what can’t you NOT do?

Steve at All Things Workplace makes a great point in his post about figuring out what career is right for you. He says to ask yourself: What are things you can’t not do? Those are clues to a career you’ll thrive in.

This resonated with me in a huge way, because I can see it at work in my own career. At the start of my working life, I couldn’t stop myself from rewriting the company’s form letters, publicity materials, even internal documents. It wasn’t my job, but I literally couldn’t not do it, to the point that I once found myself rewriting the office phone manual late one night. Sure enough, I soon found myself working as a staff writer at a different organization, and for the rest of my 20s, my career revolved around writing and editing. And my quality of life skyrocketed, because just like when I was sneaking those activities in at that first job, it didn’t feel like work at all.

Later, I found myself increasingly unable to stop myself from becoming a thorn in the side of my manager until all manner of problems were addressed, from inefficient procedures to morale issues. I was spending more and more time thinking about how I’d restructure things if I were in charge and finding ways to get my ideas in front of my bosses … who — luckily for me — were actually receptive and indulged me in this, rather than telling me to get back to what they had hired me to do. Eventually this moved me out of writing and into managing, and again, what I do now doesn’t feel like work. Looking back at it, it feels inevitable — as Steve wrote in his post, these were things I couldn’t not do.

I’ve seen this at work in others too. One entry-level guy I worked with maniacally analyzed the cost-benefit ratio of every new project the organization took on, on his own initiative. After identifying enough cost-saving measures, he ended up getting moved into a position where his job was to do exactly that. A woman I used to work with used to always suggest ways to make a certain research series the company produced more user-friendly and engaging. She ended up in charge of it.

(It’s worth noting you probably can’t engage in this behavior without irritating some people. But if you’re good at what you’re doing, truly good managers and coworkers are going to see you as an opportunity, not an irritant.)

This isn’t just about taking initiative. It’s about the things you cannot help but do no matter what — ways that your brain works, things that you will spend time on, even if it means working well into the night to fit it in.

Take a look at the things you can’t keep yourself from getting involved in. It might point you to a far more satisfying job.

{ 12 comments… read them below }

  1. Wally Bock*

    This may have application to more than work. When I hit forty, I engaged a physician knowledgeable about diet and exercise to devise an eating and exercise regimen that I could use given my traveling lifestyle. At our first meeting, he asked me what foods I would eat even if they were forbidden in the program. That didn’t take much thought: “Cheeseburger, ice cream and beer” I answered.

    “Thanks,” he said. “Those are in the program. Just pay attention to how much of them you eat.”

    The idea it seemed was to remove the irresistible temptation and take away the romance of cheating. It worked.

  2. The Career Encourager*

    This is great advice – I hope your readers take it to heart. A wise mentor told me the same thing early on in my career and it is advice that has been very good to me.

  3. Sandy*

    Excellent! That's the crossroads I'm at in facing a new career. What are my strengths, because I definitely have annoying strengths!

    Plus, you can either invest your energy in creating mediocre weaknesses or you can instead work on pushing up your strengths.

  4. Anonymous*

    It took me a while to figure out what you were trying to say since the title is completely awkward! But, I get it: what can you NOT stop doing?!

  5. jones*

    I did that at my last job — not because of reading this article, but because it is in my nature to do what feels right, or not NOT do certain things. I was hired to do desktop publishing work, but found myself in the middle of brand strategy, book publication committees, indirectly managing the creative work of my teammates, and leading the way for innovative graphic design solutions. In some ways, I was rewarded for it — I climbed from being a front desk receptionist to being the lead designer on my team. But, it also got me fired. Yes, fired! In fact, the person who fired me told me that I was hired to do X, not Y. It was unfortunate, because I loved my job, I enjoyed challenging myself, and can’t help expressing my ideas on how things should be done (especially if they are not being done well to begin with), but I also feel burned by it and not sure I would want to take the chance again. Had I just kept my mouth shut and did what I was paid to do, I would not be unemployed, broke, and living at my mother’s house. Then again, maybe it wasn’t the right role for me anymore, not having room to grow or advance, not having a career path. Not sure either way, but I am sure that I feel like I played.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Ah, I think you’ve identified the key to making this work: You’ve got to have a boss who supports you in it, and you’ve got to watch for cues as you take this stuff on so that you have a good sense of whether or not she does. Not all of them will (some for good reason, and others not).

    2. Anon.*

      But now you have a direction and an idea as to what REALLY floats your boat! Is there a way you can pursue that passion?
      Even if you do what got you fired as a volunteer.. you would be DOING it, getting more experience at it and references that you can use to get a job doing what you love. If you don’t have a Linkedin account do so asap – then connect with co-workers who knew your work in this outside of official position description capacity and ask for a reference. Do the same with a volunteer position. That should help you obtain a position that is more in line with what you love.

      Hope that helps!

    3. Wannabe a good manager*

      I agree that people can get fired for this – and I fired someone for it, too. She was doing Y instead of X and when I approached her to do more X, she was telling me she didn’t have time to do X. Sorry, but she was hired to do X, not Y. OP, please don’t think I mean that you did this; I’d simply like to warn others who might apply the principle too enthusiastically! Please make sure that X is taken care of!

  6. Elizabeth West*

    Heh, I’m the same way with writing and editing. My exjob would bring me things to proof–“Can you take a look at this?”

    I’m trying to find a job right now that makes use of my strengths, including writing and editing. NOT just typing! I put a section on my resume emphasizing those skills. Unfortunately, most companies aren’t forward-thinking enough to do any more than assign you a newsletter that no one reads anyway.

  7. Anon2*

    The problem is that the thing you can’t not do isn’t always valued in the market place. I can’t not obsessively read 19th century British novels and analyze them against a backdrop of medieval literature. Fortunately, there is a profession for this, but unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to secure. Believe me; I’ve been trying for five years.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yeah, definitely not everything works here. But I’d say to try to think of stuff that you can’t not do in a work context — like the examples I was giving in the post.

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