Compelling Career Advice from Barack Obama


A Compelling Answer 

Earlier today, a reader pointed me toward a blog post about Barack Obama from the Humans of New York project. The post quotes Obama’s answer to the following question: When is the time you felt most broken?

The president begins his response by recalling a doubt-ridden plateau in his political career…

“I first ran for Congress in 1999, and I got beat. I just got whooped…for me to run and lose that bad, I was thinking maybe this isn’t what I was cut out to do.”

What caught my attention (and the attention of the reader who forwarded me the interview) is the idea Obama leveraged to move forward…

“But the thing that got me through that moment, and any other time that I’ve felt stuck, is to remind myself that it’s about the work. Because if you’re worrying about yourself — if you’re thinking: ‘Am I succeeding? Am I in the right position? Am I being appreciated?’  — then you’re going to end up feeling frustrated and stuck. But if you can keep it about the work, you’ll always have a path. There’s always something to be done.”

In SO GOOD, I called this the craftsman mindset. It asks that you stop obsessing about what the world can offer you, and instead focus on what you can offer the world.

Notice, this mindset is often at odds with the popular advice to “follow your passion.” Barack Obama was probably not feeling a lot of passion for politics after his loss to Bobby Rush. But he thought he had something to offer in this arena, so he persisted. (See my recent Business Insider article on Steve Jobs for another example of this mindset at work.)

The power of this advice, however, is probably best summed up by the note that the reader who sent me this article appended to the message.

“I respect this a lot about Obama,” he wrote, before admitting, “and, I’m a Republican.”

(Quote and image from Humans of New York.)

33 thoughts on “Compelling Career Advice from Barack Obama”

  1. I followed this story as it was unfolding and this quote amazed me. But what is most interesting is when you also look at the other people in the story. Firstly, Obama’s mother was a single parent who was so determined to get an education that she got herself through all her studies, including a phd. Then Brandon Stanton, the amazing man behind Humans of New York also talks about doing the work and providing a service, in the same craftsman mindset. Finally, the principal of the school Ms Lopez, also talks about hitting the bottom but carrying on for the students, and I should imagine that she needs to also adopt a mindset of ‘doing the work’ in order to fight through those low moments. There are many layers of inspiration here, and having it feature here on your page Cal adds another layer as you frame it in such a compelling manner.

  2. Cal,
    Thanks for sharing this excellent example of the craftsman mindset at work in the world.
    Much appreciated. I’ll be sharing this with my young engineering student audience.
    Regards, Don

  3. Cal,
    This is a great example. It’s an interesting movement away from having a crippling sense of self-awareness.

    Your blog and thoughts are greatly appreciated.

    Thanks again!

  4. Inspiring message Cal.

    I like what Obama said: “it’s about the work”. (He didn’t say it’s all about work.)

    There’s a poem by Czeslaw Milosz called Craftsman. One of my favorite lines: “Craftsman, you are building a star that will journey in the sky of those now being born”. (Maybe another way of saying “it’s all about the work”.)

    Milosz also wrote “That time excludes and sentences to oblivion only those works of our hands and minds which prove worthless in raising up, century after century, the huge edifice of civilization.”

  5. I find this idea of a craftsman mindeset really nice and all, but I know plenty of people that are working really hard and selflessly, but still being really poor. In best case they are getting some kind of recognition, but that is all.

    And this leads me to a question, how to not be the one being used for his kindness?

    • Ray,

      You ask an excellent question and one that many people struggle with. The “craftsman” mindset is an extension of wisdom not a substitute for wisdom. This includes handling relational and financial issues with skill so we are not being “used” or exploited. Working “selflessly” is a virtue, but we also need to establish habits of “self-care” and appropriate boundaries.

      • Dave,

        Do you mind elaborating a little bit on those “habits of self-care”? What are those and how can we establish them? Sounds really interesting.


        • Thanks for your question Marc. By habits (routines) of self-care I would suggest integrating three things into our lives: boundaries, balance, and centering.

          Boundaries: This includes respecting our limits. It also means ensuring that people who consume our energy in unhealthy ways respect our limits.

          Balance: Invest in our physical, emotional, and relational health. All three of these erode subtly.

          Centering (silence, silence, meditation, reflection, etc.). Dag Hammarskjold said:
          Understand — through the stillness,
          Act — out of the stillness,
          Conquer — in the stillness,
          ‘In order for the eye to perceive color, it must divest itself of all colors’.

          I hope this helps with your question.

          • Dave,

            Thanks for the great answer! Can you please also explain what You by investing in one’s emotianal health meant? Did you mean the same meditation, self-reflection or did you mean visiting a psychologist?

  6. I am currently in a state of chaos..I have my finals in a month and I was freaking out totally.But this needs to be on my planner where I can see it daily..GREATLY Great

  7. a little off-top. It’s about deep work and focus on one area of study

    in case of game design there are many (virtually every) areas that one needs to use to create good game. But one can’t exceed in all areas at once (psychology, computer sciense, economy, history, etc.), at least not until he’s 60’ty or something. How would you suggest working on meta-skills that use many areas of studies?

    • Many fields require many disciplines in order to create itself as a discipline – Medicine for example: Biology (mostly), chemistry, Physics & math (sometimes), communication etc – All forming the discipline of medicine.

      It would make sense to see what and how successful game designers in past approached the subject, and which skills they mastered, and focus on those (plus a little more).

  8. I am currently in a career decision making class at my University. Its so easy to get caught up on the idea that there are so many options available and that you could do so many different things. This often just leads you on a wild goose chase to nowhere. Having the mindset that you have certain talents given to you and that those talents can greatly benefit the work force helps narrow your choices down and allows you to follow your passion.

  9. I’m a fan of Cal’s work and have worked to spread the message of the craftsman mindset. To Cal and other readers of this blog, you all will get a good laugh out of this article about how a “follow your passion” proponent and speaker got called to the carpet by teenagers at an Austin high school after he spoke there. This is from Texas Monthly magazine… you just can’t make this up:

  10. Cal,

    I feel there is more to Obama’s comment than just “work on what you have to offer the world”. Focusing on action, rather than result, frees you up psychologically from the uncertainty of outcomes. We think we control way to much, blame ourselves for failure and then become paralysed, and stop acting. When in fact, some of our action, however well thought out it is, may yield results, while some may not. The trick is to continue on your optimal control path, what you can control, despite the random noise.

    This stuff is not new, the stoics talked about indifference to results, resigning to the goddess Fortuna. In Indian philopshpy, particularly the Gita, there’s a huge emphasis on “do you work, divorce yourself from the fruits of your work”….shit can happen, will happen…even if you read Cal’s blog and follow all his advice.


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