Johnny Bunko panelPamela Skilling’s Escape from Corporate America and Daniel H. Pink’s The Adventures of Johnny Bunko

I just read something scary on Twitter. Jonathan Fields – entrepreneur extraordinaire (I interviewed him on Lifehack Live) – posted about a conversation he’d had with a friend who “didn’t get how I could live w/ ‘stress’ of being entrepreneur and not having someone else pay me.”

It’s true: there are people in the world who will take an amazing amount of crap – layoffs, verbal abuse, boredom, office politics, and more – in exchange for the perceived security of having someone else write them a check every week.

This isn’t a post about becoming an entrepreneur, it’s a post about doing something to deal with a job that drags you down. More specifically, it’s a post about two inspiring books I’ve recently read, both of which take on the subject of career change in interesting, creative, and very different ways.

The first is Pamela Skillings’ Escape from Corporate America: A Practical Guide to Creating the Career of Your Dreams. Skillings was good enough to come on Lifehack Live recently to talk about her book, and I highly recommend people listen to what she has to say.

The other book is Daniel H. Pink’s The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You’ll Ever Need, a guide to business life with a twist: it’s written as a manga, a Japanese-style comic book. Before you scoff, believe me when I tell you, this is not a book for kids!

Change Your Life, Change Your Career

Let me quickly clear something up: neither of these books is about changing from one job to another. You’ll find no tips on building the perfect resume, no how-tos on dressing for an interview, and nothing about getting the most our of monster.com.

Instead, these books are about changing your career – even if you stay in the same job. What that means is the focus is on you as a person, not the mechanics of your working life.

Escape from Corporate American cover Escape from Corporate America is, as you’d probably imagine, the more straightforward of the two. The book begins with a look at what’s wrong with the typical American corporate job – the frustrating lack of control many workers feel, the soul-deadening demand for conformity, the feeling of “going through the paces” year in and year out – and in the end, having nothing you can point to that says “I made a difference”.

Skillings points to recent surveys that show 50% of Americans are dissatisfied with their jobs – and almost all American workers fantasize about leaving. Why do we do it? Why don’t we stick our heads into our boss’ office, scream “I’ve had all I can take and I’m not going to take it anymore!” and storm out?

It’s tempting to say “fear”, and I’m sure that plays a part in it, but I think a more realistic answer is “inertia” – the tendency of objects (and people) in motion to remain moving along the same path until an outside force acts on them. Skillings’ book aims to be that “outside force”.

Skilling’s talked with hundreds of people – corporate workers as well as successful “corporate escape artists” – about their experiences in and out of the corporate world, and compiled their responses, along with her own experiences and the latest research, into a guide to career satisfaction. The second part of her book offers the pros and cons of a variety of alternatives: from going to work for a company that “gets it”, starting your own business, to becoming a teacher, fighting the good fight at a non-profit, or launching a creative career.

But more importantly, she offers a set of exercises in self-exploration, walking you through the process not of finding a new job but of finding the real you – figuring out your strengths, your preferences, and your values and matching them to a career that will give you the room you need to grow as a person.

20090625-bunko-cover The Adventures of Johnny Bunko is also about figuring out and playing to your strengths. Poor Johnny Bunko is Everyman (or Everywoman), trapped in a job that he neither enjoys nor is all that good at. Then he comes into possession of a set of magical chopsticks – stay with me here! – that, when opened, call forth a magical career advisor who offers a set of six lessons.

It’s lighthearted and silly – but then again, the problem Pink is trying to help you deal with is the deadly seriousness that traps so many of us into dead-end jobs we don’t enjoy and don’t see how to get out of.

It’s a short read, so I won’t rehearse all six lessons here, but let me focus on the first two by way of introduction. When we meet our hero, he’s a low-level accountant at a company that does… what, we don’t know. He is a practical man with a practical job at a practical company, following “The Plan” laid out for him by his father, his career counselors, his employers – and it’s killing him.

Lesson #1: There is no plan.

Too many of us get stuck because we had it all worked out years ago – college, starter job, pay our dues, a couple of promotions, maybe a move to a bigger company, and, at some point, a comfortable perch in a corner office where the “good stuff” happens.

It’s a good plan, from a project management perspective; not so good for life, though. It assumes, for one thing, that we will remain the same person, with the same drives and the same ambitions, forever. It also assumes that when the time comes, the opportunity will present itself.

Those killer assumptions blind us to all the other opportunities that are constantly presenting themselves – as well as the ones we have to hunt out ourselves.

And when we hit a snag, when The Plan fails to come to fruition, we turn inwards, looking for the things we can fix in ourselves to make us more promotable, more desirable as a job candidate, more well-suited to The Plan. We become entrapped in a never-ending cycle of rooting out weaknesses.

Lesson #2: Think strengths, not weaknesses.

For one reason or another, all of us are better at some things than others – and find more satisfaction in some things than others. A life spent ignoring our strengths so we can “better ourselves” by improving in those areas where we’re weakest is no life at all – it’s a one-way ticket to perpetual dissatisfaction with who we are.

This doesn’t mean that if you’re a slob, say, everyone around you should just get used to it so you can focus on refining your brilliant wit. What it means is that you pay attention to those things only inasmuch as they affect your ability to function, while focusing on expanding the scope and strength of the things you’re best at. It means spending your time and energy to improve in those area where improvement itself is satisfying, where the return on your investment will be greatest, and where you are most likely to be able to make a mark in the world.

Why waste your efforts on improving your weakest skills only to achieve mediocrity?

Stop What You’re Doing and Read These Books

Given the statistics, chances are you need to hear what Skillings and Pink have to say. Even if you’re satisfied with where you’re at right now, read them for tomorrow – you never know when you’re going to hit a wall and find yourself floundering.

Neither of these books are very expensive: I picked up both in paperback for about $10 US each from Amazon. Escape from Corporate America is slightly better-suited for professionals, people with several years of experience in the corporate world under their belt (although my corporate years are almost a decade behind me and I still found a lot of value in the book). The Adventures of Johnny Bunko might appeal slightly more to younger people in more creative fields – or who wish they were in more creative fields. But both have a lot to offer to anyone, regardless of your age or current career.

Get them and read them, and let your mind absorb what they have to say. You don’t have to run out and change careers tomorrow – in fact, Skillings is pretty adamant that the only way to fly is with careful planning – but the change in perspective will do you a world of good. And once that ball starts rolling, once that outside force changes your path, there’s no going back – the next steps will come to you, inevitably.

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