I had my consulting business for ten years and was profitable every year. There were a couple of soft patches that were pretty scary when I was going through them, but they were always followed by more work than I could handle. My primary product was leadership development, but during the course of a program, a client would ask, “Do you know how to do this?” and I’d usually know how. So, I wound up doing recruiting, compensation, team building, coaching . . . all kinds of things. Although most of the money came from the business world, most of the work involved nonprofits, because those experiences were always more meaningful and the people more appreciative.
I liked the variety of the work and I loved the gaps between assignments that allowed me time to explore my creative side. It was during these years that I wrote my first book, launched Acoustic Disturbance and began Ringing True. It was great to work in my pajamas or to be on a conference call with an executive team while sitting in a bathtub. I worked out of my home office in San Francisco, so whenever I needed a break, there were plenty of cafes, restaurants and unusual people right outside my door to shake up the day.
What I hated was the travel. I did a program for one of the Baby Bells that had me crisscrossing the country for six months, staying in some of the most forgettable locales in the United States. I spent an entire winter in Evansville, Indiana. I was in Tucson during 9/11 and for six weeks after. I did some business in the U.K. and Canada, which were always fun, but the domestic travel became a real drag, especially after the Patriot Act.
I also had to admit that the work wasn’t as fulfilling as it was when I was inside. There was no continuity to the experience. I’d teach people leadership but I was never around for the day-to-day where you see if what you were teaching made its way into the real world. There was no feeling of shared experience.
Eventually I’d had enough and went back into the working world in a small company where I’ve had the opportunity to build an entire people-side function from the ground up. This has turned out to be a mixed bag, as this company, like organizations everywhere, has become more focused on the bottom line than on achieving excellence. I also find myself missing the freedom I had when I was on my own. Perhaps I’ll go back and do that, but what I really need is to figure out the thing I want to do for which I am uniquely unqualified.
It works every time!
I’d like to wrap up this series by summarizing the many things I’ve learned from my experience in the working world, in the hope that these insights might be of help to those of you who feel frustrated by the entire career experience. Here goes:
1. Business isn’t that difficult. I remember reading somewhere that initially there was a very strong protest against the concept of a Master’s degree in Business because it lacked a body of knowledge. I wholeheartedly agree. Any moron can make money—look around you! If a business succeeds, people with nothing better to do reinvent the story and conjure up lessons that others can use, usually in the form of simplistic nonsense. Get it through your head that success is cyclical; Jack Welch was a hero in the 90’s and is a bum now; Steve Jobs was a hero and a bum so many times in his career that I’ve lost count. No one predicted the success of the pet rock or even the iPod; it was luck, timing and simple common sense. A lot of the reason people think business is difficult is because we’ve placed businesses into different categories called “industries” and each industry is armed with an intimidating set of buzzwords that work as secret codes for those who are “in the know.” The true purpose of buzzwords is to make things seem more complicated than they are. I find the whole “must have industry experience” requirement in many employment ads to be incredibly insulting; you could describe the challenges in any industry on a half of sheet of paper if you used simple English. There have been maybe two or three original business books in the entire history of that genre; all the rest are piles of rehash made fresh by new buzzwords.
2. There is no such thing as a career path. I was an extreme example of this truism, but it’s something everyone needs to accept as reality. Some say that half of the jobs that exist today didn’t exist five or ten years ago. When I was a young lad in the Valley, everyone was flocking to get a Bachelor’s of Science in Electrical Engineering. When they graduated, there were no jobs . . . the world had shifted to software. A few years later, software engineers without web skills were wiped out by the thousands. Most of us are going to have to improvise and scratch to make a living and often we’ll wind up doing things we’d never thought we’d do. Get used to it. Embrace the opportunity instead of feeling like you’re settling.
3. All your planning, hopes and dreams can be ruined by a single asshole. This happened to me with that anal-retentive trainer and when one company almost went belly-up due to the CEO’s financial hanky-panky. Some trace the financial crisis that shook the world to one guy somewhere in Norway. You may have a great team of people you work with now, but bring in one devious person and the entire team will go to hell. The lesson is no matter how secure you feel, always have a back-up plan and plenty of escape routes. If there is one lesson I wished I’d learned earlier, this is the one. It sucks to feel trapped in a company whose values are offensive or whose managers are arrogant and abusive.
4. Never underestimate your abilities, especially the ones you don’t think you have. There is a concept in improvisational theater called “the offer.” If you’re in a skit with a partner, any suggestion that partner makes is an offer. The fundamental rule of improv is to always say yes to an offer. If you say no, you’ll kill the scene—the action can’t move forward. People will present you with some opportunities that you will want to dismiss immediately as “off the wall.” Don’t do that. Go with the suggestion for a while. You may think you’re completely unqualified to do what the suggestion requires, but that’s because you’re looking at yourself as you would look at a resume. All of us have comparable, analogous or surprisingly useful skills that can be applied to a task. The fact that you know nothing can be a huge advantage because you’re bringing a completely new perspective to the problem. I said yes to many things and I learned things about myself and my capabilities that I never would have learned otherwise. Learn to play with possibilities and listen to all possibilities before dismissing them as silly.
Back to work!
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