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What Does a Successful Career Look like to You? Lessons from “What You’re Really Meant to Do”

A road sign that says' Success'.

Robert Steven Kaplan is a distinguished Harvard Business School professor, founding partner of Indaba Capital Management LLC, co-chairman of the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, and a Goldman Sachs alum. No stranger to the boardroom or corner office, it’s not surprising that people routinely seek out Kaplan’s advice. He has strung these pearls of wisdom together in What You’re Really Meant To Do: A Road Map For Reaching Your Unique Potential.

Though smart and sensible, What You’re Really Meant To Do is far from groundbreaking. Many of Kaplan’s key recommendations can be found elsewhere in the self-help/career development genre, including What Color Is Your Parachute?which I reviewed a few months ago and which also sees intense self-reflection and determination as the path to finding a fulfilling career.

Those of us who have chosen to stake out careers in the social sector especially might find a few of Kaplan’s suggestions fairly obvious. The danger, for instance, of staying in an unfulfilling career just because of the wealth and status it affords you won’t be revelatory for nonprofit professionals (or, one hopes, most readers). So who in the social sector should read this book? Not necessarily for job seekers, this book applies to working professionals at every level, and especially those who are feeling dissatisfied with their current jobs.

Redefining success

What’s most useful in the beginning part of the book is Kaplan’s spin on the definition of success. He posits that it should not be measured in accomplishments –whether money, a promotion, or a pat on the back– but the achievement of reaching your full potential, whatever that looks like for you.

Detailed in the first section of the book, the road map to reaching that goal begins with an assessment of strengths, weaknesses, passions, and prejudices that have informed your decisions over time. Kaplan then instructs the reader to identify the top tasks associated with his or her current job (or ideal job, for those who are seeking to make a move) and to match skills with tasks. From here, you should be able to envision a career that will give you the space to reach your full, unique potential. Again, it’s a sensible exercise and one well worth trying, but none of its elements are especially innovative.

In the second and third sections of the book, however, after laying the foundation for reaching your potential, Kaplan brings into focus his most insightful and compelling lessons, showing you how to take a satisfactory career to the next level and going beyond the key question of what you’re really meant to do.

Learn how to deal with setbacks

We know that in some situations, the only variable we can actually control is our response. Building on this idea, Kaplan warns against allowing your reaction to an injustice at work to be more damaging than the setback itself. Years from now, for instance, your colleagues may not remember if you received a poor performance review, but they will remember you throwing a fit in your boss’s office. Dealing with a setback demands that you to keep your cool and take time to reflect –easier said than done, but likely to pay off in the future.

The book likewise advises us to take our time when faced with a new job or assignment that seems at first to be a bad fit. In our careers, he explains, we are running a marathon, not sprinting for the finish. Don’t create artificial deadlines and place undue pressure on yourself.

Build your dream team

Kaplan takes a very calculated approach to cultivating relationships with people who can help you make decisions in your career, advising readers to deliberately assemble a team of supporters they can call on to help them feel less isolated when coworkers or family members fail to truly understand challenges at home or at work. He also suggests joining others’ dream teams, as the work of helping someone else enables us to develop our own skills, as well.

Be a leader wherever you are

One theme that surfaces time and again is that of ownership: taking responsibility for your mistakes, your opinions, the success of your company no matter your position, and, of course, the trajectory of your own career. Leaders “figure out what they believe and have the courage to act on this belief. They focus on adding value to others. They define their roles broadly and act like owners of their organizations.” By embracing these qualities and demonstrating leadership in all you do, you’re far more likely to be hired to a top position later on. And such positions, Kaplan reminds us, give us the flexibility to delegate those parts of our job we like least and to inspire those around us to pursue a common vision.

Learning to deal with setbacks and recruit a personal dream team are important goals for any professional, even one who discovered long ago what he or she was really meant to do, and these and other lessons make for an instructive read, road map or none. In fact, with a different title, this book may make its way into the hands of many more people who could benefit from Kaplan’s expertise.

One of the rules of reviewing books is not to discredit the author for failing to do what he or she never set out to do in the first place. As promised, Kaplan’s road map, at some turns unremarkable, is a sensible guide to identifying a unique and fulfilling career path no matter the industry, but I look forward to reading more of Kaplan’s thoughts on leadership and accountability, because that’s where What You’re Really Meant to Do really shines.

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About the Author | Kari Mirkin's underlying philosophy of work in the nonprofit sector is that we need to ensure equal and easy access to the things that make us who we are: the arts, culture, and lifelong learning. A native of Youngstown, Ohio, she received her Master’s of Nonprofit Organizations from Case Western Reserve University and spends her time as a Consultant with Grants Plus and member of Young Nonprofit Professionals Network's national board of directors. When she's not cheering on the Cavs or scouting out the nearest coffee spot, you can find her posting on Facebook,Twitter and LinkedIn.

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