Drop the Ball to Achieve More

Career Blog

Published: April 25, 2017 by Kate M. Spaulding

Particularly during this time in our lives, when student-specific opportunities abound, regular evaluation of our commitments and choices makes sense.

This week I’ve been reading Drop the Ball: Achieving More by Doing Less by Tiffany Dufu. I think all of you can guess why the title appealed! This period in my life is filled with school and jobs and family. Although the details are different, I imagine you also have moments of stress and weeks when you’re overscheduled.

The thing is, feeling overwhelmed can impact your career path. We make different choices depending on stress levels, how full the calendar looks, or even how tired we are. The constant juggling act that is school, work, and life could make you want to say “no” when a new opportunity arises, no matter how interesting it sounds, because the thought of adding one more thing to the mix sounds like more trouble than it’s worth.

Dufu describes a full life and what happens when she and her husband added a newborn to the mix. The results weren’t pretty, and she writes about how she figured out how to adjust. At one point, she attended a management workshop, and the presenter “emphasized the importance of focusing our attention on the areas where we bring the most value as managers, instead of on the areas where we might be better than others because of experience alone” (p. 94).

Dufu realized: “What you do is less important than the difference you make…I had to figure out how I…could make a difference – and this was as true for my home life as it was for my professional one” (p. 94). For example, in her fundraising role at a nonprofit, although she wrote better annual appeal letters than her staff, she brought the most value to the organization when she met with major donors. Other staff could write good letters, and learn to write better ones, but no one else had the contacts and skills to bring in large donations. In her home life, Dufu wants to raise “conscious global citizens,” so reading her son a book and speaking with him was a better way to meet that goal than “stressing over organizing Kofi’s summer clothes” (p. 94).

We can apply a similar approach to achieve balance in work, life, school, and, yes, our career path. Imagine that you have a full calendar and a long to-do list (this may not take much imagination!) when you see a summer internship posting. It sounds really appealing and it’s even a paid position.

Now consider a second scenario: You see an internship posting, but it doesn’t sound like a very fun job (more grunt work than anything glamorous). However, it would mean a foot in the door and a connection to a network of people at an organization you’d like to work for after graduation. It’s unpaid, but you could get 3 units of credit towards your degree.

Finally, consider a third possibility: Instead of an internship posting, you find a job posting. It’s not a career path you’ve considered, but the work sounds interesting and the industry is hard to break into. The hourly wage is less than what you get at your current, part-time library job, but the private sector has a lot of money, so, theoretically, you should be able to out-earn what you would make in a traditional library career path. However, accepting the job would delay your expected graduation date, and it’s a long commute to the office.

In each of these scenarios, there are positives and negatives about each opportunity, and each could be an important stepping stone in your nascent career. But what about your full calendar and lengthy list? Well, consider what will bring the most value to you and your career. For example, in the first example, the obvious value comes from the description – an enjoyable experience and a paycheck. But are those the highest values? What happens at the end of the summer?

A.  Is there a chance for permanent employment?
B.  Will you grow your network in an area that could be helpful to you?
C.  Perhaps you won’t be living in the area much longer; if so, how helpful would the network really be?
D.  Will you learn a new skill or gain some valuable resume experience? Or,
E.  Is it a dead-end job that only requires skills you already have?

The answers to these questions and others like them are really important. If you determine the internship is worth it, could sacrificing some free time this summer, or even cutting back on another activity, let you use your time and energy in the most effective way? Can you find a way to shorten your to-list, even temporarily, in order to create career value? If you have kids, could finding additional childcare, even just a few hours per week, give you extra time to boost your career?

Particularly during this time in our lives, when student-specific opportunities abound (think: professional associations, publishing platforms, internships, conferences, volunteer gigs), regular evaluation of our commitments and choices makes sense. If you’ve gotten a new job, you may want to quit the volunteer position you started a year ago. If you’ve discovered an LIS niche you love, it may be worth choosing new courses for the upcoming term to reflect your new path. If you’re brand new to archives, it might be worth spending less time reading simply for pleasure and instead devoting time to archives blogs or journals.

So I guess my message is really this: use your time wisely, and consider what balls you can drop in order to create the most value for yourself and your career. Read Drop the Ball. Dufu’s target audience is women, particularly women with careers and families, but I think the book actually appeals to a much broader population. Bonus tip: a good companion book is Laura Vanderkam’s I Know How She Does It.

How do you choose which path to take or which opportunities to pursue?