The Divide Between Ordinary and Extraordinary

Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Volume 9, Issue No. 7
October, 2010

By Dan Coughlin



I’m 47 now and 25 years into my career. I’ve had the opportunity to watch many people start their careers and talk with many others who have ended their careers. Through this informal research it has become clear to me that there are two distinctly different career DNAs in operation.

The Tale of Two Careers

The first type of career search is based on this age-old advice, “Get a good job, one that pays well, and has a bright future to it. Go to a place where you can stay for a long time, get good benefits, and a solid salary. Don’t rock the boat too much, keep the boss happy, and you will gain the admiration of many people. You will have the precious commodity known as security.”

In the classic tale of the tortoise and the hare, this first type of employee is the hare. He or she sprints out ahead of everyone else. This person isn’t particularly thrilled with the work, but relishes the fact that he or she has secured a “great job.” The money is so much better than anyone else in his or her age category is making, and the future seems so much greater than for anyone else.

Then something odd happens. The person finds that not being fulfilled with any sense of purpose at work really is a heavy price to pay. The money no longer seems to be as great as it once did. However, the person rationalizes that it’s too late to go after something that would really turn him or her on and decides to stay with the job. The person has built up an enjoyable lifestyle and certainly doesn’t want to risk losing it. If not exactly golden handcuffs, the job has become at least silver strings that keep the person tied down from ever going after what he or she really wants to do.

The second type of career search is based on a simple question, “What do I want to do and why do I want to do it?” That’s really an odd question because the person’s answer may not fit with any job openings available at that time. Consequently, this person struggles at the beginning of the race. He or she may take a job just to get some food on the table, but knows that there is no real future in that job in terms of being purposeful. Peers laugh at this unfortunate soul because the person seems to have no direction. The clock is ticking and the person isn’t making any real progress toward financial or title success.

Years go by and the person still hasn’t found a job to match his or her purpose for working. This person is the tortoise. People have long since written this person off as not being a real player in the job market. They assume this person will move along very slowly and never really stand out as anything special.

Then suddenly a door opens quite unexpectedly. An opportunity to fulfill his or her purpose is standing right there, and the person jumps at this chance. Unexpectedly the person who had been written off long ago starts to emerge as a star employee. People can’t believe what is happening. This is very hard for them to accept. The tortoise has somehow managed to create a far more meaningful and successful career than they have.

How to Find Your Purpose

The idea of purpose has been in the air a great deal lately. From Rick Warren’s massive best-selling book, The Purpose-Driven Life, to Dan Pink’s bestseller, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, the idea of having a clearly defined purpose has been the subject of many, many books in this century.

However, my favorite quote on having a purpose at work dates back to 1943 in a book by Ayn Rand called The Fountainhead. Howard Roark, a young architect who is just starting his career, is in a conversation with the famous architect Henry Cameron, who is just about to end his career. Roark has worked for Cameron for three years.

Cameron says to Roark, “Well, have I taught you anything” I’ll tell you: I’ve taught you a great deal and nothing. No one can teach you anything, not at the core, at the source of it. What you’re doing — it’s yours, not mine. I can only teach you to do it better. I can give you the means, but the aim — the aim’s your own.”

I encourage you to read The Fountainhead. Somehow it has become a controversial book over the years. However, I found it to be filled with great character sketches and an exceptionally thought-provoking plot. In the end it is the story of one person’s desire to remain purposeful at work.

You can learn technical skills and you can gain a lofty title and you can get a big paycheck. Other people can give you those things. However, no one can instill a sense of purpose within you. Only you can figure that out. A clear sense of a compelling purpose is what separates an ordinary career from an extraordinary one. What is your aim? What is the purpose of your career?

I suggest you take out a sheet of paper and start to answer these questions:

  1. Besides receiving a paycheck, why do I want to work?
  2. What difference do I want to make with my career?
  3. What am I particularly good at doing and how can I use those skills to fulfill my purpose for working?  
  4. What am I particularly passionate about doing and how can I use this passion to fulfill my purpose at work?

If you’ve been out of school for any length of time, you might feel these are silly questions to ask. You might think, “Dan, wouldn’t it be better to find out what the company’s retirement plan looks like or how soon I’ll be promoted or what personality type my potential new boss has?” I don’t think so. If you don’t start with a sense of purpose, you will quickly find yourself in a daily activity devoid of personal meaning. At best, this turns into a gift of beautiful wrapping paper around an empty box. At worst, it turns into just an empty box.

These are very tough economic times. Well-paying jobs are very hard to come by. The temptation to take a job that you have no passion for and that does not fit with your purpose is very strong. If you have to put food on the table, take it. But be very careful. Remember that a “great job” can lead to an ordinary career or worse.

Every day stay on the alert to find an opportunity to fulfill your purpose at work. This daily search is the engine for achieving greatness in your career.

Purpose-Filled Businesses

This same phenomenon holds true for corporations as well. The key question for any business to answer is, “What purpose will we fulfill that will generate sustainable, profitable growth for our organization?” This questions merges the importance of purpose with the necessity of profit. Every long-term successful company has a clear, simple purpose that it fulfills over and over again. Here are some examples:

Apple — make great electronic technology available for lots of people

Disney — entertain all members of the family

McDonald’s — serve hot food quickly in clean restaurants with friendly crews

Toyota — make exceptionally good cars

Essilor — make great lenses for eyeglasses

Dell — make exceptionally low-cost computers

Rolex — create reliable and inspiring watches

Marriott — provide very hospitable lodging

Have these companies ever “failed” in fulfilling their purpose? Of course they have. They are made up people, and sometimes human beings fail to fulfill their purpose. However, each of these companies has overcome failures to rise again because they continually attempted to fulfill their clearly stated purpose.

My purpose for 25 years has really never changed. My purpose is to explain ideas other people can use to achieve sustainable success. That was my purpose as a college soccer coach, a high school math teacher, and today as a business owner.

What purpose will your organization fulfill that will generate sustainable, profitable growth for your business? If you work at a not-for-profit organization, what purpose will your organization fulfill that will allow you to achieve sustainable success as an organization?

Republishing Articles

My newsletters, Thoughts on Excellence, have been republished in approximately 40 trade magazines, on-line publications, and internal publications for businesses, universities, and not-for-profit organizations over the past 20+ years. If you would like to republish all or part of my monthly articles, please send me an e-mail at with the name of the article you want in the subject heading. I will send you the article in a word document.

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