Monday Magic: Grace Cathedral, Night

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My Brilliant Career, Part 6

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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!

Photo Credit:© Witch81 | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos

Author Q&A with Robert Morrow

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Seattle sunset

Q: Ringing True is both the title of the book and the name of the religion in the book. Was it your hope that the religion might take off and develop a following?

A: Not at all. It’s been interesting that some of the early readers have responded positively to what is called “The Numbers,” the name of the religion’s text. One reader remarked about its essential humanity being something people everywhere could agree on. It’s very validating, but if you read “The Numbers”, the religion isn’t about gaining followers. It’s about encouraging people to accept responsibility without having to follow anyone or anything. Ringing True is essentially an empowering religion, so my intention is to spread empowerment and encourage people to figure things out for themselves.

Q: Even though the religion is described as a “world religion,” most of the institutions and norms that are satirized in the book are American. Ringing True seems to be a very American novel.

A: Yes and no. America is so globally influential it’s hard to have a discussion about many parts of the world without also describing their relationship to America. For good and ill, our power and culture are omnipresent. One of the characters comes back from South America and says, “We are everywhere.” One thing you always hear from natives in other countries is how loud Americans are – and we are, in terms of both volume and in presence. The primary object of the satire is the American media, which is certainly loud enough to be heard around the globe. But, I also take on American corporations, religious zealots, Hollywood and other “American icons” that have a stunningly powerful influence the world over.

Q: You introduce a bisexual character into the mix. What was behind that?

A: The simple answer is that I lived in San Francisco for years and learned that loving relationships can come in many forms. Confronting the things that are uncomfortable is part of what gives satire its power. Many Americans are still uncomfortable with non-traditional relationships and, frankly, they need to get over it. Why worry about the ways adults can love each other when we have millions of them killing each other? That’s an example of seriously skewed priorities. 

Q: A lot of the book deals with fame. What was your purpose behind this theme?

A: Fame has to be the most overrated value in the world. With reality television, competition shows and programming like Jerry Springer, it’s stunning how many people are willing to humiliate themselves to have their faces on the TV screen. And as far as the truly famous are concerned, I think fame can have the debilitating effect of separating a person from the talent that made him or her famous in the first place. Fame is primarily based on the myth of the power of an individual – sort of a superhero characteristic. This is why actors get all the attention despite the fact that film is an incredibly collaborative enterprise.  No actor is going to be remembered for a great performance if the sound is mangled, the lighting wrong, the direction shabby, the make-up applied incorrectly. I think my basic message is similar to that of the religion in the book: let’s stop elevating and worshipping others and realize that we all have something valuable to contribute to each other and to our world.

Q: You certainly take capitalism to task in many ways – lay-offs, waste, politics, jobs without meaning. How would you fix it?

A: Well, you certainly won’t find the answer in more government regulation because all that does is drive the corruption underground and empower the rule-makers. Having been an executive, I can say that too many of my former executive colleagues lack a sense of responsibility to others – one of the three key responsibilities in the book’s religion. They can say they’re responsible to the shareholders, but that’s often a convenient mask for their own self-interests. You can’t legislate all irresponsible behavior out of existence; it is more of an issue of moral teaching and character. Maybe we should send a copy of Ringing True to all the CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies – or just a copy of “The Numbers”.

Monday Magic: San Francisco, North Beach, Coit Tower

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