Where To From Here?

I’m going to shift gears a little this week.

Last week, I explored my personal journey to here. It was an essential survey of the influences that form us all, and how we learn how to learn—looked at through the lens of my experiences. Naturally, your experience will be different. You’ll be in a different place. Different decisions, opportunities, and pursuits all shaped—for better or for worse—how you got to here.

At the same time, that’s all in the past. I can’t change my past, and you can’t change yours. Time travel, sadly, is not a thing. And even if it were, there would be untold unfortunate consequences from going back and un-doing even some of the simplest decisions. “It’s A Wonderful Life” might have been fiction, and designed to tug on the heart strings during the festive season, but it is a useful illustration of the consequence of changing the past.

So each of us is where we find ourselves today. We are shaped by what has come before, which influences and frames how we see ourselves now. And it’s the basis of where we go from here. This isn’t to say that it determines where we go from here. Our futures are not preordained. It’s also not to say that we have complete latitude either. But each of us has far more freedom than we might think. We have agency. We have flexibility. We have options. We have the ability to perceive, to react and to decide how we respond to situations.

We don’t always recognize this, though. Partly that’s a product of the voices in our head. Each of us has an internal dialogue that describes and shapes how we perceive ourselves. Those scripts are often influenced by others, but we often take them on and critically accept them at face value. They are the narratives about ourselves and our reality that we accept as true.

Frequently, those voices are critical and negative. They tell us what we aren’t good at. What we can’t do. That we aren’t good enough, or smart enough, or capable enough, or talented enough. They tell us that we don’t have the smarts or the education or the background or the privilege to be able to do something. They get in the way, those voices.

Deciding where to from here—and knowing where we can get to—is therefore the intersection of a number of different factors. It’s influenced by our past, in that what we have done represents the accumulation of experiences, roles, learnings and expertise that we have developed. Where we have been shapes our interests, and our interests frame what we choose to focus on. And our current internal narratives tell us what we think about ourselves and the situations we are in currently, and what might be possible from here.

Those are the building blocks. After that, all bets are off. What is the work that we want to do? Where do we want to do it? What kind of situations and challenges interest us? What experiences do we find desirable, and which ones might we want to avoid? What position do we want, and how attainable and practical is it? What will we need to do, what will we need to change, and what might we need to give up in order to get there?

There’s risk and uncertainty in those questions. I have a good friend, for example, who was a high-ranking executive at an extremely well-known organization. The highest-ranking executive, actually. Her life was a whirlwind of planes, meetings, decisions, phone calls, presentations, more planes and yet more meetings. Eighty-hour weeks were the norm, and for a long period of time she loved what she did. She enjoyed the challenge, she enjoyed the work and she enjoyed the status.

Over time, however, she began to question both where she was and where she was going. She asked herself whether she really wanted to spend a life on planes and in hotels. She wondered if the work she was doing, interesting and challenging as she still found it, was what she really wanted to continue to do. Ultimately she decided the answer was no. She quit her job, sold her house, moved across the continent, and found a very new and very different life for herself. A life where she could still do interesting work, but focus much more of her intention and her attention on what she most valued—working with and helping the personal development of individuals.

Making that choice had consequences. It required adjustment and adaptation. She gave up status, influence and a decidedly higher income than she currently enjoys. There are many people that—faced with a similar choice and similar consequences—would decide that they can’t do it. Not that they won’t do it, or that they don’t want to do it, but that they can’t do it.

That’s an extremely interesting choice of phrasing. What it’s doing is externalizing the decision. It’s attributing the inability to make the change to outside factors, beyond their control. It’s not simply denying agency, but it is entirely giving it up. There are few situations where that is true, and there are none that spring immediately to mind.

Of course, there are consequences to the decision. Mortgages, car payments and expenditure levels may be tied to a particular level of income. Changes in income would therefore require corresponding changes in domicile, mode of transportation and lifestyle. There’s no barrier to doing that. There is work, of course, and a letting go of what one had before. And very often the psychological letting go is far harder than the actual mechanics of working through the change. But the change can be made. You just have to want to.

I’ve been through my own changes over the last few years. As I am pretty sure I’ve discussed elsewhere, my wife and I decided to return to Ontario in 2011 after fifteen years of living (and building a business) in Edmonton. We came back for family, and in retrospect it was the very best decision we could have made. There have been several events over the last few years that would have played out far more tragically than they did if we hadn’t made the move.

Choosing to move, though, absolutely came with consequences. We had employees. Customers. An office. A reputation. A house. A life. We chose to leave Edmonton, rather than figure out some way to maintain what we had. That would have been far too complicated, far too stressful and far too unsuccessful. But that decision meant giving up what we had, and starting over (again) in a city that we once called home, but that what was very different (personally and professionally) than when we had left. And we were very different people returning.

The very odd part of this choice is that leaving Edmonton didn’t actually lead to leaving Edmonton. I continued to work in Alberta for several more years, travelling back and forth on an astonishingly regular basis. I jokingly mentioned to a friend last fall that, “After seven years of doing this, I don’t think I’m allowed to say that I’m in transition anymore.” And yet, because I was travelling back and forth—doing work in both provinces and endeavouring to maintain a life in the process—it felt a lot like transition.

All things come to an end, however, and in January of this year I finally found myself without work in Alberta—for the first time in 22 years. I also find myself doing interesting and new work in Ontario. I’m challenged by what I’m doing. I enjoy the clients that I work with, and I’m excited by the opportunities that I’m being able to explore. All of that is extremely cool, and tremendously fulfilling.

I, too, am also considering “where to” from here. Not specifically from a point of dissatisfaction, but from a realization of opportunity. For the work that enjoy, there is other work that I want to do. And while there is work that I want to do, there are other experiences that I want to enjoy. I’m volunteering more, and finding outlets for other interests and aspects of my personality that I don’t necessarily experience in my work. I’m continuing to shape the life that I want.

What’s exciting about that is that it involves some building. It also involves some repurposing. And it also involves all of you.

At the end of last year, I sent you a survey. Many of you responded (and thank you for that) with what you liked—and what you’d like to see—on this site, and in my newsletter. And a lot of what I got reflected back—or at least averaged out to—something along the lines of, “keep doing what you’re doing.” Which is all well and good, except what I’ve been doing has been meandering over a period of time. What I write about is shaped by the work I’m doing, and the insights that I’m gaining.

What you also indicated is that what interests you, and that you value and are looking for in terms of insight and guidance, centres around many of the topics I’ve been exploring in greater detail. Strategy, complexity, uncertainty and the managing difficult, complicated and challenging projects. You value the stories. But you also want practical advice and guidance. And there is an enormous appetite out there for books and resources—something that I’ve promised more of, but haven’t fully delivered on as of yet.

I’m pleased to report that there’s a delightful intersection between where I see myself focussing in the next little while and the interests that were expressed in the survey responses. I’ve been writing around these topics for an extended period of time. What I’ve come to appreciate is that there are a lot of different views and perspectives and resources. There’s an idea over here, a concept over there, an insight in this paper and an intriguing discovery in that research report. This book provides one argument, and another book refutes it. But there are few places were it all comes together in anything like a meaningful structure.

Building that structure is what I plan to focus on in the next little while. Not as a ‘universal theory of everything,’ per se, but as a practical guide to navigating through the chaos of organizational existence, devising strategy, creating change and managing progress. I’m not sure precisely the form that will take. It might be a book. A workshop. An online course. It might evolve into a set of resources. Or it could become all of the above. But what I’m going to attempt in the coming months is to bring the disparate bits of thought, writing and guidance into a coherent whole that can provide meaningful advice and practical suggestions.

This is my current choice of where to from here. I’ll still be consulting and speaking. I’ll be writing here on a mostly-weekly basis. The newsletter will still appear. But what it emphasizes may evolve a little bit, as I take you along on the journey of where I’m going next. In doing so, I imagine that I will still ramble and pursue tangents. There will inevitably be times when I appear front and centre in what I write. And there will be instances where the ideas take over, and I fade into the background to give them their space.

All of this isn’t fixed, of course. It’s just where I am right now. Which is the same for all of us. There’s never a point in our evolution when we decide, and our path is chosen inexorably. We get to decide, and to re-decide, and to decide again. Life is a series of choices that get us to where we find ourselves. Or, to quote John Lennon, “Life is what happens while we’re making other plans.” So where to from here will undoubtedly change, and change again which is what actually makes life interesting.

As you follow your own journey, I encourage you to ask the same questions. And to avoid answers that in any way use the word, “can’t.” The choices you are wrestling with might be difficult and have different consequences. But they are still choices. And you can make them. You just need to value the result enough that the consequences make them worthwhile. That’s the choice I’m making for me, and I wish the same for you.

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