Career Clarity Comes from Doing Things – And Other Career Lessons from Ellen

Rogers Arena, October 2018 (Ellen Show0

Beyond being the voice of one of my favourite characters, Dory, I don’t follow talk-show host Ellen. She doesn’t talk about or address race or intersectionality in her work, and from what I’ve seen of her show, it’s not political. But on October 19th, Ellen came to Vancouver for a moderated discussion at the Rogers Arena, and I won tickets to hear her speak. And so I went, curious about why people would spend so much to hear a moderated conversation, and curious about the content of the conversation itself. The show itself had much to critique about it – the speakers weren’t diverse and Ellen kept speaking about visiting Africa instead of describing what she actually did, which was visit Rwanda to see its gorillas. But I had expected all of that, and so instead of being an upsetting experience, I heard something in the show I wasn’t expecting. I heard a description of Ellen’s career and the career lessons she had learnt along the way.

These are some of the career lessons I learned from Ellen during her Vancouver show:

  1. Strengths show themselves early

Ellen’s parents went through a difficult divorce when she was a child and during that time, she would tell her Mum jokes to make her laugh. Even though it couldn’t solve her mother’s problems it made her happy and that mattered to Ellen. At the time, Ellen didn’t realise that this strength was connected to her future career, but that early experience taught her that making people happy was what made her come alive, was deeply meaningful and was of real value to the world.

  1. Career clarity does not come from thinking in isolation.

Career clarity comes from trying things and putting yourself out there.  Ellen spoke in the show about her early days of comedy when she wasn’t sure what she was going to do, and was struggling to make rent. At that time, she performed in comedy clubs in strip malls, beside yogurt shops, and in places where her name was listed underneath the soup offerings of the day.  Instead of discovering her career interests by thinking about it on her own, she followed her interests and strengths by doing shows everywhere. And as she stumbled along and tried things, things kept opening up. She did more comedy and she learned more, and that led to even more comedy. Her story was a lesson that to develop our careers, more than trying to figure our exact career goal, it is more important to do things.

  1. There is a freedom and exhilaration in being a beginner

After fifteen years of not doing comedy stand-up, Ellen has a comedy special coming out in December. In the interview, she described returning to the stage as an exciting opportunity to write and explore topics dear to her heart in a way that she hadn’t done for a long time. At the same time, she admitted that although the early years of comedy were difficult, there was a freedom and exhilaration in being a beginner that is difficult if not impossible to access once you are more well-known and have years of experience. Her story was a reminder that that being a beginner is something to be cherished.

  1. Identity shapes our career journey

Ellen spoke about her early years in comedy when she was just starting out and going from club to club, where no one really knew what to do with a female comedian. Her reflections were a reminder that our career journeys are shaped by who we are, the power differentials we experience in a workplace, the different identities we hold and whether we can see people who hold similar identities to us in the fields we want to enter. When we do not see ourselves reflected in our workplaces, our career journey is harder and we feel more isolated.

5. Values shape our career path

Ellen told a story about being at a retreat where she realized she had heard her inner script for so long that it felt true. That voice was telling her that if she came out she would lose everything and that it wasn’t okay to tell people that she was gay. And the more she reflected, the more she realized that for her own self and wellbeing she had to express the truths she had been silent about. And so she came out on her television show and that decision led to her losing her job and not working again for three years. And she was very angry about what had happened, but she had to find a way to move through her anger in order to work again. Hearing Ellen’s story was a reminder that our values shape our career and life paths and that it is not simply our skills and knowledge and competence that influences our career trajectories. Power and workplace climate matters, and when you experience injustice, even though you may move through that experience to survive, residual feelings remain.  

  1. Show up and do work that is visible

Ellen got the role of Dory because her character on her sitcom had a rambling way of speaking, and the writer and director of “Finding Nemo” Andrew Stanton heard her on her show and thought, “that sounds like short-term memory loss.” And so he wrote the character of Dory with Ellen in mind at a time when her career was falling apart. Her story was a lesson that even when you don’t know what the outcome of your work will be, it is important to show up and be visible and to do work that matters to you. It can lead to openings at unexpected times, but these outcomes cannot come about if you do not keep going and producing work.

7Even when you don’t know the outcome of the work, do the work
Wherever you are in your career, put your full effort into your work. Ellen spoke about how she never expected her talk show to still be going after 16 seasons or that Finding Nemo would be the success it became, she just tried her best, and the show to everyone’s surprise, has endured.

8. There is only one you.

Finally, Ellen spoke about how shame is something that it is important to address within ourselves and that it is important to step outside one’s comfort zone. She said, “there is only one of us and when we aren’t exactly who we are and push through fear to do the things we think we cannot do, we are doing a disservice to the world.  



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