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:
MORNING AT HOME
600-630: Wake up, make coffee. Some days, I take the kids down to the building lobby to get hot chocolate. Many days they are up at 530. Ouch.
630-730: Get the kids ready for school, get myself ready for work. This hour flies by. Mrs. Rich gets their lunches together and heads to work early so she can pick up the kids in the afternoon. I make sure they are dressed and fed, and I get my suit on and make a smoothie.
745-815: Walk the kids to school, drop them off, multiple hugs, walk home to get the car.
815-830: Drive to work. I actually love these 15 minutes. I listen to sports radio or a good podcast.
830-900: Arrival. Say hi to the team, check if there are any developments that demand my immediate attention. There usually are and I don’t get to all of them.
900-1030: Meetings and networking. Generally I’ll have a meeting in the morning. If I don’t, I try to schedule coffee with someone to maintain and build my professional network. Plus, it’s fun. Networks turn into friendships as well as work opportunities.
1030-1200: Office time. Here I get a good bulk of my tasks done. I work with people around the world, so I’ll prioritize items that some of them will see before they leave for the day, due to the time difference.
1200-1pm: Lunch and reading. I like to take lunch in my office (usually a ready pac salad from Whole Foods) and do some work-related reading while I eat. I’ll have some documents printed out, I find it easier to absorb content on paper rather than reading on a screen. Lunch doesn’t take an hour but is often interrupted by calls or visitors.
100-200: More office time. Typically my lunch reading will spur some ideas for more tasks or emails I need to take care of.
200-400: Meetings and networking. Normally, I have another meeting or two in the afternoon. If not, I might have my networking time around here. High tea, you could say. Or sometimes this involves a walk with a colleague outside, getting some air and speaking freely.
400-530: Office time. This is my last change to answer requests and emails, and accomplish tasks. Again, working with people around the world, I’ll send things out that I want others to see first thing in the morning. Also, I frequently get drops-ins, people who need something just before they go home.
530-600: Wrap up and Strategy time. This is one of my favorite blocks of time. At the end of the day I like to take stock of what I’ve done and what I still need to do over the next few days. I then try to take time to think strategically about my work and about my personal progress. If I have longer term projects going on, I’ll devote some time to them here.
EVENING AT HOME
600-620: Drive Home. Usually takes longer in the evening due to traffic.
620-645: Dinner. Family dinner if the kids haven’t eaten yet. Once or twice a week, we’ll go out for dinner.
645-745: Family Time. Time to connect at home before bed, to give a bath or read a book or play a game or watch a cartoon. I want to start getting more intentional about this time. If Mrs. R needs a break, she can take it here and go to the gym or whatever. Twice a month, ideally, we’ll get a babysitter and go out for dinner.
745-830: Organize, take care of the house. After the kids are in bed, we straighten up around the house and get ready for the next day, making school lunches and stuff. A couple nights a week I’ll go to the gym. Well, I’m trying to. It’s not easy.
845-945: Read, write, shower, watch a show or some sports. By 945, I’m usually done-ski.
945-545: Sleep. 8 hours, unless my cat or a kid wakes me up.
When I think of this schedule … it’s tiring. I don’t have as much time as I’d like for thinking and reading. However, I’m rooting for myself. This is a time of building capacity and stretching the bounds of who I think I can be.At the same time, while my schedule is busy, I also recognize it’s not that bad compared some other professionals I know. In my job, I don’t take work home with me. Some people are constantly working from home on their phones and so on, so they’re always “on.” The inability to detach can really mess with work / life balance.
THE CHALLENGE OF BALANCE: MOST DAYS ARE NOT TYPICAL
Here’s where statistics lie. That schedule is “typical,” but life is dynamic. A couple weeks ago, we had a sick kid at home so Mrs. R and I juggled one day, I worked the morning and she worked the afternoon. Another day, we both had to work late. Last week we had parent-teacher conferences at school. Fridays I have soccer practice 6-7pm. That’s life in action.
Mrs. Rich is also a professional. We juggle our careers and raising our kids and finding time for vacations. We tend to have the same “work worldview” — I want her to be as successful as she wants to be, and she wants the same for me. We want balance for both our careers and our home lives. In theory it all makes sense. In practice, it’s not simple.
Careers ebb and flow, and there are often competing priorities. We can’t both be 100% career focused all the time, and sometimes the constant juggling between work and home priorities can be tiring. We’d probably both be working longer hours if we didn’t have kids. That said, we’ve both realized that working longer hours wouldn’t necessarily result in more success. We’re better workers with kids, for some reason. There’s extra meaning to our careers, knowing that we have a family to support. We want to be role models for them. We have more energy for work when we see it in the context of family life.
I can’t say we’ve figured all this out, not by a long shot. When it gets really busy, it’s easy to question why the heck we’re doing all this.
WHAT’S THE POINT OF A CAREER?
What’s the point of it all? That’s a good question. I’ve documented my view on personal growth, reaching potential, etc., so no need to rehash that here. Being my best self is a life’s journey. Also, it’s about the work — doing something that’s valuable and that I can be proud of. A good career can also be fun, or at least interesting.
And what else would I do with my time? If Peterson is right, and I think he is, I would not be happier without a career or other responsibilities. I would need to find something else to fill that void of responsibility and meaning. Why go searching for it when it’s already right in front of me?
IT’S ABOUT MEANING, NOT MONEY
Notice that this whole time I haven’t mentioned money.
Being a high income earner doesn’t cross my mind day to day. I don’t spend time during my schedule thinking, “This is so great, I’m making money!” Rather, I’m thinking about the work and how to get it done well and still have a life. I get the impression, in articles we’ve discussed about the American Dream and so on, that people think they will be happy and satisfied if only they had a high income. But in my personal experience, not everyone wants the demanding work schedule that results in high income.
I have a nephew in his 20s who was talking recently about how he is underpaid for his skills. The reality is, he hasn’t even started, he hasn’t spent time focusing on doing a good job. He just wants career advancement and recognition to happen right away. He’s kind of missing the point, I think. In the course of a career, there will always be ups and downs, times to be excited and times to grind away. Normally, you can’t have one without the other. If you focus on the process of doing good work, the benefits will come, either in the form of compensation or personal satisfaction.
I’ve seen this in my family. I would not be in my current position if not for all the previous positions I’ve had and the work experience I’ve gained. I also would not be in this position if Mrs. Rich hadn’t succeeded at her opportunities, because her job overseas was a huge benefit to both of us. Kind of cool to think of it that way.
WHEN WORK DISAPPOINTS … EXPERIMENT
One last thought for now. I completely recognize lots of people do not feel this way about work, or have not had the career opportunities that they maybe wanted. Although I don’t think about my income while I work, there’s no doubt that being well compensated helps in a lot of ways, especially psychologically.
There’s a lot of disappointment out there, and resentment, and frustration. I don’t have any answers to that. I only have experiments to try.
Such as: Try taking on more responsibility at work and see what happens. A coworker recently said, “Good work tends to find those who can handle it.” Or if work just doesn’t offer more opportunities, try outside hobbies, like a side job or a blog or a class or a volunteer activity or whatever. When work is slow, like it was for a while with me, a good hobby can help. When work is busy … the blog might suffer, ahem.
Speaking of which, I hope to write more soon.