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Home » Don’t Find a Job, Find a Mission: Celeste Headlee (Full Transcript)

Don’t Find a Job, Find a Mission: Celeste Headlee (Full Transcript)

Celeste Headlee

Full transcript of journalist and author Celeste Headlee’s TEDx Talk: Don’t Find a Job, Find a Mission @ TEDxAugusta conference. This event occurred on January 30, 2015. To learn more about the speaker, read the bio here.


Listen to the MP3 Audio: Don’t find a job, find a mission by Celeste Headlee @ TEDxAugusta


Celeste Headlee – Journalist and Author

Grab whatever paper you have next to you, whether it’s the program or not and — think serious, I really want you to do this. Grab a writing utensil and I want you to answer a question for me and write the answer down.

Do you like your job? It’s number one.

And number two: do you think you’ll still like doing that job in 20 or 30 years?

So write that down for me. And then set it — if you’re laughing already — set it aside we’re going to come back to that later.

So the most common question that I get asked whenever I’m speaking in public is how did you get where you are and generally I say by accident; I stumbled into it.

But I will admit something to you today. I have been lying about that for a very long time. I didn’t actually stumble into it. It was a very carefully executed plan that I wasn’t aware of until a long time later.

So if you don’t know who I am, I am a host on public radio. I hosted a show called The Takeaway for a number of years. I’ve hosted Tell Me More for NPR, Talk of the Nation, Weekend Edition, many others. I anchored presidential coverage for PBS World.

I’ve spoken to movie stars and presidents and Pulitzer Prize winners and Nobel Peace Prize winners. But I have never studied journalism in school. I’m a professional opera singer and radio is my day job.

I have a master’s degree in music. So you might be thinking that I am not using my music degree and my job as a broadcast journalist. But you would be really really wrong.

Yes, radio show host and professional opera singer are two very different jobs. But in fact, the core mission of both of them is exactly the same. In both of those jobs, I’m reaching out to people, I’m communicating with people, I’m inspiring people, I’m moving people using only the power of my voice.

So now if I’m asked, how I got where I am, I say I found my mission. And I forgot about the job title. Let me say that again, because that’s the whole point of this entire talk.

I found my mission and I completely ignored what the job title was. The fact of the matter is most people in the world do not like their work. So I want you all to take a look around you and count out ten people, okay, surrounding you somewhere.

Using global statistics nine of those people do not like what they do. But this is the U.S., so let’s use American statistics. Count out your ten people again, take a look at them, one of them really likes what they do. To that person congratulations. Six of them think it’s not killing me, and three of them really hate their work, really hate it.

Job dissatisfaction costs this country up to $550 billion a year in lost productivity. That is billion with a B. Worldwide, nearly 90% of people don’t like their work, and that statistic really doesn’t tell us very much. Maybe human beings don’t like to work. Maybe we have universally horrible bosses.

But let me tell you what I think that statistic means. I think it means we are terrible at choosing the right job.

What things do we consider when we’re looking for work? And I’m not talking about the “I’m unemployed; I’ll take anything situation”, I’m talking about the “I don’t like what I do, I want to try something new”, what do we think?

We think about salary, obviously. No-brainer. We think about location. Americans have shown themselves to be very reluctant to move and in fact, we don’t even like to move very far to get to our work. The average commute time is about 20 to 25 minutes and that has stayed the same for more than a decade.

What else? Benefits: vacation time, healthcare, retirement, sick days, and believe me that is all really really important.

But researchers at Harvard Business Review wondered if those things also made you happy, so they studied it and the answer was: No.

Of all the many many things that go into happiness on the job, the highest single impact is purpose. People who think there’s significance and meaning to the work that they do are more than three times as likely to stay in their job and they also have higher jobs job satisfaction and they’re also more engaged.

And listen, I can almost hear your thoughts coming at me. I know you’ve heard it before. Find your dream job, right? You’ve probably heard it from some lifestyle guru who’s selling millions of books telling you to look deep within yourself.

But I would never tell you to go looking for your dream job and here’s why. It doesn’t exist. Okay, there’s no such thing as a dream job. The best minds doing the best research into what makes you happy at work have found that it’s generally your co-workers, your boss, and your sense of purpose, not anything that you would find in your job description.

So let me just make sure we’re all on the same page. Dream jobs do not exist.

There was a young woman named Ashley Stahl. She spent her whole young life yearning for a career in national security. She got a master’s degree in international relations. She spoke fluent Arabic. She went to DC and spent six weeks there, going to 90 events, schmoozing with anyone and everyone she could find. And it totally paid off.

At the age of 23, she got her dream job at the Pentagon and she hated it. She quit after eight months. She did not even last a year after spending almost 20 years preparing for that job.

She told the Wall Street Journal that she had paid no attention to her friends when they said, you know, you’re really good at getting us to talk about our jobs, you’re really insightful at identifying our weaknesses and our strengths.

So three years later, she’s working as a career counselor for young people and guess what she loves her job.

Let me give you another example. There are thousands, maybe tens of thousands of athletes who never get that call from the NBA, the NFL, Major League Baseball, right, so they have to find another line of work.

Now you might think that something like sports psychologist would be a perfect fit and lots of those athletes think the same thing. But the Journal of Applied Sports Psychology published a study last year in which they found that, in fact, if you can’t make a living in sports, listening to professional athletes talk about their problems all day is really upsetting. And that is how it is for many of us.

It doesn’t matter what it looks like on paper, we are terrible at choosing the right job. So I am a talk-show host, right? You would be amazed at how many people hold that up as their dream job.

So let me take a quick show of hands and again I want you to be absolutely honest here, okay. Raise your hand if you think in a pinch you actually might be pretty good at hosting a talk show. Raise your hands. Come on. I know you are out there. Okay, a lot of people think that.

In fact, like I said that’s one of the most common questions that I get. My husband used to say that he would make a pretty good talk-show host but after years of watching me he does not say that anymore.

What you hear on the radio is a tiny fraction of what my job is every day. I can’t turn my cell phone off. I don’t mean like I can’t bear to turn my cell phone off. I mean I can’t turn it off. I have to read two hundred page books in three days time. It’s very hard for me to take sick days or vacation days. And when I make a mistake, everybody knows.

So if being a talk show host is your dream job, you have to make sure you know what that job actually is.

So if we aren’t very good at identifying what our dream job is how do we choose, right? I mean it’s really difficult if you can’t look at a job description and know that’s the right job.

First of all, don’t burn down the house you’re living in until you have somewhere else to go. Don’t quit your job. You have to try stuff out. Go volunteer, freelance. Take a part-time job. Ask your boss, can I go work in another department for a couple of weeks?

The point is make the stakes really low, put nothing on the outcome, either successful or failure so that you’re brave enough to venture into completely uncharted territory – places, things you haven’t trained for, things that are not related to your college degree.

I mean, most of us choose our college major when we’re in our early 20s. You think you’ve changed a little since then, maybe.

There was one woman named Erin Hochstetler and she got her degree in art history. And she took a job as an intellectual property paralegal and she kept that job for 15 years. But she didn’t like it.

So she sat down and asked herself, okay, what makes me happy? And so besides family and friends, the only thing she could think about was her phone. She really liked her smartphone.

So she started taking coding classes and she became a mobile app programmer, then she quit the law firm and she loves what she does. That’s the problem. We often don’t know what we enjoy until we’ve tried it, right?

I mean, you don’t know what food you like until you taste it. So forget that crap about what would you do even if you weren’t being paid. I mean for me that would be like hiking with my dogs and reading mystery novels all day.

But come on, would I really want to read mystery novels for eight hours a day with some guy coming to the door asking me how many novels I’ve read over the past few hours? That’s a lot of bad novels.

There’s a career counselor who was trying to help a guy change careers mid-career and she asked him the terrible terrible question: what would you do if you didn’t have to worry about salary? And he said well, I’d coach Little League but I do have to worry about salary and you can’t make a living teaching kids how to play baseball.

But here’s where he made his mistake. He came up with a job title: Little League coach, not a mission. What was it that he liked about coaching Little League? Was it being with kids? Was it working with sports? Was it being outdoors? Because those are things you can totally make a living at. You just have to forget that very specific job title.

When I graduated with a degree in Opera, I knew I’d have to get a day job. It was very realistic about that.

One day, I went into my local public radio station. I was just tagging along with a friend and I saw an old college buddy of mine there. And she said, “Celeste, do you want a job?”

And I went, “Sure. What’s the job?”

And she then hired me to be a weekend classical music host. Couple months later, the news producer came up to me and said, “You know, we don’t have anybody that can report on the arts. Are you interested in learning how to become a reporter?”

And I said, “Sure.”

A month after that conversation, I sold my first feature to NPR. But here’s the thing, if you’d asked me what I wanted to do, I would never have said broadcast journalist. I had no idea what that job was. I didn’t know what was involved in it. And I sure didn’t know if I would be any good at.

So the other part of that is to remember that the core mission — I would want to remind you the core mission was the same. I actually landed in a job where my mission hasn’t changed. I’m still using my voice to communicate with people. I’m still using my voice to touch people and inform people. Same exact job, same mission, different job title.

No amount of looking within yourself. It’s going to tell you what will make you happy. We learn about ourselves through practice, not theory. And if you take nothing else away, just remember that: you learn the most about yourself not in theory but in practice.

So go back to that paper. Take a look at it, because I want real answers. Go back to the paper and take a look at what you said. How many of you said you don’t like your jobs? If some people are not being fully honest with us today.

How many of you said you thought you would be happy — you would be happy doing that 20 or 30 years from now?

So here’s your homework. This is what I want you to think out about when you go home.

What is it that you actually like about your job? What is it that you think you do really well? What do other people say that you do really well? Which part do you enjoy?

Somewhere in those answers is your mission. Find that and you’ll find the right job.



Host: In the extensive research that went behind my preparation for this, tell everybody about your granddad?

Celeste Headlee: I assume you mean the famous one. Because the other one was just a mechanic.

Host: Either one would be fine.

Celeste Headlee: My grandfather was William Grant Still. He was the dean of African American composers, the first to conduct a major orchestra, the first to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra, the first to conduct an opera. There’s about 14 third firsts.

Host: Is that where the love of music came from?

Celeste Headlee: I would assume, I’m the only one in my family after him that does music, though. So maybe it’s not genetic.

Host: Really?

Celeste Headlee: Yeah.

Host: Okay. Did you know him?

Celeste Headlee: Of course, yeah he was the best guy ever.

Host: Celeste is going to favor us with a tune.

Celeste Headlee: I am.

Host: A little something from “Porgy and Bess”. Celeste — not by your grandmother. Celeste Headlee, ladies and gentlemen.


(Celeste Headlee sings)

Resources for Further Reading: 

Adam Leipzig on How to Know Your Life Purpose in 5 Minutes (Full Transcript)

My Failed Mission to Find God – And What I Found Instead: Anjali Kumar (Transcript)

The Unstoppable Force – The Real Difference Between Success and Failure: Dan Lok (Transcript)

From Stress to Resilience: Raphael Rose at TEDxManhattanBeach (Transcript)

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