So, how do you get through your day? Your month? Your year? Your career? It’s an interesting question, and its also a challenging one to answer honestly.
We often have pat, well-crafted answers to the questions of “what do you do?”, “how are you doing?” and “so what are your plans for the future?” And, very often, we don’t challenge those. We trot them out predictably and reliably when asked, and fall back on some variation of the answer when probed for more detail.
There are a couple of reasons that we do this. The most common one is that we’re cognitively lazy (and again, this is just a description, not a judgement; our brains don’t like to work more than they have to). Over time, we find the shortest, clearest way of answering the question, and when we find something that works we stick with it.
The other reason which might exist, if we probe deep enough, is a defensiveness. Our stock answer is a shield. And if the shield stays intact, then we don’t need to do anything awkward or difficult like making ourselves vulnerable. I’m not saying that this is always the case, mind you. Some people are entirely happy with where they are now and where they are going, and what you get when dealing with them is exactly what it says on the tin. But if, like me, you allow for a glimmer of not wholly liking the answer, but you’re not sure what to do about it, then read on. I’ll try to provide some perspective on what’s going on. With luck, I’ll even provide some useful insight on what to do about it.
I’ve alluded to the fact that the last few months have been challenging for me. Some of that’s been personal. Some of that has been professional. As I mentioned in my [start-of-year-review](http://markmullaly.com/2018/01/19/reflections-resolutions/), last year saw the demise of a long-standing relationship between my company and the University of Alberta. It wasn’t an outcome that I expected, although I also strongly suspect it was ultimately the right choice for all concerned. Nonetheless, it is a realignment and it has taken some time to process and respond to. My answers to “what’s next” on that front have inevitably been evasive, because I’ve been processing the situation, and I haven’t been clear on what the answer should actually be.
I’ve also been blessed enough to have some wondrous and exploratory conversations about life and its challenges with good friends that have been visiting. They’ve been exceptional in their honesty and candour. They have also been illustrative of that fact that many of us are wrestling with where we are, where we are going and what it’s all about, anyway.
In one conversation, a very good friend was reflecting that by the time you get to a couple of decades from retirement, it’s increasingly difficult to imagine reinventing what you do. It was an interesting comment, from the perspective that he is someone who is enjoying his current challenges and opportunities at work, and that there is clearly a lingering sense that there may have been opportunities for things to play out differently. It’s also an acknowledgement of the challenge—and the perceived roadblocks—of reinventing yourself in the later stages of life.
Another recent conversation was interesting in its exploration of how we make the choices that get us through our careers and out the other side. My friend was relating how she had been recently confronted with the statement, “But you’ve just followed the opportunities placed in front of you! What do you really want to do?” A bold confrontation, that. Knowing my friend as I do, there’s also some truth there. But there’s truth there for all of us.
Few of us actually start of in life (or at least in our professional careers) with a clear pathway of who we are, where we are going and the exact steps we will follow to get there. Our lives and our careers are very often the meandering product of intention, opportunity, curiosity and dumb luck. We can have a reasonably accurate sense of where we are now, a stated intent of where we might like to go from here, but the actual reality is very often significantly different than we imagine.
All of which gets to the inevitable challenge of actually making sense of the moment, and making choices to pursue—or not—the opportunities that do become available along the way.
Each of us has good days and bad days. Personally, and professionally. We face challenges we didn’t ask for, we get tasked with assignments that we didn’t want and we get assigned to teams that we’d prefer not to be a member of. It happens to all of us, at one time or another (and to some of us more often than we might like). What we need to decide when that happens is what to actually do about it. Do we confront the situation? Do we go along with it? Or do we decide that it’s time for a change?
Needless to say, there are no right answers here. There are inevitably going to be some wrong answers, I suspect. But the choice of what to do is always going to be a product of context. It’s going to require us to take stock of where we are, personally and professionally, how much of a psychic toil the situation is going to take and how sane we expect to still find ourselves being out the far end. We also need to consider the opportunity for random serendipity and change—because, as noted before, luck and chance is also an influence on how all of this plays out.
Thinking through some recent assignments, I’ve been blessed with both rewarding opportunities and mind-numbing frustrations. And while those latter examples might be considered less of a blessing, they’ve also been useful for developing some valuable insights. I can point to specific circumstances where work that has most satisfied me and situations that have most disillusioned me have been in the same organization. Some of the work that I am most proud of has gone on not to be used. At the same time, clients that I feared at one point were going to be difficult—or impossible—to productively work with have turned into some of my most satisfying and enjoyable ones, ones where I am trusted, respected and valued.
All of that to say that you never quite know how a given situation is going to play out. Sometimes, the best strategy is to bide your time, work to make the best of it and find ways to extract personal value that is meaningful for you, even if the overall situation isn’t what you would like. At the same time, it’s essential to take a realistic assessment of the value that you are realizing compared to the cost of enduring unfortunate circumstances. When the calculus of that evaluation is shifting to weigh heavily against you on a sustained basis, that’s probably a good sign that it’s time to think about a different opportunity.
What that next opportunity is will vary for each of us. We have to weigh the costs (and potential rewards) of leaving against those of staying. We also need to balance the risk of leaving with the toll involved in actually staying. And for everyone, the answer will be different.
As an example, my father worked for the same company for decades, before he was unceremoniously ushered into an unexpected and unanticipated retirement. While there were aspects of his role that he liked, there were many others that he loathed. He always regretted not leaving earlier, and becoming a consultant (and I think he not-so-secretly admired me for choosing that path). But he liked the perks that came with the job, and staying became the path of least resistance, until staying was no longer an option.
Change has its own risks to weigh, of course. There are many that have actually done what my father didn’t, and hung out their shingle as consultants-for-hire. It can be a difficult role, and it’s certainly a different one than being an employee. While we have a romantic notion of consultants as being in control of their work and their life, our reality is often driven by the vagaries of our clients. Too much work can be followed by not nearly enough. Business development, marketing and proposal writing is a constant requirement. What you gain in flexibility to pursue many options you lose in concrete influence and choice about how, when and if your work gets used.
Ultimately, the choices that we make have to work for us. And while much of this article might read as a colossal paean to “it depends,” this is in many instances because the choices that we face are numerous. Which choices to take comes back to the questions that we started with: where are you now, how is that working for you and where do you want to go from here?
It can take time to wrestle with those questions, and to come to an answer that is satisfactory, meaningful and appropriate for each of us. What is important to recognize is that there is no one, single answer that will get us through our lives, or our careers for that matter. The answer that was true for us last year—or five years ago—may not be the answer for us right now. And the answer that is true for us today won’t necessarily stay true for us into the future.
What is fun, challenging and sometimes terrifying is that this is a journey with no single destination, and many stops, side-trips and detours along the way. For me, the last few months and years have provided ample evidence of this, and I’m sure the coming years will be no different. My strategy is essentially embodied in the title of this post: persevere with what I need to do right now, adapt towards what I want to be doing next and follow through with where I want to go in the future. Each of us are works in progress. Keeping perspective of that fact can be difficult at times.
My best advice on taking stock, assessing where you are and deciding what is next: listen to how you answer the questions I began this article with. Recognize when you are shifting from well-formed truth to slightly defensive shield. Use that as a trigger to assess what is going on, why and what (if anything) to do about it. Choose your path from there, try to find as much enjoyment and satisfaction as you can while you follow it, and course correct along the way. Keep persevering where necessary, adapt when required and follow-through wherever possible.
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