Saturday, 5 October 2019

Factors that contribute to career success: Why excessive prudence and modesty are fundamentally wrong

Studies have identified many factors that contribute to career success, but so far, nobody has been able to build a convincing model to predict an individual's future, or how much happiness a certain profession will bring him. In case of doubt, people opt for safe choices. This is why you will seldom hear career counsellors recommend professions that may lead to unemployment.

Routine advice aims at achieving social insertion. Risk is regarded as a problem, safety as the solution. Of course, career recommendations based on conformity are never going to inspire students to become daring adventurers, artists or innovators. The problem though is that fearful advice is going to prove wrong more often than not. In times when markets are demanding creativity at all levels, excessive prudence and modesty are fundamentally wrong. In fact, I suspect they are wrong in all circumstances. Let me tell you a story that drives my point home.

In the year 1820, the acclaimed sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen travelled from Rome back to his native city, Copenhagen in Denmark. Thorvaldsen was then fifty years old and at the pinnacle of his fame. During his stay in Copenhagen, he talked to many aspiring artists, giving them generous advice and encouragement.

When Thorvaldsen returned to his hotel one night after a reception in his honour, he was told that a boy had been waiting for him all day. Intrigued, Thorvaldsen looked around the hotel hall, and found a poorly dressed kid asleep on a chair.

He walked up to the boy, shook his arm gently, and whispered to him: "It's late, kid, go home." Startled, the boy opened his eyes and jumped to his feet. "I was waiting for you, Herr Thorvaldsen. I have been waiting for you all day."

That must true, thought Thorvaldsen, since the boy looked so exhausted and hungry that it was pitiful to see him. "I wanted to ask you for advice on my career," the kid went on. "I cannot decide whether I should become a novelist or a poet."

Out of compassion, Thorvaldsen ordered a glass of warm milk for the boy and listened to his story. It was a heartbreaking tale. When the boy turned ten, he had lost the striking voice that had earned him praise and a small income as a singer in his home town. As of that day, he had joined the thousands of unemployed teenagers that roamed the streets of Copenhagen.

"This is why I have thought of becoming a writer," the boy explained shyly, taking three ruffled pages out of his pocket and handing them over to Thorvaldsen. Strangely enough, the idea of asking a sculptor for literary advice seemed to fit the boy's pathetic situation.

Thorvaldsen devoted a few minutes to reading the text, and was appalled to see that it contained dozens of grammar and spelling mistakes. It was obvious that the boy had no chance of becoming a writer. Even if it was cruel, it was better to tell him the truth right away, so that he could at least learn some trade.

"What is your name?" asked Thorvaldsen, giving him back the pages. "Hans-Christian," replied the boy full of hope. "Hans-Christian Andersen." A silence ensued, as Thorvaldsen searched for the least hurtful way to express his judgement.

Thorvaldsen stared at Hans-Christian Andersen for a long while as he remembered his own ambitions as a young man, many years ago, but of course, his situation had been completely different. Thorvaldsen took a deep breath and shook his head. "Look, Hans-Christian," he began, "I don't know how to tell you this."

At that moment, Andersen nodded and gave the sculptor a crazy smile. That was what he had been waiting for. He was about to hear the words of encouragement that he needed so badly. He was sure that an artist of the calibre of Thorvaldsen would be immediately able to recognize his talent, and point him in the right direction.

"What do you think, Herr Thorvaldsen, should I become a novelist or a poet?" he asked again, this time full of confidence. Fascinated, Thorvaldsen looked at the boy's bright eyes, and realized how foolish he had been. "I have no doubt, Hans-Christian," he answered softly, "that you will become both."

Text: http://johnvespasian.blogspot.com

Image: Photograph of classical painting. Photograph taken by John Vespasian, 2019.

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