Sprinting in the grocery aisle

by Daniel Incandela via Flickr

This time last year, my wife and I were planning her escape.

We worked together at the same company, and she had a promising executive career track mapped out for her there. She’d been promoted several times, and would have actually been my boss (but for that bit about her being my spouse).

So when she talked about how unhappy she was, I resisted. I didn’t want to let her give up on a great career. We never loved the idea of conforming to stereotypical gender roles. And perhaps the fact that she brought in two-thirds of our income played a part.

Ultimately though, she helped me realize that putting our son in daycare and going to work was chipping away at her self-esteem and putting her into a pretty scary depression.

So, we started plotting her exit. If we could just pay off the credit cards, we could eke by on my income. It only took a few months of austerity before she was able to say goodbye to the golden handcuffs and stay home full-time.

A couple of weeks ago, while pushing Soren in the grocery cart, she ran up and down the aisles of the store to get a laugh out of our son, who invariably requests, “go faster, faster!” While speeding down the aisle and laughing herself, she nearly ran over a group of our former coworkers.

They stopped for a few minutes to exchange pleasantries, and she trotted off, a bit embarrassed for the display.

The picture in my head of that scene makes me a bit misty-eyed, remembering the depression and pain she was in while I was encouraging her to “stick it out”, contrasted with the carefree happiness of hurtling down a grocery aisle with our three-year-old.

My wife’s been a stay-at-home mom for nearly a year now, and it’s certainly been a tough adjustment. But as long as I can help it, I’ll never ask her to trade it back away. That was her dream, and she pushed herself and me until she reached it.

So now, I have to wonder: Is what I do every day the equivalent of running up and down the aisles? For sure, some days are like that. If not, what am I trading them for? How many of those days will I let pass without doing something about it?

Making peace with being lame

Credit: ShoppingDiva via Flickr

“You have to face the fact that maybe you’re just unemployable.”

I flushed with anger. My dad knew my job was on the bubble, and it was a pretty callous and insensitive thing to say.

It wasn’t until a few years later that he explained that he meant that as a compliment. He said, “unemployable means that you stop being able to work for idiots, and you start realizing they’re all idiots.”

I still don’t know about the “unemployable” bit, but imagine the hell it would be to live as someone who fits that definition of unemployable and yet tries to fit into a mold of the model employee. I think I could live down the legacy of, “Wow, he sure was lame at working for idiots.”

I used to get frustrated with my wife for not caring enough about her work. Where was the ambition? Her coworkers and bosses recognized her potential, so why didn’t she?

It turns out that their (and my) mold for her wasn’t what came naturally to her. She wanted to be a mom, and she’s turned out to be so wonderful at it that I could burst with pride.

What about you? You’re probably awesome at a lot of things. You’re probably also lame at a bunch of other things. Those peaks and valleys make up your gifts, temperament, skills, and pretty much everything else that we cobble together to form an identity.

And it’s all too tempting to look around and see the peaks in others’ lives and fixate on the valleys in your own. How hypocritical and unfair is that?

If you’re anything like me, you too often spend your days filling in the valleys, obsessing over your weaknesses, then start piling up guilt for not having the time and energy to get it all done (which itself deserves another post).

Meanwhile, you’re sitting on a gold mine of talent. There are things you do naturally 10 times better than most of the people around you, and it’s likely that you’re downplaying those gifts to fit in a mold that was cast for someone else.

Most people I meet who feel insufficient and broken are exactly the right fit in a completely different puzzle.

The most innovative and successful people of our time have almost universally been unemployable misfits. The universe needed exactly them, and they were lucky or brave enough to discover why before they let society hammer them into the wrong holes.

Let me break it down for you:

(Stuff you’re good at)  x  (Time you have on earth) = Your impact

There is simply not enough time to get really great at everything, even if you did have the capacity. Which you don’t. Sorry.

I believe that if you’re not spending the majority of your days exploiting your own talents and experience, doing what comes naturally to you, you’re not having the impact you could at your work, in your life, or in the world.

This is not to say you won’t have to do hard things! But life is hard enough, you don’t have to dial the difficulty up and handicap yourself.

Stop for a moment. Think about what it is that you do really well. Do those things give you a multiplied impact where you are? If not, that may be a sign that you’re the exact right fit for something else.

Will this guarantee that you’re happy? No. But not following the simple formula pretty much guarantees you’ll be unhappy.

So go ahead, keep improving you, but exactly you is just great. You need no additional skills or experience to do amazing things. Ironically, to do so, you have to make peace with being lame at everything else.

Someone else’s vision

Pop quiz: what’s your vision for your current job or project? For your career? For your life?

Don’t know? Many of us don’t. And that’s a shame.

You can knock the Color guys for having a comparatively short-sighted vision, but Nest creator Tony Fadell’s original vision was to be acquired by Apple. That seems to have worked out relatively well for all involved.

Whether they succeed or fail, they’re likely to win eventually, because they have a vision, and it’s theirs.

I spent years throwing myself wholeheartedly into helping realize “someone else’s vision”, but came up empty and disappointed. After that, I bristled at the idea of fulfilling and enriching someone else at the expense of my time and talents.

Back then, I used to sit around and wait for “leadership” to come down from the mountain with their “vision” engraved on stone tablets. But that’s a copout, and like all forms of giving away personal control and accountability, it’s likely to end in frustration and resentment.

Not long ago, I was talking with a friend who said of his boss: “I can’t wait to go make him a bunch of money.” I was surprised. Why would he want that?

When I thought about it, I imagined that it was twofold: 1) This meant my friend knew that if he could make someone else a bunch of money, he could do it for himself if he really wanted to, and 2) He got to have a clear idea of what he wanted to accomplish and how to measure his success.

After that, I started thinking about my areas of influence, the things I was good at, and the things I cared about, and picked something to try to drastically improve at my workplace. It wouldn’t be perfect, but it would be mine.

I now make a point of developing a very clear idea of what I want to accomplish and how I’ll measure it. It helps to write it down. I try to keep this vision short-term, and re-evaluate about every 90 days. I’ve also found that it’s crucially important that this vision is of  your own making, and not handed to you.

Having a clear vision like that puts all of your thoughts and activities into a crucible. It’s easy to turn down distractions like needless meetings, tasks, or time-wasting when you have a strong, understandable, near-term vision for what you want to accomplish.

There’s a sort of primal, inherent fear of taking the risk in accepting that kind of responsibility. But if you really analyze it, would you trade risking greatness for a guarantee to wallow in the hell of mediocrity?

Yes, it can be scary. But if you are able to discover a vision, nail it down, focus on it, and achieve it, I promise you won’t find many things in life so energizing and rewarding. And it won’t be long before yours is the only vision you’re striving to achieve, while others line up to join you.

Think about it. Are you laboring for someone else’s vision? Have you been frustrated by it? What can you do to find your own?