Early in your career, did you dream about being the expert in your field? I know I did – I dreamed about going to college for engineering and working with computers. Now do you find that you have accomplished just that…being the expert? For many long years, everyone has been coming to you for your expertise. You were so passionate about this and you won your bright gold medal for being the expert. But, in today’s ever changing, fast-paced workplace, you can’t just stand still. So what’s next? Is there a next?
I accomplished my dream and had a great time doing it. However, after two years of software development and ten years of engineering, I realized that I wasn’t as passionate as I was twelve years earlier. I noticed that the story I was telling myself about my work was not the same as when I started. I was starting to feel less satisfied. I felt like my expert skills were keeping me stuck, pigeon holed, and feeling like I was trapped in a box.
These ’in the box’ comments or thought patterns might help you decide if you are stuck or in the box. Read through them and make note of any that you recognize.
Having these thoughts makes you vulnerable, something that Thomas Watson, Jr. spoke about back in 1971:
“Recently an IBMer wrote me about a statement made by a manager at his location: “I only have five years to go for early retirement, and so I’m not going to rock any boats.” I suppose that manager thinks he is protecting himself. Actually, he has only stuck his head in the sand, and this is a most vulnerable position.”
If you want to move your career forward, you don’t want your head in the sand, or stuck in a box. You need to open your eyes to what is going on around you. And, it helps to reflect on how you got into the box. Did getting things accomplished slowly erode your sense of purpose? Did you lose your passion in restrictive thinking patterns that might have been the hallmark of your profession? Did you negotiate yourself out of having a purpose? Did being afraid zap your passion?
If you are in the box, first you have to be aware that you are in this box. Hopefully, reviewing the statements above helped you see whether you are in the box. Then you have to find a way to take the first step out of the box. Just how do you get out? You find and embrace your purpose and passion. This is hard work. You have to keep asking yourself things like “What do I want?” “What is worth doing?” What would make this exciting for me?”
When I reflected on what I wanted, this is the answer that came back: “Well, computers are really cool and can be programmed to do amazing things, but I love working with people. My background is in engineering and engineers are not supposed to have people skills (this was my ‘in the box thinking’ talking!).” When I accepted that I was both an engineer and someone who enjoys working with people and listened to my heart, which was telling me that people are fun and full of imagination…I got the idea that maybe I could be a People Engineer….whatever that is.”
Once I got curious about what a People Engineer might be, I proceeded to ask myself if pursuing something like that was worth doing. A resounding YES! came back and I went back to school to study people. Most people (I think they were in the box, too) told me not to do it, because engineering was more prestigious (and there were a million other ‘rational’ reasons). Ultimately, I realized that I had been engineering people even before I knew that’s what I was doing – it was actually the part of my jobs that I really loved. I had been training other engineers across the world, enabling global suppliers, coaching colleagues, and consulting business partners. All of these people-related activities were delightful and energizing to me. It was from this foundation that I went on to get a B.S. in leadership and to become certified in professional business coaching. That really stretched me outside of my box, connecting with a passion to help people achieve their dreams and be successful in business. John D. Rockefeller once said, “the ability to deal with people is as purchasable a commodity as sugar or coffee.” “And I will pay more for that ability,” said John D., “than for any other under the sun.”
And answering the final question, “What would make this exciting for me?”, was going to take some courage and help from someone else. Since I had been head down in the sand for the last ten years and didn’t know what was going on around me, I asked my manager for advice and help me get up to speed. His support helped me take the first step out of the box. Later, I was blessed with my very first mentor who helped me take the next few steps out of the box. With her help, I realized that I was the type of person who needed to envision the future, create things, help others, and unite with people to get things done. I learned what makes me come alive and how wonderful life is when I am passionate and purposeful.
Passion and purpose aren’t something you can fake. In a great blog by Nathaniel Koloc in Harvard Business Review “What Job Candidates Really Want: Meaningful Work,” Nathaniel writes, “You cannot fake purpose…People can tell the difference, trust me.”
In that same article, Nathaniel refers to studies showing that “engaged employees are 50% more productive and 33% more profitable. They are also responsible for 56% higher customer loyalty scores and correlated with 44% higher retention rates, leading to great gains in productivity over the long run.” That sounds like a formula for success!
If you do the hard work of really looking at what gives your work and life purpose and meaning, you might just find that your passion pulls you right out of that box. Once you are free, you’ll enjoy your newfound life outside of the box. And, you might just find that you’ve won another gold medal for stretching beyond the boundaries of your expertise.