View your Career as a “Scavenger Hunt” for “Red Threads”


It’s a reality that many ESL teachers – particularly those in precarious non-full-time roles – feel dissatisfied with their jobs. I have also felt this dissatisfaction. However, before you (or I) decide to quit a teaching position, there are steps that can be taken to try to modify your current role and make it a better fit. In this blog, I relay great advice from Marcus Buckingham, shared in the four-part 2022 HBR IdeaCast podcast series “Find Joy in Any Job,” about pinpointing and exploiting your professional passions – aka “red threads.” 

Finding “Red Threads”

You don’t have to love every aspect of your job. In fact, Buckingham notes that workers’ engagement increases tenfold when they can devote just 20% of their time every day to tasks they enjoy. These tasks can energize you and help you power through the less desirable aspects of the position.

To find your “red threads,” Buckingham recommends that you jot down all the work-related activities you do over the course of a regular week, and then ask yourself the following three questions:

  1. What activities do I instinctively volunteer for?
  2. What activities make time vanish?
  3. What activities do I have rapid mastery of?

Answering these questions should hopefully lead you to three professional activities that you can write “love notes” for. For me, a love note would be “I love it when … I can create a new lesson/unit for students, preparing them to write a research essay.” This speaks to my passion for curriculum development within English for Academic Purposes (EAP) programs.

Exploiting “Red Threads”

Buckingham mentions that most people (i.e., over 70%) are in roles that could allow them to make modifications that would suit their passions, but that only one fifth of people take the necessary steps to make these modifications a reality. If you want to see changes to your role, you need to be proactive and speak up. You should discuss your “red threads” with your primary supervisor and find ways to make them useful to your organization. For instance, if you enjoy readying learners for the Canadian job market, you can pursue training in a connected area (e.g., CELPIP preparation instructor) and then offer to share your knowledge in a way that is advantageous for your company (e.g., offering CELPIP preparation workshops for students).

Professional Outcome

Once an employer sees the value you can offer in your “red thread” areas, it is common for them to find ways for you to do these activities more often. Fortunately, this is the experience I have had at many of the EAP programs I have worked for. However, if you are continually met with resistance from an employer when trying to pursue “red threads,” it could then be time to consider other courses of action such as launching a side hustle or finding another position.

Heather Donnelly has been a faculty member at Fanshawe College since 2015. She has also taught EAP/ESL courses for a number of colleges and universities in Ontario and Manitoba. She is very interested in the professional identity development of novice ESL instructors, and this topic was the focus of her 2015 MEd thesis "Becoming an ESL Teacher: An Autoethnography." She enjoys writing about ways to navigate the TESL job market.


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