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Don’t Jump Ship Too Quickly

Admit it. There are days when you come home from the job and toy with the idea of ditching it to move on to something better. But is ditching your job the best answer? It all depends on your circumstances.

CNN published a (somewhat surprisingly) insightful article called Look on the bright side of a bad job. Based on this title, I didn’t have high expectations. I rather expected the writer to admonish his readers to just “buck up” and find their shiny, happy selves. Instead, there are some pretty good ideas in the article…in particular the last one under their category of Wisdom.

If you’re unhappy, examine why. Do you dislike the people you work with or is it the actual work? Are you in a dead-end position? Think back to your interview and see if you missed any warning signs that this job might not be the one for you. Use your experience to avoid falling into the same predicament in your next job. If the situation didn’t turn sour until after you’d been with the company for a while, you know to stay attuned to shifts in attitudes and practices…Making the best out of a bad job situation doesn’t mean being complacent. A positive outlook shouldn’t replace your plans to move on (emphasis mine).

This is brilliant advice. I know from personal experience that when the shitstorm at work starts to get wild, there’s a strong impulse to jump ship. Yes, there are times when it’s necessary to move on (say, when our health is at stake or the situation has become toxic), but it’s not always the best plan for our working future. Most times, these bad jobs are chock full of learning that we need to absorb in order to make better future decisions that will help us find work that has meaning and purpose. Or else, we risk falling into the same situation again and again (think Bill Murray’s plight in Groundhog Day).

If you’re in a spot where you’re edging toward the end of the plank and thinking about leaping for another ship, take some time to answer the questions posed above. Take full advantage of the wisdom and experience that this experience is offering you.

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Starting A New Career Story

Someone very close and dear to me is experiencing a challenge that’s rather painful and isn’t unique to just her career. She has approached a crisis moment in her professional path where she no longer wants to continue practicing what she has a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in. Some folks may find this a liberating feeling. However, she’s not just feeling scared, she’s also experiencing feelings of guilt, confusion, and disappointment. In essence, she’s saying goodbye to ten plus years of studying, training, and working. But her truth is that she no longer has the passion for that career and now feels a calling to explore new professional territory. Maybe this sounds familiar to you. If so, maybe you’ve also struggled with these feelings:

A feeling that your degree(s) are worthless now.
Let’s turn this around and focus less on what’s written on the diploma and what the diploma represents. The learning undoubtedly changed you in both significant and subtle ways. Take me for example…I studied history as an undergrad and though I don’t practice it as a professional it still has had a dramatic impact on how I approach life. I think about problems differently, taking a more holistic viewpoint in order to see all of the interconnections and possibilities. Take some time to reflect on how you’ve changed because of your past experience. Then celebrate how it’s made you the unique person that you are.

A feeling that you’ve wasted (or are throwing away) a part of your life.
Again, let’s turn this around. Consider the full experience of this chapter in your life: the people met, friendships made, knowledge gained, and so on. We can get hung up on the very old-school notion of a linear career path which not only limits our career choices, but limits who we are. Think of life and career as an anthology. The stories contained in an anthology have a loose theme, but can be different in their plot. At this stage of your life, you’re just adding the next story.

A feeling that you’re disappointing people or not meeting their expectations.
This may be true. But you have to ask yourself…are you living for yourself or someone else? Are you living to your own unique purpose or someone else’s idea of what that purpose is? I know these are not easy questions to answer. However, something else to reflect on is whether this feeling is based on your own assumption that you’re disappointing others, or in fact, based on reality. Have you taken the courageous act of talking to these important people in your life – parents, partner, friends – about your decision? Many times, we project a feeling of disappointment onto other people when its being felt from within.

A feeling that no one will understand your decision.
This is another often imagined feeling that springs from a fear of being rejected. We think that if the important people in our life are disappointed in us, they’ll shun us or not love us. That’s a fear that’s hard to shake. Yet again, we have to ask ourselves if that’s an assumption we’re projecting out onto others or whether it’s based on reality. More often than not, the people that love us will support us – even if they don’t immediately understand why we’re choosing to go in a different professional direction.

An overwhelming feeling of anxiety about what’s next.
Some of you may have at least some idea of where you want to go next. Some of you may have no clue where to go…you just know you don’t want to go back to where you were. Either way, you likely know more than you think about the next story in your career. You just need some help.

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After The Thrill Is Gone

The Harvard Business Review’s issue for January 2006 is devoted wholly to decision-making. I’m about one-quarter of the way through the magazine where there is an article called Decisions and Desire by Gardiner Morse. It focuses on the neuroscience behind our decision-making capacity and the growing proof that "we have dog brains, basically, with a human cortex stuck on top, a veneer of civilization."

Now, before you get excited about the fact that scientists compare your brains to those of your faithful pooch, consider this: without that mammalian part of the brain, we couldn’t laugh, cry, or find contentment. We also wouldn’t be able to make a decision since this is an ability that takes some combination of emotion along with logic.

Later in the article, Morse addresses some of the why behind our attitudes toward money in our careers. Whereas an economist might argue that people work because they place value on the things that money can buy, a neuroscientist could argue that "chasing money is its own reward." Apparently, we have a region of the brain called the nucleus accumbens which is where our desires originate. In an experiment, scientists observed the reactions of test subjects who were presented with the prospect of receiving money. The higher the potential monetary reward, the more active the accumbens became. However, once the money was received, activity in this area of the brain ceased which led researchers to conclude that it was the anticipation rather than the actual monetary reward which aroused the subjects.

All of this seems to explain why we might decide to chase another job for better pay, but often find the same old problems in the new environment. And that’s not to say that better pay isn’t a reason to leave one organization for another. What it does mean is that it’s absolutely essential to be honest with ourselves and develop a good decision-making model. After the chase for a new organization is over, what then? Will it fulfill those other needs that might not be as sexy as money (like fulfillment and learning)?

In other words…can we live with the results after the thrill is gone?

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Dumping The “When…Then” Excuse

I’ve written before about my recovery from perfectionism. One of the related habits that I’ve been able to at least consciously notice, if not kick outright, is the urge to put something on hold until all the conditions are just right. I wouldn’t quite label the action as procrastination, but the behavior has an easy to recognize verbal structure: "when…then."

You may have heard some else say it; an employee, a boss, a spouse. Perhaps it was part of your own inner dialogue. It might have sounded something like…

"When my boss starts to listen to me, then I’ll be able to do my job."
"When I improve my presentation skills, then I’ll submit a speaking proposal."
"When I get that promotion, then I’ll be able to negotiate for more time to spend with my kids."

This kind of thinking not only plays into the obvious futility of our own desire for perfection and control, but masks an even more insidious problem which is a need to play the helpless victim. It’s an excuse to live a halfway life, one that banks on the illusions of safety and comfort. It’s the supposed promise of something better just around the corner.

Instead of believing that the answer to what we want is out there and in someone else hands, this is an invitation to seek answers from within. It’s an invitation to ask ourselves, "why not now?" It’s an invitation to live a whole life with no regrets.

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Lost Is Just A State Of Mind

Yesterday afternoon, I flew into Manchester, NH and rented a car to drive down to Nashua where I’m spending the night. I had my Google-mapped trajectory all laid out, but shortly after leaving the rental car lot I must have made a wrong turn somewhere. This became clear when the two lane road started winding through some truly beautiful country beside the Merrimack River.

There are some folks who would freak out if they discovered they were lost in a strange place. I’ve never felt that way. Honestly, I’ve been known to seek out occasions to get lost and see if I can find my way out (oh, and by the way, I’m a typical guy when it comes to asking for directions – I don’t). This instance was no different. While there were no distinguishable road signs cluing me in on where I was going, I knew I was heading south toward Nashua.

Along the way, I started to ponder what lost really is. Sometimes we talk about what it is to be lost, but is it actually a state of being? Or rather, is it a state of mind? We may not always know where we are and we may not always know exactly where we’re going. And yet, whether we determine that we’re lost is in our own minds. It just might be that where we are and where we’re going will lead us to where we need to go. It’s opening ourselves up to the universe and a greater power to guide us. And along the way, we might see some really neat scenery or discover a cool little roadside vegetable stand. As J.R.R. Tolkien writes, "Not all those who wander are lost."

Consider chucking the maps and the GPS once in a while. Put away those books written by the various gurus and experts. What would happen if you developed a more intimate relationship with your own intuition and instincts? It just might be that you know exactly where you are and the place you’re heading…if only we’ll ask ourselves for direction.

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Exploring Our Unapproachable Rooms

Canadians are, sadly, trying to hard to emulate their counterparts south of the border when it comes to how they relate to their jobs. Nothing terribly surprising here, but still it all points to some damaging trends.

Benjamin Hunnicutt, a historian and professor at the University of Iowa, argues leisure time has become “trivialized” while work has been “elevated to the modern religion,” a way for people to define themselves and find meaning in their lives. As a result, he says, time off can lead to a feeling of emptiness and boredom.

There is nothing wrong with including our work in the fullness of who we are. It’s all a part of an integrated livelihood. But when we allow ourselves to be consumed and allow one aspect of our lives to dominate, it can lead to the kind of hollowness that erodes the soul.

The aspect of the article I found most worrisome was the constant theme of FEAR. Unfortunately, it’s corroborated by my actual experience and observations. There are opportunities for change and growth, though. The point is that each of us are always at places for exercising choice. Once we understand that we have choices in how we live our full lives, the fear subsides.

This fear of loss…most notably, it’s the fear of losing our jobs, losing respect, losing our place on the career ladder. Our ambition can be a hungry ghost at best or a cruel master at its worst. This fear of loss is usually a room in our minds that we never visit. When we have an opportunity to walk down the hallway by the room, we usually run past never to even touch the doorknob. Why? We have no idea what will happen when we open the door. Will it be dark and horrifying? Will we get lost?

Our challenge: In our minds are many rooms that remain unexplored. What would happen if we just opened the door? What would happen if we take a step inside? What’s the worst that could possibly happen? Better yet, how might our lives be improved by taking the chance of inhabiting our darkest places for a little while? Once we choose not to fear those places, we cannot get lost.

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Fight Or Flight: When Do You Stop Running?

David Batstone writes for Worthwhile Magazine and produces an e-newsletter called The WAG, Worthwhile and Gain. In an August issue of WAG, David plucked a particularly relevant story out of Fortune Magazine. It was the experience of A.G. Lafley, the Chairman and CEO of Proctor & Gamble, who nearly left P&G twenty years ago. There are days when some of the typical work BS becomes annoying and I think of chucking it for another organization. Then, I consider Lafley’s experience and think again:

I almost left P&G in my sixth year. It was 1982, and I decided to go to one of those boutique consulting firms in Connecticut. I was getting out of P&G because I thought the bureaucracy was so stifling…I was an associate – between a brand manager and a marketing director – and I was running a bunch of laundry brands. Steve Donovan was in charge of the soap business, and I handed him my resignation.

He tore it up. I said to him, ‘I made a copy.’ He said, ‘Go home. Call me tonight.’ Which was smart, not to negotiate with me right there. When I called him that night, he said, ‘Don’t come into the office for the next week. Come and see me every night.’ So every night, I went to his home, and we’d have a beer or two. He kept working me over until he got to the root of my problem with P&G…He said, ‘You’re running away. You don’t have the guts to stay and change it. You’ll run from your next job too.’

That really ticked me off. I stayed. And from then on, every time something didn’t work, I spoke up. I realized that you can make a difference if you speak up and set your mind to changing things.

I think it’s a natural instinct to want to run from trouble. The only question is whether we have the ‘guts’ to stay and change it.

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Some Ideas Reconsidered

On a few occasions I’ve written a few things that I’ve been prodded to reconsider lately. Call it a part of my ego-reduction therapy.

Previous idea: Organizations need us more than we need organizations.

New idea: The healthy relationship between individual and organization is interconnected.

Somewhere in the past I’ve written and openly advocated that organizations need us far more than we need them. As a “free agent,” “solo-preneur,” or whatever I might be, this was perhaps a way for me to distance myself from the organization. It was my declaration that I control my destiny and that I am free of the bindings of the corporate world. I alone was the broker of my own unique talent.

Yet, today I’ve been forced to confront this idea and consider something different: the relationship between individual and organization is far more interconnected. We actually might be good for each other. The organization can provide certain things to an individual that they would struggle to get on their own. For instance, the opportunity to work with exciting, creative people; accelerated learning through innovative projects; cool fringe benefits like paid sabbaticals, access to corporate resources, etc. And this all works if the organization remembers one thing: it can pay its employees, but it cannot buy them.

Previous idea: The idea of balance in life is an illusion and therefore unrealistic as a metaphor.

New idea: The idea of balance in life is an illusion and it IS realistic as a metaphor.

I’m a big fan of a guy named Charlie Badenhop who has a coaching practice called Seishindo. He has a newsletter and today’s issue is called Are You Feeling In Control? (absolutely perfect question for me today) He starts with a bittersweet story about a biker whose motorcycle topples over oddly when he stops at a traffic light. Charlie writes:

I smile at the guy, and playfully ask him if he has had a tough night, and a bit too much to drink. “No, no, nothing at all to drink.” he says. “My girlfriend just broke up with me, and I am broken hearted. We divided everything up as equally as we could. I kept the bike and all the rest of what I am carrying. She kept her belongings and the sidecar for the bike, which she always rode around in with me. I guess it’s going to take a while to get used to no longer needing to balance her weight.

He later goes on to write:

Life is a balancing act, and as long as we are alive, the need to maintain, lose, and once again regain our balance, goes on constantly. We don’t so much maintain our balance as a constant. Much more so we need to lose and regain our balance over and over again.

There is something about that notion of returning to balance. It’s unrealistic to believe we can find balance as a constant, but something deeply uplifting to the idea that we can always right ourselves when life and career knock us off kilter.

Previous idea: Work is intensely personal.

New idea: Work is personal AND it’s not personal.

Bren at Slacker Manager recently wrote about how work wasn’t personal for him. He went on to write:

It’s business and it’s removed from who I am. I work and I have standards and ethics toward which I strive. Also, because of values congruency, I define my own work. But my work doesn’t define me.

For a long time, I held fast to my conviction that work had to be personal. I had seen too many folks languish in dead-end jobs who did not make their work personally fulfilling. And I argued this point with Bren.

Now, I get what he was talking about. I think he puts a nice, healthy “and” into how he approaches his work. If you allow your work to get too personal, it does tend to define who you are. What happens if you lose your job or your boss takes you to task for speaking out against an idea that’s bad for your customers?

You can put your passion into your work and you can maintain your core identity and values. Bren, it took a while, but now I see your point.

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The Office Cinderella

This is not a fairy tale. Unfortunately, it happens far more than we would care to believe.

The first time I heard the story, it was told to me by my younger sister. She worked for a small non-profit and did pretty much anything her bosses asked her to do (she had two of them). She answered phones, stuffed envelopes, helped with administration duties, and so on. She saw it as a way to get into meeting planning, which is what she wanted to do most of all. All the other stuff was just a part of getting her to where she wanted to go.

However, her bosses sensed her eagerness to do whatever they asked and took full advantage. They asked her to frequently work late into the night and on weekends, they asked her to redo other employees’s "substandard" work, they asked her to cover for employees who didn’t show up for work. She realized that it wasn’t fair, but perhaps if she did just a little more, they would give her more meeting planning assignments.

When an ideal assignment opened, she felt sure that she would get it. Except, she didn’t; it went to someone with far less experience. She asked her bosses why she didn’t get the assignment since they knew how important it was to her. They replied that she was far too valuable in other areas of the office. Crushed and dejected, she vowed to leave the job and find a better opportunity. She scheduled a meeting with her bosses, ready to hand in her resignation. Only they begged and pleaded that they needed her. They promised to give her more meeting planning experience if she would stay.

Satisfied with their insistence, she agreed to continue working with the non-profit. And so, the cycle of doing whatever the bosses needed began again. Except…now my sister’s enthusiasm was diminishing and her disgruntlement was growing. Interpreting it all as disloyalty, the bosses became more critical of her work, more harsh in how they communicated with her. It culminated with a performance review session where the bosses told her that she would never be a good meeting planner. Angrily, my sister replied that they should just fire her if they were so unhappy with her work. In a surprising twist, they said they still needed her too much and wanted her to stay.

Eventually, after nearly three years, she realized that her health and mental well-being were more important and left the non-profit.

I thought her experience was reserved only for young professionals who were trying to establish their careers. Why did she choose to stay in a job that involves so much toxicity? There were other organizations out there where she could go. Confused, I decided to stop sympathizing and began empathizing; and then I started to understand.

It is so easy to downplay our own strengths and capabilities, particularly when we have help from our managers. Because they occupy a place of organizational power and authority, we tend to give them the ability to judge us as professionals. This is institutionalized through the performance review process. So, when we’re told that our performance is "below expectations" or only "meets expectations," it might come as a blow to our own sense of professional self-worth.

What I noticed in my sister’s case is that her bosses did a very good job of undermining her confidence just enough to where she believed that no one else would want her. She was better off staying. I’m not sure that was the conscious process behind her bosses’s motives, but there was enough behavior to suggest a pattern. I would almost call it a form of emotional blackmail.

However, as I tell this story to others, I notice I get a lot of head nodding. I discover that it is not just a problem for younger professionals, but occurs even to those at mid-career. And then I read Kathy Sierra’s post this morning detailing her experience. Take a peek and see if you don’t find yourself getting pissed off by her management’s processes and attitudes. But, before you go and blame the organization for their own behavior, consider this perspective from Hugh Macleod at gapingvoid:

Why does management abuse you? Because they can. Somewhere down the line you bought into their value system – you took their money, you welcomed the status the position afforded you, etc.

In other words, allow yourself to be paid, but never allow yourself to be bought.

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Your Life As A Variety Show

The idea of creating balance in our lives is a popular one, but for the most part, I think it is unsustainable and unrealistic. It’s not a balancing act between just two variables of "work" and "life" – it’s far more complex than that. Rather than a teeter-totter image, think about a circus performer who tries to balance themselves on top of a giant ball. The ball can go in any direction and it takes an immense amount of concentration and energy to remain centered on top.

But, there are other models for us to consider.

It used to be that TV had solid lineups of variety shows. Remember Milton Berle, Ed Sullivan, and Jack Benny? What about Sonny and Cher and the Muppets? What made them great and interesting was that you always had a wide selection of entertainment. There was usually some singing, some comedy, and some stunts (like guys jugggling chainsaws on fire) in each episode. The different acts kept the show engaging and viewers wondering what would come next.

What would happen if we think of our lives as a variety show with each of our roles as different acts? Each day’s episode can contain…
professional acts – ladies and gentlemen, look as he puts out fires with his bare hands


parent acts
– watch as he solves multiple interpersonal conflicts with the greatest of ease


friend acts
– observe as he enjoys a dinner with people he loves

and the possibilities are endless…

Don’t be afraid to add variety to your life. If your day is dominated by professional acts, think about ways to squeeze in some other acts. Watching the same act over and over gets boring not only to the folks around you, but to you, as well.

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