Okay, I know it sounds cliché, this idea of “getting in touch with your inner child.” Not that many years ago I would have rolled my eyes at the notion. At that time, I was completely certain I was on the right career path for me.
It took a disaster to make me realize that I wasn’t.
When I finally figured out that my career was working at cross-purposes to my basic personality, I realized the hints of cognitive dissonance had been there for a long time. All the way back to when I was a kid.
Yes, the hints were there, but that’s all they were – hints. There were no signposts saying “this is something you should avoid later in your career.” Nor was there an ethereal voice softly whispering, “here lies true fulfillment.” The hints were subtle ways I reacted to certain childhood situations – reactions I could trace back to neighborhood play, youth sports, and my early years in school.
Competitive, but only when winning
Competitiveness is one of the hints I got more right than wrong in later life. I knew I was competitive, but more dominant than any desire to test and measure myself was my need to win.
I saw this characteristic play itself out in sports throughout my youth. I quit playing baseball after a few seasons because I couldn’t hit the ball (it later turned out that I needed corrective lenses, but point is that I quit because I wasn’t winning.) I persisted a lot longer in basketball, but eventually realized I would never be tall enough, fast enough, or skilled enough to make the high school team. Eventually that one also went down the tubes. Similar results occurred in cross country, golf, and swimming.
In later years, however, I did find somewhere I could consistently win – academics. I loved college, where I could excel and readily see the result. When I launched started my career I can now see example after example where I assessed my chances of “winning” and acted accordingly (either making a full commitment, or conducting a hasty withdraw from the situation.)
Unfortunately, this predisposition often leads to job jumping, and in my situation this was definitely true – not that I didn’t find ways for it to serve my interests. I moved from one job to another, notching easy (and sometimes not-so-easy) wins, and leaving before any substantial failure could occur.
This came to a necessary halt when I moved into my second General Management role because my family needed some kind of location stability. From then on I was stuck living with both wins and losses.
And I hated it.
What I really wanted was an activity where I would be in control of the playing field. A place where I could define success and failure. And a place where my own actions (not someone else’s) were largely responsible for the outcome.
Fortunately I’ve found that in entrepreneurial business ownership and writing.
But it certainly took a long time to get here.
In your youth, did you love to learn? Or did you prefer doing to studying?
How did you respond to authority? Did you happily submit, or did you chafe?
Did you run headlong into conflict? Or did you avoid the possibility of battle like the plague?
Answers to all these questions and many more can help you discover your natural inclinations.
When we are young we haven’t yet learned to suppress our natural proclivities. We don’t hide who we are – at least not at first. And even after we learn to put on a mask and behave differently in front of others, in youth we can normally recognize this for what it is – a façade.
Somewhere in the years between youth and middle age, the mask often seems to merge with the person it hides. The two slowly but inexorably become one. It is only in our subconscious where our core person remains unchanged.
I can’t say I completely understand why this happens. Perhaps it’s the subjugation of emotion and desire to the will. In other words, a part of mastering ourselves in pursuit of specific goals and ambitions. Or maybe it is the weight of societal pressures forcing us into more conventional ways of acting and thinking.
I do know that for most managers, somewhere along the timeline of our life the mask begins to crack. Eventually some, if not all, of what we were in our youth begins to squeeze out from below the surface.
That’s when we realize we’ve been doing the wrong thing for years.
And often that’s when we discover we’ve been on the wrong path for years.
Fear and conflict
Conflict is an unavoidable aspect of any senior managerial job. Even if you are loved by your subordinates, respected by your bosses, and ignored by your peers, you’re going to occasionally find yourself in a pitched battle with someone, somewhere.
Some people are built for this kind of thing. They live to roll from one battle to the next, taking deep satisfaction in the fight – even if they lose.
One of my bosses fell firmly into this category. We used to say that he “…was like a beaver, always needing to sharpen his teeth on something.” With this boss, if there wasn’t a war underway, he could be counted on to start one.
Not surprisingly, this inclination didn’t work well for him over the long term. There was no denying, however, that the conflicts often found in a typical business environment were his sandbox – he was completely at home in their midst.
I was the polar opposite. I hated conflict. I feared pitched battles.
This fear came directly from an incident in my youth where my mouth got me in trouble with a group of boys. For more than a year they made my life a living hell. Afterward, I couldn’t wade into controversy without feeling the anxious fight-or-flight reaction I’d become conditioned to during that time.
As I climbed the corporate ladder, the only way I could cope with this reaction was to endlessly plan for potential conflict in the vain hope of somehow controlling the environment and interaction and thus assuring the outcome I wanted.
Sometimes this worked. Often, it partially worked. And sometimes it was an abject failure.
The failures became the source of endless, painful replays of the events. Sometimes these regrets would continue for years into the future.
The funny thing was, until I quit my last senior management job and stepped away from all of this job-induced stress, I didn’t realize just how much it was weighing me down.
Your story your way
I attended a conference a few years ago called “Courageous Conversations,” a day-long session that had a profound impact on my thinking about my career and my future. The lessons from that session allowed me to come to grips with my career/personality mismatch. I’ll be referring to tools and techniques I picked up from that session numerous times throughout this series.
One of the more important exercises (pre-work, mostly, although I did spend a lot more time working on it after I realized how it could help me) was to write my own, personal life story.
Not a biography per se. Instead, the idea was to answer a series of questions about each decade of my life. The intention was to determine what was really going on in my natural selves, my man-behind-the mask.
Some of the questions included the following:
What were the major events of that time, particularly those that I still think about today (both good and bad)?
Who influenced me positively? Who did I dislike? Why?
What did I enjoy doing? What did I avoid?
What are the drivers that might be underlying my behaviors and relationships during the decade?
At the end of each decade, I tried to summarize the essence of the person I was during the time period.
Decades were recommended as they roughly correspond to major phases of a person’s life, but someone could just as easily pick other intervals such as: early childhood, secondary school, college, early career, marriage and children, early management experience, etc.
The narrative needs to encompass both career and life outside of work to be effective.
It is my recommendation that anyone contemplating a job change spend a few days developing their own story. It need not involve a lot of writing, but it does need to leave you with some clear-cut conclusions about who you are beneath your professional veneer.
Based on my own personal experience (and also from what I’ve heard from many others,) this is most evident from our earliest years.
Before the job search we need to conduct another search – one to identify the kind of work that best matches our natural inclinations and underlying personality. While the biographical exercise I recommend in this post may sound a bit silly to some (it did to me when I first considered it,) I can assure you that if the proper time is taken and the necessary honesty is applied, it can work wonders.
Other posts in the “Before the Job Search” series (in Chronological Order):
Posts in the “Greatest Boss” Series (in Chronological Order):
- · The Qualities that made my Best Boss “Great”
- · Great Boss: Devoting Time, Building Trust
- · Great Boss: Explaining Things
- · Great Boss: The Big Picture
- · Great Boss: A Chance to Fail
- · Great Boss: Sharing the Trenches
- · Great Boss: Key Insights
- · Great Boss: Career Management
- · Great Boss: Boldly Acting
- · Great Boss: Working Hard
- · Great Boss: Temper Regulation
- · Great Boss: Taking the Heat
- · Great Boss: Friendship
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Non-Fiction: NAVIGATING CORPORATE POLITICS
Rather than feature one book in today’s post, I’ve decided to show all three covers in my "Carson Series" including the latest cover (alas, the book is still several months away from publication) OUTSOURCED. This series follows Mark Carson in his transformation from corporate whistle-blower and amateur detective, to fugitive from the law and semi-professional espionage agent. Click on any cover images to get more information in the book (which should open up in a new tab and won’t cause you to lose your place here.)
My novels are based on extensions of 27 years of personal experience as a senior manager in public corporations.