I am good friends with a woman named Tavetta Patterson, who is the founder and Executive Director of a program called Gary Life. Tavetta’s program helps students make the statistically unlikely transition from the schools in Gary, Indiana (one of the nation’s poorest and most dangerous communities) to college. Tavetta has made this mission her life’s calling, and her career.
One of my old bosses is a man named Bob Johnson, who grew up in the paper shredding industry, worked for his grandfather’s company, and then started the trade association for paper shredding companies (like the one he took over from his grandfather). Bob made this his life’s calling, and his career.
Both of these careers are uncommon careers that have allowed Bob and Tavetta to do uncommon things. Tavetta has seen children from her program go from rough neighborhoods into colleges and back into those same rough neighborhoods as teachers and counselors. Bob has traveled the world, and was just in Australia advancing the cause of data protection.
Tavetta has helped train students to go into the type of good jobs that the entrepreneurs in Bob’s association create.
They are uncommon people, with uncommon careers, doing uncommon things. I’ve been lucky to work with Bob and Tavetta and others like them, and this is what I’ve learned about creating an uncommon career.
1. You must give a crap.
Everyone I’ve ever known who has had an uncommon career has given a crap, deeply given a crap, about something. It might be education. It might be paper shredding. It might be u-joints, or AIDS. Whatever it is, you must care. What you do must matter, to you. And while it’s easy to make value judgments about what matters more (i.e., caring about AIDS is a worthier mission than building u-joints), the reality is we are all in this together. The person who cares deeply about u-joints builds or works for a business that creates tax revenue, part of which funds AIDS research. The more someone cares, the more economic value they create, and the bigger difference they make.
For themselves, and for the world.
2. Educate yourself.
A college degree might not be the right or the realistic path for you. That’s no excuse to be uneducated. And even if you have a degree, that is no excuse to stop educating yourself. I’ve known remarkably educated people who never set foot in a college, and remarkably uneducated people who stopped growing intellectually the day they graduated. And vice versa. There is not an anecdote to support this point, because it’s a simple fact:
You cannot have an uncommon career without educating yourself.
3. Know the higher purpose of your work.
I’ve spent at least an hour in a gym nearly every day of my life for almost 20 years. Every gym has the same ubiquitous rubber flooring. Over the years, on those floors, I’ve seen people transform their lives. I transformed my own life in a gym, and I believe every day that I spend in a gym continues that transformation.
I hope the people who make those rubber floors know how important having a solid foundation under our feet has been to me and million of others, and how uncommon the impact of their work has been.
4. Appreciate diversity.
My parents grew up in small rural farming communities, and I grew up in one of the least diverse states in the nation (Utah). That lack of diversity extended all the way to our table. We were a strictly meat and potatoes family. The only time we branched out and ate “ethnic” food was when we went to a little Mexican restaurant near my Grandma’s house, where we would get deep-fried ground beef burritos and tater tots.
Then, when I was a teenager, my dad got a job where he traveled the world. While we barely spoke, he started bringing me to restaurants that the rest of the family was unwilling to try. While we didn’t get along, we bonded over food from other places.
My dad ended up having an uncommon career. He rode a camel to the Great Pyramids, and spent months in the Arctic Circle. He made friends from nearly every faith and race, and visited 59 countries. My dad taught me that there is far more to the world than tater tots (as good as they may be).
You will never have an uncommon career unless you are willing to let new things in, including (and most importantly) new and different people.
5. Listen to your heart, and take smart risks.
We all have bills to pay, so I’m not advising you to follow your heart into poverty. Just don’t ignore your heart, and take smart risks when it comes to your career. Sometimes that risk can come in the form of a new job, or staying at an old one. Sometimes a risk means listening to someone else’s opinion, or ignoring it entirely.
But take a risk sometime, because if you want to arrive at an uncommon destination, you must first go down an uncommon path.
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