Update: I revised and expanded upon this post in March, 2010.
I never met Peter Drucker, never even heard him speak, but I'm truly going to miss him. He made a big difference in my life, at least over the last six years. In the March-April 1999 issue of the Harvard Business Review, Drucker published an article entitled "Managing Oneself" (reprinted in January 2005) that I've read at least once a year ever since. It's only 10 pages or so, and I encourage you to buy a copy and read the whole thing--best $7 and 15 minutes you'll ever spend--but here are the passages that have had the greatest impact on me:
One should waste as little effort as possible on improving areas of low competence. It takes far more energy and work to improve from incompetence to mediocrity than it takes to improve from first-rate performance to excellence. And yet most people--especially most teachers and most organizations--concentrate on making incompetent performers into mediocre ones. Energy, resources, and time should go instead into making a competent person into a star performer.
[M]ost people, especially highly gifted people, do not really know where they belong until they are well past their mid-twenties. By that time, however, they should know the answers to the three questions: What are my strengths? How do I perform? and, What are my values? And then they can and should decide where they belong.
Or rather, they should be able to decide where they do not belong...
Equally important, knowing the answers to these questions enables a person to say to an opportunity, an offer, or an assignment, "Yes, I will do that. But this is the way I should be doing it. This is the way it should be structured. This is the way the relationships should be. These are the kind of results you should expect from me, and in this time frame, because this is who I am."
Successful careers are not planned. They develop when people are prepared for opportunities because they know their strengths, their method of work, and their values.
A plan can usually cover no more than 18 months and still be reasonably clear and specific. So the question in most cases should be, Where and how can I achieve results that will make a difference within the next year and a half? The answer must balance several things. First, the results should be hard to achieve--they should require "stretching," to use the current buzzword. But also, they should be within reach. To aim at results that cannot be achieved--or that can be only under the most unlikely circumstances--is not being ambitious, it is being foolish. Second, the results should be meaningful. They should make a difference. Finally, results should be visible and, if at all possible, measurable. From this will come a course of action: what to do, where and how to start, and what goals and deadlines to set.
On Second Careers
We hear a great deal of talk about the midlife crisis of the executive. It is mostly boredom. At 45, most executives have reached the peak of their business careers, and they know it. After 20 years of doing very much the same kind of work, they are very good at their jobs. But they are not learning or contributing or deriving challenge and satisfaction from the job... That is why managing oneself increasingly leads one to begin a second career [typically by moving from one kind of organization to another; by developing a parellel career, often in a nonprofit; or by starting a new venture, again often a nonprofit]...
No one can expect to live very long without experiencing a serious setback in his or her life or work... At such times, a second major interest--not just a hobby--may make all the difference...
In a knowledge society...we expect everybody to be a success. This is clearly an impossibility. For a great many people, there is at best an absence of failure. Wherever there is success, there has to be failure. And then it is vitally important for the individual, and equally for the individual's family, to have an area in which he or she can contribute, make a difference, and be somebody. That means finding a second area--whether in a second career, a parallel career, or a social venture--that offers an opportunity for being a leader, for being respected, for being a success.