What’s Your Theme?

So, tell me, what is your theme?  Your focus?  The arc or pattern or organizing principle that drives your professional life?

This is a key question, and one that is not always easy to answer.  I don’t mean what is your job.  A specific job can shift and change, but if you have a theme, you are more likely to develop deep mastery over time.

Here’s an illustration of a successful theme.  My friend from childhood studied mechanical engineering in college.  He decided soon after graduating, however, that he would specialize as an architect.  This friend eventually became a licensed architect and established his own architectural firm that also does professional engineering work.

The firm now has over 40 employees, and my friend only creates the drawings on specific projects himself once every couple of months because he enjoys the creativity and to keep his skills sharp.  Though he is now a business owner and entrepreneur (he also owns a number of office buildings), his core skill and theme are architecture and engineering.  Even the office buildings he owns are related to his knowledge of buildings, engineering, and architecture if you think about it.

These skills took my friend years to develop, both in school and over time through work.  At this point, we are talking about decades of focused work in a specific theme.  If my friend had jumped around from job to job in totally unrelated disciplines, he would not possibly be where he is today.

Here are a few more famous examples.

What’s Bill Gates’ theme?  In a word, Software.

Warren Buffet?  Investing.

Tom Brady?  Football.

That CFO at a top-shelf tech firm (who now makes many millions of dollars) didn’t just land a job like that out of the blue.  It is the culmination of years of focused effort, in college and in lower-level corporate jobs, for at least 15-20 years.

If you feel you have not pursued a specific theme, don’t lose heart.  It isn’t too late, and there may be closer connections between the skills you have acquired than you realize.  I’ll use my own life as an example.  Many of the career steps I took at first appear disparate, but upon closer examination have tight links:

–studied economics in college (4.0 in econ coursework)

–studied a bit of Latin and Ancient Greek in college as well (this hammered out grammar knowledge)

–started investing personally

–worked for Charles Schwab (developed financial and career knowledge)

–worked independently on becoming a writer and novelist while traveling for over a year (began to develop writing skills)

–became a diplomat focused on economic and political themes.  (analytical, writing and organizational skills)

–founded money management firm (investing and entrepreneurial skills)

–started blogging and building websites focused on career, money management, and investing.

At first glance, the above life path could be interpreted as a bit disjointed.  But if you look under the surface, though I didn’t just park at a specific institution, there are key interests and skills being developed throughout.  Specifically, writing, investing, analysis, and dealing with people.

I would encourage you to think about what your theme is.  If you don’t know yet, that’s ok.  Your theme is a work in progress that stems from talents, interests, experience, and intuition.  Another benefit of having a clear career theme is that it will help you know which career opportunities to pass up.

If you had to reduce your theme to one word or a brief sentence, what would it be?  I can tell you mine: writer.  The funny thing is that I remember in fourth grade thinking, “I want to be a writer.”  My sub-themes would be content creator more generally, investor, analyst, and (eventually) leader.

You know what’s cool?  Thinking of your life as having a theme makes it a bit like a piece of music.  What notes are you sounding?  What motifs recur again and again with greater complexity?

So, tell me, what’s your theme?

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