When It Got Interesting

A brief summary of my 27-year career as told in single words and brief phrases:

Quit.

Quit.

Quit.

Quit.

Fired.

Quit.

Quit.

Started a company.

Starting a company.

You know when it got interesting? Do you know when it stopped being a list of jobs and started being a career? Yes, of course you do. The day that I got fired was the wake-up call that changed everything. That day, motivated by my responsibility to provide for a young family and in spite of my lack of self-awareness, I took responsibility for my career for the first time.

I had a 7-week severance and I landed a new job in six. (Thank you, Cathy Earley!) And it wasn’t just a job; it was the first role that made it clear that there was a path for my interests and abilities. Getting fired and then hired into that role is why I could eventually start my own company. It’s why I am now ready to help get another new venture off the ground.

Remember Ryan Bingham in Up in the Air?

“Anybody who ever built an empire, or changed the world, sat where you are now. And it’s because they sat there that they were able to do it.”

A terrible cliche. A pat line, woefully inadequate to ease the pain of a person just fired from a job.

He also happened to be right.


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Declare What You Want

Yes, you have to do good work and build a reputation that precedes you.

Yes, you have to build a strong, vibrant network of people who want you to succeed and for whom you pay it forward.

Yes, you have to stay humble, keenly self-aware and dedicated to continuous learning.

All of those things, yes!

And I will never succeed at defining which matters most or which, among the many things I haven’t mentioned, should also be considered just as important but here’s the thing that stands out to me as central to deeply meaningful professional success:

You have to declare what you want.

You have to stop saying YES to everything in hopes that you catch something that satisfies your heart’s desire and you have to start saying NO to everything that most certainly does not.

This is especially hard early in a career. This is especially scary when launching your firm. “Sure, I can do that!” I’ve said more times than I care to admit, so often to discover that I had agreed to work that I simply did not want to do.

What if we say instead, “This is who I am at my best. This is how I can provide you with the most value while also bringing me the most satisfaction (and, as a pretty great bonus, the money that I am worth).”

I believe to the depths of both my heart and soul that when a person declares who they are and what they want, the universe gets in motion to help make that possible. I have no other way to explain what has come to me when I have had that conviction and what has eluded me when I have not.

I believe that other people are deeply attracted to that clarity and want to help it become, not only real, but also wildly successful. I believe that when we have the courage to say, “This is it!” we shouldn’t sheepishly prepare for nothing to happen but instead, strap ourselves in for the trip of a lifetime.

At the beginning of this year, I made two clear declarations. Relying on the power of those declarations to say no to some other commitments, I had space for some new, very specific things to show up. In only a couple of months, that’s exactly what happened.

I will share more detail in the coming weeks but the wheels are in motion for an exciting new professional endeavor largely because I cleared the way for it to find me.

It is frightening to claim what we want. How terrible to do so and risk the possibility of failure. On the other hand, in the face of that fear, how wonderful to do so and discover something greater than we had dared to dream.


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A Real Expert

There is a stumbling block to getting started as a speaker that is rooted in the impostor syndrome. It sounds like this: “But I’m not a real expert so why would they want to hear from me?”

The question then is, what is a real expert?

I believe you can credibly present yourself as a real expert on a given topic if you meet the following conditions:

  1. You have lived the subject matter. You have started the initiative, tackled the problem, and attempted the solution.
  2. You have a story to tell about #1 that includes a compelling historical narrative (what happened, why it happened, your lessons learned) as well as all of the ways it has made you more curious about what might happen next (your new questions, your hopes and plans for the future).
  3. You care about helping people. You want to share something with others to make their life easier, to save them a little time and smooth their road just a little bit more.
  4. You have the ability to present yourself confidently, you can speak clearly, and you are willing to say, “I don’t know” when someone asks you a question the answer to which you do not know.

Finally, speaking is about storytelling. Stories are how we connect and how we learn. Images, quotes, everything that went wrong, how you got out of a jam, moments of truth, these are the things your listeners are hungry for.

real expert is someone who commits themselves to being the expert of their own experience and who trusts that there’s always an audience for someone who is willing to share it.


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The Side Hustle

My side hustle is teaching a class each semester in the College of Business at Cal State San Marcos. I teach a course in organizational behavior for non-management majors. I do it because I love to teach. I do it because the energy of working with aspirational students is addictive and fulfilling. I do it because it makes me a better professional in my day job which in turn makes me a better teacher for my students, which in turn…well, you get the point.

For me, the side hustle has become an essential piece of my overall professional experience. It provides a perspective, an alternate point of view that allows me to see my work with fresh eyes.

The side hustle, I am learning, is much more common than I realized. As these diverse endeavors come up in conversation, I am struck by the shy smile that emerges as well as the actual twinkle in the eye. And while I know that many, many people have a side gig for the supplemental income, most of the people I talk to are doing it to satisfy a personal passion.

When I see that telltale expression of mischievous glee, I can’t help but ask: “what is it about your ‘9-to-5’ job that is not providing the opportunity to pursue that passion?” And then I wonder, what might happen, and I emphasize might, if that passion was known by the person’s team leader and the two of them talked openly and expansively about how their current job might be adapted to satisfy it?

What happens so often – why engagement at work persistently hovers around 30% – is that employees leave their passion at home because they either don’t associate “work” as a place where it belongs or their present employer fails to create an environment where passion, even seemingly unrelated passion, it is welcomed and cultivated.

I truly love that we live at a time when traditional ideas and modes of work have been upended. And I truly love and admire that special brand of person who will always have another iron in the fire, always driving to create and express outside the lines of typical employment.

The truth, however, is that most people continue to work within the circumstances and conditions we define as “normal.” They go to an office, put in their time and return home at the end of an 8-hour day. If this huge population of employees is not expected, much less encouraged, to explore and express their passions within those four walls, that organization will always go hungry for the creative energy that is just beyond its grasp.


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I’m a Dog Walker

Wouldn’t it be great – and a little weird and maybe even fun – if you had to answer the question, “So, what do you do?” based on the most recent thing you’ve actually done?

If I just cleaned the house, then I’m a house cleaner.
If I just prepared for class, then I’m a professor.
If I just went on a date with my wife, then I’m a husband.
If I just had a great workout, then I’m an athlete.
If I just wrote a poem, then I’m a poet.
If I just made dinner, then I’m a chef (well, maybe “cook” is good enough for that one!).
If I took the dog for a walk then, yes, I’m a dog walker.

We are ritually, blindly obsessed with narrowing our self-disclosure about what we “do” down to what we get paid for and I think that’s a shame.

You are not what you get paid to do. What you get paid to do is, I assume, something you have deep expertise in and truly enjoy. But is that all that you do? Not even close.

You are, of course, the sum total of how you spend your time. All of your time.

Not only our conversations but our workplaces would be significantly enriched if this was both recognized and normalized. What happens when we get a larger and clearer picture of how another person spends their precious time is that they become more human to us. They take on the complex, dynamic qualities of a person that we easily recognize in ourselves but conveniently ignore in others.

We are not here on a fact-finding mission. We are here to connect, and in our connection support and sustain one another’s doing so that we can relish in one another’s being.


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Poem for a Sunday Morning

Into Deep Water
{David Berry}

Put out into deep water. Go to the depths that frighten you.

Find there, in the shadowy darkness of the water a revelation of who you are.

Only then will you be equipped to determine what serves you and what must be thrown back.

Put out into deep water. Go to the depths that frighten you.

Find there, in the shadowy darkness of the water a revelation of who loves you, just as you are.

Only then will you be equipped to close the difficult distance between the fear of loss and the exponential truth of full relationship.

Put out into deep water. Go to the depths that frighten you.

Find there, in the shadowy darkness of the water a revelation of new learning.

Only then will you be equipped to say “I am, and always have been a beginner.”


man under body of water

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Saturday Morning

Sunday: “They preferred the name of the tree
to the taste of the apple.” (from Among the Intellectuals, Tony Hoagland)

Monday: Put out into deep water. Go to the depths that frighten you. Find there, in the shadowy darkness of the water, a revelation of who you are.

Tuesday: Whole people with whole lives are here today, including myself.

Wednesday: …a reminder of the ways I allow myself to stay stuck in “good enough” when just one small action would open the door to an even better way to live.

Thursday: “The concept of praxis . . . refers to our participation in the shaping of the world in which we live.” (Denis Edwards)

Friday: It is imperative that we acknowledge, finally, that the prison cell we have created is not locked, and it never was.


It is both a pleasure and gift to sit in the cool, quiet air of a September Saturday morning and reflect on the week that was.

I celebrated this week, taught this week, traveled this week, coached this week, consulted and conversed. I had full days of comings and goings and quieter days of reflection and planning.

The week began with the celebration of a wedding anniversary and ended with the celebration of the life of a friend’s mother.

This week I experienced the universal in the particular, the bumpy and uncertain ways each of us is navigating our experience, imperfectly attempting to reconcile ourselves to the unknown by holding on to what we know.

The current of life flows and flows and flows. It is always happening. It is always happening right now, another chance in an unknown number of chances to choose the deeper water or the safety of the shore.


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The Paradox of Freedom

The things that free you also bind you.

It is a sad cliché that the prisoner, finally freed after years of confinement, has a difficult time adjusting to his new reality. In the face of so many possibilities – so many necessary daily choices and responsibilities – a highly routinized lifestyle dictated by someone else’s agenda could become impossible to live without. Certainly there are days or even just situations where you would much rather have someone else decide. The responsibility of freedom can be exhausting.

I think back on my transition out of corporate life and into the new life of a small business owner and I am reminded of Karen Horney’s (1945) psychological construct that each of us tends to cope with our basic anxiety along one of three dimensions: moving towards people (compliance), moving against them (aggression) or moving away from them (withdrawal). While each approach is available to us, it is our natural tendency to default to one of these primary coping mechanisms.

My default position for anxiety management has long been withdrawal. Frustrated by the demands of compliance and afraid of the consequences of conflict I would simply disappear, my aggression dissipated passively on those who were least deserving of it! Back to the career change, I recall so many people expressing to me how much sense it made that I was finally going to “do my own thing.” I buoyed myself, as I entered a new unknown, with their casual confidence and borrowed as much of it as I could. Looking back on the bumpiness of that first year – a particular and predictable set of anxious feelings – I recognize that the root of the challenge in my transition to a new life of “freedom” was that I was operating from the stress of reactivity rather than the stress of possibility.

As “right” as the change was on its face, it was also another excellent example of my tendency to “move away.” Initially, I made the move in order to get away from a particular set of circumstances rather than to manifest those of my own intention. It was no surprise then that I did not think of myself as a small business owner because to do so requires clarity of purpose, vision and direction. With the gift of space and time, and with the learning that comes from even incremental progress, that definition eventually emerged and I began to operate not from the insecurity of anxiousness (reactively) but from the confidence of determination (proactively).

I don’t think it’s possible to eradicate my default reaction to stress but I do think it’s possible to become deeply educated about my tendency and to stay open to new ways of orienting to the world. As comforting as it may sometimes be to take refuge there, it is imperative that we acknowledge, finally, that the prison cell we have created is not locked, and it never was.



A post script
: What do you notice about your style under stress? Do you disappear? Do you agitate and express frustration? Do you fall into line to diminish the feelings of uncertainty? The opportunity to become your own authority – to more effectively contend with life’s anxieties – exists in your willingness to, (1) identify the pattern and (2) free yourself to choose a new approach in the moment. 


 

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People of Reflection and Action

Praxis logo_0“The concept of praxis . . . refers to our participation in the shaping of the world in which we live. It is based upon the idea that we are meant to make a difference. We are called to be contributors, people of reflection and action. . . . This is our common human task.”

– Denis Edwards


 

It starts with an idea, a point of view, a model or framework.

It continues with the thoughtful consideration of how it might be activated in support of our purpose, in support of the employees, customers, and community members we exist to serve.

It flows into action, a living engagement of ideas and people joined together for purposeful impact.

It results in outcomes, maybe good or even great ones, and likely surprising or even disappointing ones as well.

It continues with evaluation, consideration and more thoughtful conversation, this time about what happened, the lessons learned, the possibilities that came to life, the ideas of what might come next, having attempted this thing in this way at this time.

Ideas are revisited, perspectives shared and challenged, new approaches proposed.

A next step is agreed upon. A new effort is made.

This is how we make our contribution. This is how change happens.


 

Stuck

When I woke up this morning, I couldn’t find the dog.

Rita usually sleeps in our room, upstairs, but will just as likely be found on the landing or, given the warmer summer evenings, downstairs by the couch.

This morning, she was in none of her usual spots, which is when I remembered something that happened earlier this summer.

My son, home from college, works an evening shift most nights and gets home after 11:00. Rita is not one to miss the chance to hang out with a non-sleeping person so she keeps him company until his much later bedtime, sometimes in the family room and sometimes in his bedroom. One night, forgetting she was in there, or perhaps thinking she wanted to stay, he shut his door and went to sleep. When I couldn’t find her the next morning I finally popped his door open to find her sitting there quietly, both hopeful and resigned.

Again, this morning, there she sat. And once released from the confines of Duncan’s bedroom, she headed straight outside for a much-needed breath of fresh air, among other needs.

Hopeful and resigned, she didn’t whine or bark. She made the best of it, sitting and waiting for her chance to get out, dependent on someone else to take action to change her circumstances.

I admire her patience, but it’s her resignation that makes me uncomfortable, a reminder of the ways I allow myself to stay stuck in “good enough” when just one small action would open the door to an even better way to live.


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