The other day, The New York Times magazine featured an article entitled, “My Genome My Self.” It was an overly long rumination on “determinism”—on the idea that who we are and what we can be is fixed by our genetic makeup. According to the author, Steven Pinker, there may be some flexibility around the edges, but basically our lives are hostage to biological forces beyond our control.
Now, I don’t want to get into the whole nature vs. nurture debate, but in light of President Obama’s call for personal responsibility in his Inaugural Address, I do think it’s appropriate to think about how we come to be who we are in the workplace. And, for a lot of people, determinism reigns supreme in their careers. They see themselves locked into an occupation because it’s where they started or what they studied for or all they know how to do. They seem to feel as if they have a career genome, and that they have no choice but to do as it dictates.
That view is convenient—it lets people off the hook of having to do the hard work of managing their careers—but also wrong. There is no career genome. There are no biological or other markers that determine the direction and distance of our journey through the world of work. We all face different circumstances, of course, and for some those circumstances are more onerous than they are for others. Those are imperfections that we should address, but they do not change the basic dynamic of our careers. They do not alter this fact of work in the United States of America: it is up to us to shape the nature of our careers, not the other way around.
In fact, instead of determinism, a far more accurate description of what drives our careers is “potentialism.” Our careers become what we make of the gifts we’ve been given and the talents with which we have been endowed. Those attributes may not bring us fame or fortune, but they can deliver an inextinguishable sense of satisfaction and fulfillment. Said another way, the extent to which we realize our own potential—the degree to which we commit ourselves to expressing the champion within us—is the measure of success in our careers. At this moment in the United States of America, it is also the definition of personal responsibility.