How To Design A Career That You Can’t Wait To Wake Up For: An Interview with Nick Lore, Bestselling Author of The Pathfinder

Photo credit: Trey Radcliff,

by Nathan Meffert on January 27, 2014

Nick Lore and Buckmister Fuller invented the field of career design together.

When Nick and Bucky sat down together to create the blueprint for what would later become the Rockport Institute’s career design program, the two were also architecting the future of the job search. Much like Fuller’s geodesic dome (and most of what he touched), this wasn’t an improvement on some pre-existing idea. It was a disruptive technology. Career design was (and still is, in my opinion) the Model-T to the traditional job hunt’s horse and buggy.

I am so grateful to Nick for giving me an hour of his time recently and being passionate – and generous – enough to submit himself to a full brain probe in the form of this interview.

Before reading on, take 30 seconds to ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Can I honestly describe my work as “passionate play”?
  2. Do I look forward to going to work?
  3. Does my work support my own personal growth and contribute to my self-esteem?
  4. Is the line between work and life “a bit blurry”, or is there a stark contrast?
  5. Do I experience a sense of purpose and feel that I am making a positive difference in the world through my work?
  6. Am I using my talents fully at work?
  7. Does my work fit my personality?
  8. It it easy for me to see work challenges as positive opportunities for growth?
  9. Is my work at least 80% fun and pleasurable?

If the answer to ANY of theses questions is “no”, then this interview is for you. Enjoy. 


NATHAN: What makes your perspective on creating a dream career different than that of other teachers out there, and who were your major influences?

NICK: What makes it different is that it stands on a few principles. One of them is that what makes a career fit is everything about you. You’re trying to find your purpose, so it must be something that suits your personality or something around it. There’s always something in there that is what you’re looking for. Find your bliss. Find that something.

We found ours very early. A lot of the principles came from my conversations and friendship with Buckminster Fuller. Some of them were mutual ideas, but it was my notion early on that you want to get it all to fit. The most basic elements are natural talent and personality traits. That idea may not be uniquely ours, but we focus on it much more than other career design people do.

We are biological organisms. Basically, a career fits if we have an elegant match between our gift and the work that we do. It should be an expression of our personality and what matters to us. That’s true of everything. A lion on the plains of the Serengeti fits perfectly, but if you take that lion and put it in an icy cold lake, it won’t work.

I think that’s the most important foundation in career design. Everything else is important. Having a vision and a purpose is also highly important, but the most important part is to start with your innate gifts and qualities. That is what you have to express in your work.

The word “design” is used constantly. I read something new about design every day. It has really been a buzzword in the last three or four years. What we really invented is career design. Nothing existed before Rockport and our work, where you were literally designing what you were going to do. There were some elements of it, but people wouldn’t go through a design process and come out at the end sure and certain of what they were going to do.

One principle in the career design process certainty. People often explore ideas and things they think might fit. Then, they start looking at careers that they think would match them. I think what works much better is to engage in a process where you are designing what you’re going to do. You start out looking for clues, ideas, possibilities. You’re looking at things about yourself – talents, personality traits. What lights you up? What will your work be in service of? Is it going to be truth, goodness, beauty, art, innovation? What kind of roles would fit you best?

My book, The Pathfinder, is for the most part a way of looking at clues in all of these areas.

For example, I’ve never really liked people telling me what to do. That’s why I ran businesses in the early days. I ran other people’s companies. That was the main thing. When I look under all of it, I did it because I wasn’t going to have anybody telling me what to do.

Very often, people will make choices without exploring enough about themselves. You’d better look at those possibilities and look for clues in every area that might be important. That includes practicality and how far you’re willing to stretch. Then, you can build definite components.

I don’t know how many people do that now. I think it’s really important to build definite design elements, just as you would if you were going to design and build a house. It’s multi-useful. Then you have some pillars of certainty to stand on. You can say “I know my work will be such and such” or “I know I will be using this particular gift I have a lot every day”. When you create those definite components, you’re creating your future. You’re not trying to figure it out. It’s not an analytical problem to solve. It’s a creation.

And the brain really likes it; it really likes building those kinds of components you’re sure of. Every couple of months, I must read something where neuroscientists are talking about the importance and power of certainty these days.

This building process does something else too. It allows you to ask questions you haven’t thought of before. Once you’re sure of one piece, that often raises other questions.

For example, you’re going to build a nice Nouveau old-style Japanese house like the ones you see people build on the coast of California. You have that beautiful tile roof and so forth. That raises questions. And it also answers them. You’re probably not going to put windows that are inappropriate for a colonial design house.

By creating definite elements, you are building puzzle pieces and bringing up and creating questions that didn’t occur before.

When Rockport was founded, there was only old-fashioned career counseling. You’d go and take a Myers-Briggs and an interest test and that was it. There was no process. There was no design at all. So, the whole idea of designing a career is something I don’t think existed before we started doing it. Not in practice anyway.

Who are the people that influenced me?

There are friends like Bucky Fuller and people I knew like Dr. Deming, but it wasn’t really the thinkers in related fields that made the biggest contribution. It was people I admired like The Beatles and Dylan, for example.

[NATHAN: Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller was the famous architect, philosopher, and author who invented the geodesic dome. W. Edwards Deming was a statistician, author, professor, and consultant whose work in management theory helped form the foundations for lean production.]

In the 60’s, one of my close friends was the country blues master Lightnin’ Hopkins. He would stay at my apartment when he was in New York. We’d walk home from the village to the East Village and he could talk in rhymes all the way back. He could tell improvised rhyming stories all the way on that longish walk back to the Lower East side.

I learned that he had that gift. It just flowed out of him naturally. It wasn’t like work at all. And he wasn’t figuring it out. He knew that he had a talent when he was young and he just followed the talent.

A lot of my friends became the rockstar songwriters of the 60’s. I could just see that they were incredibly gifted. But they were also willing to do whatever it took to make something remarkable happen. There were a lot of other people in the village in those days who were just as talented, but they weren’t willing or it just wasn’t their style to do what it took to make it happen.

Those are all important factors. When you’re designing a career, you have to ask yourself “Am I willing to do whatever it takes to spend my life doing something that I’m passionate about and that I love?”, “Am I willing to be an unstoppable force of nature?”

You have already pointed out a few key principles. Is there anything you would like to add to that?

Only that to me, a leader is someone who follows a calling. It doesn’t have to be a calling in the old sense of the word. It doesn’t have to have a religious meaning.

As I said before, it could be truth. And in truth, it could be science or law or math or engineering or archaeology or history. Some people have that essential leaning. It could be toward goodness – making contribution at the level of individual or community. It could be toward beauty or art. It could be toward innovation. Or it could be a calling like “be comfortable”. Whatever it is, you should be able to identify where you’re willing to be a leader and what principles you’re willing to follow. What are you willing to dedicate your life to?

You’ve collected a lot of case studies over the years. What do you think are some of the most unlikely success stories? Can you provide examples of people who had all the odds stacked against them in terms of education or money, but who were nonetheless able to create an amazing outcome?

Early on, we had a nun who moved to San Francisco and started making erotic movies for couples. We had a rabbi who became an IT guy and a PhD economist who became a project designer. We also had doctors who became photographers and lawyers who became musicians.

What about people who had everything going in their favor? What do you think was the difference in the approach of those who came out from underneath and became successful?

It’s a matter of how far you’re willing to stretch. Those people I mentioned put their self-expression and personal fulfillment very high in their list of values. They put them higher than security. I think that people’s values are hierarchical to some degree.

Take a person at the White House who lies. That person may not necessarily be a big liar, but they are following a higher value, which is protecting the administration, for instance.

Most people people will place very high value on security. Very often, that does not come from them. It comes from the tribes that they are members of. Just like this design talk comes from a tribe of guys who think this way, who are members of a tribe that looks that way.

At the same time, we’re a part of tribes that tell us “Be careful. You have to take care of practical things in life. You don’t just want to go out there and be a dreamer. You don’t want to take big risks.” That tribe might be the family we grew up with. Or it could come from the culture around us.

But that’s what the most successful people have done. They have made contribution or self-expression and fulfillment the top items on their values hierarchy.

How do people find the motivation to do that? In your experience, what happens that causes them to place more value on, say, self-expression and personal fulfillment?

I think there are two ways. One way is to realize what your life will be like if you don’t go for it and if you take the safe path. Then, there are some people who just figure out that they’re not a collection of the past, that they only exist in the present and that they are going to be creating their future no matter what.

You can go out and create that future that’s been given to you by your tribe or your fears, or you can go create something else. That consciousness of oneself as a creator of their life can be really powerful. People do take more risks and they do go for it when they know that. They are far less likely to do anything if they see themselves as part of some clockwork machinery.

It’s one or the other. It’s either love or fear. Thinking about it is fun, but it really just comes down to which of the principles you are going to honor.

Here is a totally hypothetical situation. Imagine that you have a reality TV show. Time or money is not an object, and you have a month to take somebody from absolute ground zero to create the life they’ve always dreamed of. What would those four weeks look like?

I would start off with them imagining the possibility of a life they loved. What would that be like? What would that feel like? Put yourself there. Imagine that. They would need to create a possibility first. You have to create a possibility for anything new. You can’t dive right into the machinery.

Then, I’d have them make a promise to that future. They would be declaring that as the future they are committing to create. Actually, they are creating it now. It’s just going to take a month to film it and go through it.

Next, I would ask them to come up with clues that they hadn’t thought of before. I would put them through the testing process where they’d measure a huge wide range of innate talents. I think it is very important to have them get in touch with that something which comes naturally to them in an uncomplicated but deep way.

The next step would be to have them go through a definite section of clue creation where they’d be looking at ideas. I would probably make it similar to a TV detective show, except no one would commit a crime. They would become a detective looking for clues about themselves and the world and for the intersection between those things.

Then, I would have them explore and work on those clues. I would have them research, explore or come up with ideas about those things and possible ways to express them. It would all be very open. They wouldn’t have to make any definite decisions until those choices came on their own. This way, they would see that some of these areas of research, investigation and questioning were certain for them, that they were definite.

But, at first, I would have that come mainly through intuition or in some way other than a purely logical process. I would have them build a display in some way or another so that they could see what they were creating. Like an artist who paints a painting. I don’t know what the display would look like, but I think it is important to have some sort of visual display, to see where you are and how much of it is still unknown.

Then, I’d have them work to fill that in to the point where they could start asking questions like “What fits this?”, “What kind of work would express this?” I’d have them explore those as possibilities.

They still wouldn’t be trying to hone it down to the final thing. They would be using careers that seem like they might be a good fit as a way to come up with more clues and more definite choices.

There’s nothing like bouncing things off the real world to hone everything finer. Actually, we do that all the way through with people.

That would fill in some more pieces. Then, they could start to look at the picture and see what that was or at least enough of it to be able to continue exploring and doing whatever was necessary. That could mean doing a job at their friend’s place or taking short courses – whatever would get them closer to the point where they could make a choice.

I would definitely set it up like a detective show because that’s what it really is. You want to make this fun. The more you can turn career design into a game, the better you are. And the less deadly serious it is, the more likely you are to create rather than wind up nervously analyzing your way into a pit.

You need to have empathy with everything – with yourself, the world around you, everything.

You want to be gentle and kind to yourself as you go through this and give yourself a lot of faith and grace. You want to nudge yourself in the direction of it working. So, it is empathy with yourself.

But it is empathy with the world too. We are filled with fixed opinions about everything, so the more gentle and empathetic your approach to the world, the more possibilities will arrive.

Other than that, all you have is past-based opinions and interpretations. This way, you’re giving yourself the gift of real insight.

What do you think is the biggest waste of time for people who are trying to choose or change careers?

People start thinking about different careers and what career is going to fit them. What is that based on? It’s all a reaction to what you haven’t liked or what you think is cool. It’s not a design and it’s a complete waste of time. The only value in thinking about what careers might fit is to come up with good clues.

If you find that being a wildlife biologist seems like an exciting and desirable future, you want to ask yourself “Why?”, “What do I find attractive about that?”

Career design is in many ways a matter of coming up with much better questions than you’ve been asking previously.

There is a whole mythology about career design and finding the right job. What’s the worst advice out there?

There are a couple of things. One of them is the advice that you get from people like you. For example, a college student gets most of the career design advice from their fellow college students who don’t know anything about it.

That’s one thing: taking other people’s advice, including mine. You don’t want to do that. A design process isn’t a matter of taking advice. It’s a matter of getting it and doing it.

Probably the worst advice is to be practical because that engages fear. Immediately. That means: “You can’t do what you really want. You’re going to do something you have to do because it’s practical”.

Obviously, you have to do what’s practical to some extent because you have to make a living doing it. Whatever you choose is practical in a way if you get to do it, but it is the language. What you make big is what you’re going to get. If you’re thinking “Oh, I have to do something practical. I can’t follow my dreams because then I wouldn’t be doing this other thin, and they don’t pay people that do this; they want people who are lawyers…”

Just forget about all that stuff. And forget about the economy. Whatever the economy is now, it’s not going to be the same in two years. You want a design for a life that you’re going to look back on as fully lived. Anything short of that is just a waste of time and nonsense.

What resources – websites, books, magazines – do you personally monitor to get insight into this stuff?

Oh, I don’t know. There’s so much stuff. I forget who everybody is. What I remember reading recently is David Rakoff, Dan Ariely… all the usual suspects, plus a lot of studies.

I don’t really pay that much attention to specific sources. Almost everything I’ve learned – probably 75% of it – is directly from clients and our coaches, who still come up with new questions after having worked with almost 15,000 people.

We’re constantly running into situations that are completely brand new and we don’t know what to do. So, we have to work on the edge of creativity and also design how people are designing their futures.

My son – my Stanford PhD son – says that some people say the first third of life is spent learning. Then, the second third of life is spent doing. And then, the last third is spent teaching. I’m more in the doing part.

I watch a lot of TED talks, but they’re not on a particular subject. They’re a huge wide range of different things. I probably pay more attention to the everyday lives of our ancestors of hundreds to thousands of years ago than I do to the new thinkers. I pay attention to who we are in the perspective of human evolutionary history and our development over the last 50,000 years since we turned on our creative brains.

Imagine an archeologist who hasn’t lived in a hut someplace. How can you be an archeologist without living in a hut or growing your own food? How could you come up with insight if you don’t have anything to base it on other than some courses you took?
I think that what’s most valuable to me is the wide range of what some people would say are unrelated information sources.

Right now, I’m reading “After the Ice”, “Eat to Live”, a couple of Bill Bryson books, a big textbook on human past, a couple of Google AdWords things, that huge cartoon book “Bone”, a book on “A 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die”, Michael Connelly mysteries and a bunch of other stuff, too.

I’m reading the whole series of books the movie “Master and Commander” series came from, probably through the fourth time because this is like Jane Austen for boys. There are twenty-five books or so that all mix up one big, long story. It has that deep understanding of human beings and their beauty and intricacy. It has complexity, enormous variety and so forth. But it’s all happening on a warship during the Napoleonic Wars, so there’s shooting, too. It’s a really good, exciting movie. The author’s name is Patrick O’Brian. At one time, The New York Times called him “the greatest living author in the world today”.

I get more from reading someone who has a beautiful sense of human beings, who they are, and who they can be than I do from reading theoretical material.


The Pathfinder: How to Choose or Change Your Career for a Lifetime of Satisfaction and Success, by Nick Lore The Pathfinder is Nick’s original career design workbook. Use it to apply the lessons that he talked about in this interview to your own life. Highly recommended.

The Rockport Institute Offering career change consulting, coaching, and advanced scientific personality testing, the Rockport Institute was founded my Nick Lore to research and develop the emerging field of career design. They have a tangible 30 year commitment to continuous learning and improvement that you tap into when you work with them.

Nick and I would love to hear comments, questions, concerns in the comments. Have you applied any of what Nick talks about? What have you learned?

  • Doreen

    I appreciate the insights on finding clues and paths to enable us to match our natural talents and personality traits to our work and values. Especially powerful are comments regarding identifying components of certainty (what we know to be true about ourselves) to use in articulating our passions and our calling. When we do “find” our own calling and decide to “do whatever it takes” then leaders are born. Lore’s discussion of his own love of reading, as a vehicle to strengthen empathy for human intricacy and to understand human motivation, is beautifully put. So too is his suggestion that such empathy lends itself to empathy for oneself and an openness to try. Thanks for a very good interview and ideas to consider!

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