The Irony Of Employability

During an interview by the undergraduate admissions office at the Cornell Hotel School in 1991, I happened to mention that I speak a few languages. “Ohh…” breathed the Dean. “That’s sooo marketable.” At 17 years old, I hadn’t realized I was “marketable,” but there you have it.

As it turned out, one of the big things I learned from my most excellent education was that, in fact, I didn’t want to be in the hospitality industry. After graduation, I went on to have a career that can be described at best as eclectic, at worst as frustratingly vague. I never have a simple answer to the simple question, “So what do you do?”

Over time, I figured out a few things about myself. I’m not a particularly good employee, for example. I don’t respond well to authority or monotony. And -- this is the big one -- I am far, far better at work I am passionate about than I am at work I don’t enjoy.



Without exaggeration, I am likely to be twice as productive and effective working on something that excites me. If I am engaged and intrigued and feeling that I’m making a contribution, I will get there early, stay late, work weekends, and dream about my projects. What’s more, I will do all this with no sense of resentment -- as long as it is for something I am passionate about.

It sounds obvious, and potentially universal, but it bears mentioning, especially in light of a pattern I’ve noticed: that many of the educational institutions I engage with are still talking about employability as if it were the only goal worth striving for.

There are a number of problems with making employability the goal of education. It immediately constrains your perception of what is possible. It diminishes the value of exploration and passion. And it subordinates the way you value yourself to the way others value you.

A focus on employability creates a culture of fear. You choose not what your heart tells you, not what you excel at, or the highest expression of your humanity, but what is statistically more likely to give you an OK paycheck.

Believe me, I can appreciate that people need jobs. We need to fund our homes and our food and our iPhones. But the irony is this: the most employable person in the world is the person who is amazing at what she does, and the reason this person is amazing is because she’s passionate about it, driven by it, moved to invest effort in it far beyond what the career counselor told her was necessary.

And because this person is motivated intrinsically and driven by joy, she is not so easily bought; this, coupled with her skills, can also mean she commands a higher price.

Thanks to the Internet and a democratization of social structures, the tools for investing in our passions are readily at hand, no matter what it is you want to get better at. We live in a world in which the only thing limiting us is our own drive to learn more.

So do not ask whether your activities make you employable. Ask whether they motivate you from within or from without. And if the answer is still “from without,” keep searching.

8 comments about "The Irony Of Employability".
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  1. John Montgomery from GroupM Interaction, July 12, 2013 at 11:52 a.m.

    Maybe, but being employable can also land you the dream job that you are passionate about..

  2. Bill Ganon from Connect2Sell , July 12, 2013 at 11:52 a.m.

    Hi Kaila. Good perspective for sure...especially for college grads like one of my daughters that is in a difficult cycle of monotony within a very good company after 4 years of a very good university. She too is trying to connect with her passion.

    That said, I have no idea who paid for your Cornell education, but if it was your parents (or even partially), I'm pretty sure they put a premium on employability.

    I counsel my tribe with get an education, and a job, and continue to search for your passion.

  3. Pete Austin from Fresh Relevance, July 12, 2013 at 12:38 p.m.

    Not really. If you only choose activities that you already find enjoyable - that already motivate you from within - you will have a very poor and confined life. So you must spread your wings and also try things that don't immediately motivate you. This being the case, you may as well try things that make you employable.

  4. Kaila Colbin from Boma Global, July 12, 2013 at 4:25 p.m.

    Thanks so much for your comments!

    A large part of my thinking is around shifting the mindset of who holds the power. I would never tell a young lady, for example, to cut her hair because men will find her more attractive. But if she cuts her hair because she is truly expressing herself, feeling confident and beautiful in the process, the net result is that she is more attractive than if she were going for attractiveness in the first place. Believe it or not, the concept of employability is not much different to that. So, @John, if you are working towards the dream job that you are passionate about, you are likely to take the steps to land that job, but your passion will be the starting point rather than, "What do I have to do to make someone want to hire me?"

    I do already see this shift in thinking in job interviews. The traditional dynamic of the job interview is one of supplicant and benefactor, where the only purpose of the interviewer is to determine if this person is good enough and the only purpose of the interviewee is to convince the interviewer of that fact: "Pick me!" But a good job interview, in an age where talented people can choose to live anywhere in the world, is a mutual evaluation process. Are you a fit for us, and are we a fit for you? Of course, a wise employer will realize that answering the turntable question of whether the company deserves the employee will lead to better culture fit, higher quality candidates, and more engaged and motivated employees.

    @Pete, how little faith you have in humanity! In my experience, people's imaginations and passions are anything but "poor and confined." One of the great obligations of grown-ups is to cultivate curiosity in our children -- curiosity that is already there naturally, and that deserves to remain unstifled by narrow ideas of "employability."

    Finally, @Bill, my parents actually didn't give much thought to the idea of employability. We are an extremely entrepreneurial family in all directions (hence my disdain for authority); what my parents wanted was for me to have every possible tool to live a life rich in possibility and choice. Again the irony: if you want to be able to pursue your own path, you end up seeking out myriad skills that, of course, make you ever more employable... :)

  5. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, July 12, 2013 at 6:41 p.m.

    Sometimes we all have to do things we don't like to get to where we want to be from taking some boring classes to working on projects as an obligation or a favor. How many great musicians hated to practice for a spell as a kid ? PS: Of course an American is going to commend you for speaking multiple languages. So many Americans have international attitudes that are worse than lamentable.

  6. Kenneth Hittel from Ken Hittel, July 13, 2013 at 2:13 p.m.

    Great post, & by & large couldn't agree more. After I got my Ph.D. in philosophy I realized I REALLY didn't want to spend my life in the academic world, and begrudgingly took a job at a big life insurance company (thanks for ever, Bill). My Ph.D. was certainly not highly valued there, but it was enough to get me a bottom fllor entry position. Guess what? I fell in love w/ the company & worked there for 25 years. Sometimes you find what you want when you have no idea you could have wanted it.

  7. Mike Mcgrath from RealXstream PTY LTD, July 16, 2013 at 6:09 a.m.

    Hi Kaila,

    I have been getting into the philosophy of the late Alan Watts lately and think that this 3 minute video "What if money was no object" is very relevant to what your driving at with this article.


  8. Kaila Colbin from Boma Global, July 16, 2013 at 6:18 a.m.

    Mike, that is so beautiful! Thank you for sharing.

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