The Secret to a Long Career

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Little, Brown & Co.
We are pleased to welcome our newest contributor, award-winning author George Anders, who brings us a tour de force for the What We Read series.

When our daily routines are all about hitting quotas and getting the next shipment out the door, how do we sustain ourselves for the long haul? What's the secret formula that lets some people keep getting stronger and better as the years roll by, while others slowly fall apart?

I just finished reading "Johnny Cash: The Life" this month. The book isn't just a great biography of a country music legend; it's also a fine source of career advice. Lots of singers have the talent to create a few No. 1 hits. Hardly anyone has ever bounced back from trouble as many times as Cash did – ending up with a towering, nearly 50-year career that put his doubters to shame.

Fatigue? Cash had plenty of times when he didn't want to crawl out of his hotel room and give the next concert. Big-time blunders? Cash paid $82,000 in fines in 1969 because of his role in a California forest fire that killed 49 rare condors. I'm not even going to mention his entanglements with pills and women.

Yet Cash always found a way to get back on track. Even in mainstream jobs – where we aren't expected to perform in federal prisons or create MTV videos – there are a lot of lessons to be gathered from how The Man in Black did it. Here are my three most important takeaways from author Robert Hilburn's account:
  • Get your family right. Cash's darkest career moments came in the 1960s as his first marriage was coming apart. Thanks to a sturdy second marriage with June Carter, he became a stronger man. Deepening his religious faith was crucial, too. Repairing relations with his four daughters from his first marriage also counted for a lot. For anyone working in a turbulent field (like music) stability can't come without some great pillars that transcend work.
  • Don't be afraid of working with someone new. Over the years, Cash moved his recording contract three times – and each switch was stressful. But two of those moves brought him to new heights, and the third helped him buy time when an old relationship had gone sour. If Johnny Cash could pick up and start over with a new label when times demanded it, the rest of us shouldn't stay trapped in a bleak work environment, either.
  • Be adventurous, but keep your dignity. Cash's repertoire covers a huge range of songs, with ballads, laments, gospel and protest music predominating, but everything from eerie poems to comic hits rounding out the list. That diversity kept him fresh and compelling. He refused to make fun of poor people, though, going so far as to turn down a request from the Nixon White House to sing someone else's song about a welfare cheater. Whenever we ponder whether to say "yes" or "no" to some new project, Cash's example provides a fine compass.

For the early career years
Almost any good biography or memoir carries insights that we can apply to our own lives. One of my favorites in my 30s was "The Two-Year Mountain," by Phil Deutschle. It was a wry account of a young American searcher who came to Nepal with two goals: to teach English in the countryside and to climb a big mountain.

Deutschle wasn't much of a teacher at the start. His mountaineering skills were pretty feeble, too. But he slowly got better at both, and that's what gave the book its pull. Hope, love and an ability to laugh at his setbacks kept guiding the author forward. The book taught me patience – just at a time when I needed to switch from being "a young guy in a hurry" to "an experienced guy going in the right direction."

For children
What about books that help explain work's tempos to our children? My favorite here is "Mr. Mysterious & Company" by Sid Fleischman. It's the account of a traveling magician whose wife and children are part of the show, too. They roam throughout the Old West in a caravan, rehearsing tricks, delighting audiences, packing up and hitting the road again.

The book radiates joy in a job well done. It also depicts kids who are proud of their parents, yet eager to start making their own mark in the world, too. Our real jobs aren't quite so exciting – but maybe in some small ways they are. For us, the book became a great foundation for opening our children's eyes to the never-ending personalities, goofs and triumphs of the workplace, instead of just W-2s and next quarter's metrics.

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