The Right — and Wrong — Stuff: How Brilliant Careers Are Made and Unmade
Public Affairs (January 2018)
“What really impedes the progress of talented people? Why do some careers stall while others flourish?”
Careers as well as trains proceed on a track unless or until they are brought to a stop…or derailed. Perhaps channeling the title of Tom Wolfe account of the first 15 years of America’s space program, Carter Cast wrote his book in response to the two questions that serve as the title of this brief commentary. Phrased another way, “What is the ‘right stuff’ that people must possess in order to achieve success?”
Cast: “I want to shine a light on this buried topic of derailment in order to help talented people realize their potential. My goal is to help you understand, assess, and correct problems that could otherwise stall your career. I will discuss a variety of strategies to help you avoid derailment or get back on track when it occurs, focusing in particular on three key remedies
o “Become more aware of your own areas of vulnerability, especially potential interpersonal issues;
o “Understand new job requirements during times of change and tradition; and
o “Increase your learning ability to become more ‘career flexible’ and taking charge of your own career development.”
Cast shines a brilliant light on the information, insights, and counsel that his reader will need to develop or enrich the “right stuff” that personal growth and professional development require. However, developing the “right stuff” involves more, much more than eliminating the “wrong stuff.” As John Wooden constantly stressed, who you are when no one’s looking should be the same person others see every day. Recent news stories also remind us that a great career that took many years to develop can be derailed by only one inappropriate action or comment.
In the final chapter, he identifies six steps (Pages 230-235) to take in order to avoid or recover from derailment. They are:
1. Determine what success looks like
2. Understand where you stand right now
3. Take responsibility for the behavior you need to develop
4. Create experiences that test you in the development area
5. Find people to support you in your efforts
6. Create methods and reminders to keep you on track
I agree with Carter Cast: “In the final analysis, the best way to avoid career derailment is to take steps to increase your level of self-awareness. What Are your assets? Where might you be unaware and vulnerable to derailment? A lack of self-awareness is the single best indicator of a manager or executive’s impending derailment.”
In this context, I am again reminded of Ernest Becker’s classic work, Denial of Death, in which he acknowledges that no one can deny physical death but there is an another form of death that can be denied: That which occurs when we become wholly preoccupied with fulfilling others’ expectations of us.
I urge those who read the book to complete “The Wrong Stuff Derailment Assessment” that is provided in an appendix. Its value will depend almost entirely on honest answers and then doing whatever is needed to increase what is “right”…and eliminate (or at least diminish) whatever is not.