Odd. However, let's say that you are lucky enough to get fired from a job you hate, or courageous enough to walk away from a job that bores the shine off your shoes.

Then what?

Maybe you take a shot at something new and scary and enlivening. How do you best go about it?

What got me thinking about getting an amazing assignment was hearing a photographer for National Geographic respond to the question, "How can I get a job like yours?" The photographer was David Doubilet, who'd just finished a National Geographic Live lecture. He began by recalling his own start with the magazine. As a young man, he put together a portfolio of his best work and took it to one of the editors, who flipped through, closed the portfolio and sat silent for what Doubilet recalls as "at least two minutes," before he shrugged and said, "There's nothing new here."

Doubilet went on to say that when aspiring photographers approach "National Geographic" they get asked some version of, "Why should you get an assignment?" Typically the would-be employee responds with something like, "I'll do anything, go anywhere. I'll risk my life. I'll be eaten by crocodiles or lions . . . "

"That," Doubilet said quietly, "is the wrong answer." He added: "What's the right answer? I know one photographer who said, 'I'm getting really interested in cannibalistic butterflies.' That was a right answer."

Cannibalistic butterflies, eh? There's more than one moral to that story: First, "Do anything" is nothing. Anybody can say they'll work hard and do whatever it takes. Hey, it takes more than whatever.

Second, every photographer can take pictures. So coming in with a portfolio of nice pictures is like a carpenter coming in with a board with nails in it. The response of the interviewer, usually unspoken, is: "OK, you have the usual skills and can do what everyone else does. Now, tell me what you can do that's different." In other words, the conversation wasn't about photographic competence - that's a given - but about what to do with that competence. My first lesson in getting an interesting assignment in corporate life came when I was working for what was then the Greyhound Corp., at that time, one of the Fortune 100. I was young, ambitious, and good at what I did - good enough to be numbingly bored.

I had mastered the usual requirements of my job and repeatedly gone to my bosses and asked them for something new and exciting to work on. Their response? Here's more of the same. And it would have stayed that way until I found a project I wanted to work on, a computer model that would predict the outcome of marketing decisions, and I bounced around in my enthusiasm and got the brand managers to agree to pay for it. It was my version of cannibalistic butterflies. I was soon spending one week of every month at the Plaza Hotel in New York City to be near the geniuses who offered the modeling services.

Among the things I learned was that if I wanted to do something interesting, I had to do more than be bored; I had to be the opposite of bored. I had to find excitement and sell it. It was a great lesson that I was lucky to learn while young, before I'd learned the more common corporate lesson taught to those who admit they can do more than they are being given: Never volunteer.

I often encounter people who want to try something new in their careers. And they seem to always go about it in the same old way, to go around with a resume, saying, "Here are my skills - how can you use them?" This is worse than the would-be National Geographic photographer saying, "I'll do anything." In this case, it's saying, "I'm not sure what I want to do, but if you throw out some ideas, I might be willing to give it a try."

If an employer has a cool job, something engaging, invigorating and lucrative, why give it to someone who doesn't know what they want to do? No, they have a line of people with experience shouting "I'll do anything" to choose from. And how to choose from among those in that line takes us back to the cannibalistic butterflies. The exciting job doesn't go to the person asking for something interesting, but to the person offering something interesting.

Dale Dauten is a syndicated columnist. He can be reached at dale@dauten.com.

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