I was going to write an eloquent post about the nature of work, it’s philosophical basis, the various ways of looking at it, and so on, followed by a blurb about my own current work situation. But alas, my own current work situation leaves me with little time to organize an eloquent post. So, I’m going to wing this at the real world level, like our old-fashioned emails (which is how this blog got started), and ramble, making philosophical comments as I go along.
PROFESSIONAL SELF-AWARENESS AT AGE 42
Work has taken an interesting turn, and I’m busier than ever. Where to start?
I’ll start by mentioning that I’m in a leadership program — a formal course, run internally at the company, stretching over several months and designed to prepare me for executive-level work. It’s a lot about being self aware and learning how to deal with yourself and others from a leadership position. I was observed in a “leadership lab” for several hours and the observers — mostly psychologists and leadership consultants — gave me specific feedback on how I was performing. Additionally I’m getting executive coaching, as well as participating in a group where I talk about leadership challenges with peers in the course.
The whole thing is quite involved.
At first I wasn’t sure how the leadership course would go. I was kind of lost on how to apply it, because I was in the process of looking for a new position within the company. I wasn’t sure of my place. Well, I found a new position — more on that later — but even before that I found the course to be extremely beneficial. I’ve learned a lot about myself and, just as importantly, I’ve learned how to view myself as a genuine leader, not just someone trying to lead, if that makes sense.
I’m 42 years old, and people my age are running large companies. I’ve always had self-confidence, but at the same time, it’s easy to look around and see others who are more influential and more professional. I’m not talking about jealousy or envy, I’m talking about self-regard and getting past the infamous “impostor syndrome.” The reality, I’ve learned, is that I’m just as professional as many of those I consider successful, and I have been for a while. I can embrace my own career reality.
This is not to say I can’t improve — I have LOADS of room to improve. But I don’t need to be full of doubt.
BECOMING COMFORTABLE WITH DISCOMFORT
Realizing this, internally, is a personal game changer, in a couple ways. First, I’m more comfortable in situations that might otherwise be intimidating. Second, I realize that however comfortable others look, they’ve had to overcome their own insecurities too. Have you ever been to a party or an event where you thought, why am I the most nervous one here? Do I belong here? Well, probably everyone is just as nervous and uncertain. This is all human nature and a trick our brains play on us. Once we realize this, we can take some control over our own brains and overcome these hurdles.
As I said, I just started a new position in our company. I interviewed and I was nervous. Quite nervous. I had interviewed for a different position and didn’t get that job, so I was nervous that I’d be rejected twice in succession.
After the interview, I took a long walk because I had no idea how it went. Interviews, for the most part, stink. The awkward introductions. The delicate dance of being confident but not overconfident, comfortable but not cocky, smart but not a know-it-all. Waiting for an answer. Interviews stink.
Surprisingly, I got the job! I’m not sure if it was my interview or my connections or the suit I was wearing … and I don’t care. I got it. It was probably the suit, the J. Crew Ludlow. [Note: People should never discount the value of looking professional at work. Dressing well has helped me advance since I was a waiter. I know a guy who was baffled at not getting a certain job, and yet he adamantly resisted dressing well. It’s like trying out for basketball with cowboy boots on — it just doesn’t work.]
Funny how career paths develop sometimes. I’m now very glad I didn’t get the first job I interviewed for, because the position I ended up with is much better. One can never predict these twist and turns, and I’m sure I would’ve adjusted to a different outcome. In some ways that’s the whole point of having decent self-awareness — to realize that no matter what you are doing, you are the same person with the same qualities.
Attaining a particular job or role does not change who you are, essentially.
RESPONSIBILITY, KINDERGARTEN SOCCER, AND HUMAN CAPACITY
So what’s the point of reaching for new or challenging roles, you might ask? You are who you are, right?
I’d say … not exactly. Being self-aware of who you are at any given time is not the end of the story. When you see who you are clearly, you want opportunities that match your abilities. And if you have drive or ambition, you want opportunities that exceed and stretch your abilities.
We are always changing, evolving, growing or regressing. Attaining a new role or taking on a new responsibility is an opportunity to first be who you are and then to become who you want to be, or who you could be, by using and growing and stretching your capacities. In other words, roles can help you change. Potentially, to become a better self.
I think you’re a Jordan Peterson fan, Penny, and he talks a lot about how people find meaning in life (here’s one snippet). One of his basic conclusions is that people gain meaning by taking on responsibilities. By taking on a responsibility, you then have an obligation to do something, and by doing that something, whatever it is, you find satisfaction and meaning.
Example: I am coaching Kindergarten Soccer. I signed up, initially, on a whim. The league was desperate for coaches. At first I questioned this move — I was adding something to an already busy schedule, it messes up my Friday evenings, and I didn’t know what I was doing. I still don’t know what I’m doing. But I can see that Peterson is right. Taking on the responsibility to these kids and their parents brings me satisfaction, another sliver of meaning, and a nudge to personal growth. Paradoxically, it gives me more energy rather than less. And it makes me a more interesting and well rounded person. It opens the door to a new community of people, which may or may not result in friendships but I’d never know if I hadn’t signed up.
Coaching soccer is a relatively small obligation. The point is, anything can be a meaningful obligation. The trick is to try things, find out what works, find that set of responsibilities that gives life meaning. According to Peterson, no one is as miserable as the person who has no responsibilities and nothing to do.
For a lot of people, the standard responsibilities that drive them are work and family. Rightfully so. Even though people often complain about these responsibilities day to day, there’s a lot of evidence that their absence would create personal nihilism. People become sled dogs without a sled to pull.
THE NATURE OF A CAREER: LAW AND ORDER WITH BATHROOM BREAKS
Anyway, back to my new position at work. It is close to a dream job at this stage in my career. Interesting work, more responsibility, professional recognition, and it could potentially lead to more cool opportunities down the road, if I do well. It’s also demanding, difficult, and my head is spinning because of the learning curve.
This is the nature of career advancement. Success is great, but success often leads to bigger challenges. A person needs to decide if bigger challenges are interesting to them. We all have our limits, and it’s part of the journey to figure out what our personal capacity is. What’s the right level of personal and professional balance so that one can experience flow (competent enjoyment of a challenging activity) and also experience health and sanity?
Sometimes I think about TV shows featuring high performing professionals. Generally they are cops or doctors or lawyers who are smart and savvy. It’s usually an intense, difficult profession that requires commitment and expertise. There are always exciting situations, because it’s TV. Being a District Attorney in NYC looks amazing on Law and Order. On TV, there’s dramatic music and deep, interesting conversations with mood lighting. Why are these shows interesting? One of the reasons, I think, is because characters on these shows are showing the limits of human capacity, the weight of responsibility that humans can take on. We root for them to do well even at personal cost.
In real life, being a DA in NYC is a long career road (law school, starting out low on the totem pole, etc). And then the job itself, which is a big career achievement, is probably stressful and difficult much of the time. Even boring. In real life, there are bathroom breaks, days off to care for sick kids, dry cleaning, bad cafeteria food, and cramped offices.
Fiction is not reality, of course, but art can imitate life. An interesting exercise is to look at your life as if it were a story, with you as the main character. Would the story be interesting? Would you be rooting for the main character to fully reach his/her potential? Or would you want the character to spend 3 hours a day on Facebook and Netflix?
When I look at my story, I like the direction of the main character and the overall cast of characters, in broad strokes — leaving out the parts about bathroom breaks.
MY SCHEDULE, RIGHT NOW
Here’s a typical day for me now: