A Few Final Pearls for Life and Career

Over the course of my life and career, I’ve gathered many pearls of wisdom from the brilliant colleagues, clients and thought leaders I’ve had the pleasure of knowing and learning from. On my last official day of work before retirement, I’d like to share a few in the hopes that they help guide new and continuing careers as much as they’ve impacted mine.

A Few Final Pearls for Life and Career - photo of loose pearls in an upturned shell

The Urgent Always Drives out the Important

Isn’t this painfully true? Harvard professor David Maister taught me this pearl years ago. How much of your day, week and month is spent on the endlessly urgent matters that ultimately crowd any time to focus on important work that will really make a difference in the long run? This applies to both your job and your personal life. Seemingly urgent small tasks keep you from focusing on longer-term strategic progress at work or time with your family at home. You never get to develop that new strategic approach to your industry because you’re so busy answering texts and emails. Or you’re so busy running errands, painting the kitchen and doing the laundry that you notice it’s been a while since you’ve sat down and really talked with your kids. Try writing down what you spent time on in the past few weeks. With proper planning and a healthy dose of pragmatism, you might figure out a way to dedicate more time to what’s really meaningful in your life and your career.

The Power of Simplicity on the Other Side of Complexity

Let’s say someone said to you when you were 14 years old, “Relationships are the most important thing in life.” I don’t think that would mean much to a young teenager. But if someone says that to you when you’re 40, it takes on a new depth of meaning. That’s the power of a simple statement like that on the other side of complexity — of 40 complex years of living, in this case. That pearl was delivered by Ketchum’s former chief learning officer Robert Burnside in a quote from the poet Oliver Wendell Holmes: “I wouldn’t give a fig for simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for simplicity on the far side of complexity.” Sometimes I think this is a good way for us to think of our work as counselors and communicators. We wade through a vast amount of complex data and research and then deliver a concise narrative or tight creative campaign that is powerful in its simplicity. We spot patterns in data that others can’t see and weave them into compelling insights and ideas that move people. If you develop this skill, you will be a more valuable adviser and, maybe, a more interesting human being.

Passion Is What You Pursue for Yourself, Purpose Is What You Do for Others

I hope we will keep this in mind as we further deepen the purpose of our work. We pursue what we do with passion, and it shows in the quality and effectiveness of the work. But do we spend enough time refining and improving the role we play in business and society? Industry provocateur Alan Kelly shared this pearl several years ago, and it stuck with me: “PR is an industry with a profound identity crisis, caught between what it knows it should be but isn’t, and what it shouldn’t be but is.” At Ketchum, one of our values is to be A Force for Good. We pursue this by donating a lot of time, talent and money to community causes. That’s important, but extracurricular. I’m excited to see the many ways we are a force for good within the curriculum — in the day-to-day client work that we do. I see us increasingly helping brands serve communities, not just sell to them. I see us helping companies use their economic clout to improve lives, not just improve their bottom line. That’s an exciting purpose.

We Think We Tackle Life, But Sometimes Life Tackles Us

In our field, we’re surrounded by Type A overachievers. A business that measures a person’s value by how many hours he or she can bill in a week tends to attract top performers. One vulnerability of high-potential professionals is they think they tackle life — they set the agenda and decide their own destiny. Then life happens… and many are surprised to learn that, sometimes, life tackles us. Look around you at the people you’re surrounded with at work, whether virtually or in person. Chances are that at any given moment, half are struggling with something unseen to you but painful to them. A migraine headache, extreme anxiety, a relationship falling apart. That was true before the pandemic, and it’s even truer now. Let’s remember that we are human beings first and account supervisors second. Please be kind to yourself and each other.

As I said in my previous post, retiring from Ketchum doesn’t mean I’m shutting down. I plan to keep collecting pearls for as long as I can, whether they relate to the profession that nurtured me for so many years, or to the pursuit of a life well-lived. Thank you for the opportunity to share these with you — I hope they prove to be as valuable to you as they’ve been to me.

Rob Flaherty is Chairman of Ketchum, the global communications consultancy with 130 offices and affiliates worldwide. He is on the board of the Arthur W. Page Society, the Institute for Public Relations and the advisory board of Room to Read, which focuses on literacy and girls education in developing nations. Follow Rob on Twitter at @flahertyrob.