Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The 59th Street Bridge Career.

I am old enough to remember the tune "The 59th Street Bridge Song" as a Simon and Garfunkel song. There have been several covers over the years, so folks in their 40's will remember it as somebody else's song. The twenty and thirty-somethings will only remember it if they happened to catch the Simpson's episode that featured it. For those that remember it in any of its many incarnations, one phrase stands out...

"Slow down, you move too fast.
You got to make the morning last.
Just kicking down the cobblestones.
Looking for fun and feelin' groovy."
While I don't begrudge the fast charging, high achieving types, there is some wisdom in slowing down just a bit as a way of solidifying your career development. I won't guarantee that you will be feelin' groovy all the time, taking time to consolidate the things that you are learning will act to instill personal self-confidence in your skills and abilities.

Renovate or Innovate?

A few years ago, I was working with a colleague who was a few years younger than me. I was in my early forties, she in her mid-thirties, but about 10 years of experience in the field separated us, even though we were peers within the organization. She was bright, focused and driven and most often a pleasant collaborator. At some point, she came to me with a question about a project she was working on that just seemed to get no traction and was not yielding the kind of results she (we) had expected.

As we discussed why she was approaching things the way she was, it became increasingly apparent that she had been a part of a similar project only once and, therefore, had only seen it done one way before. She had taken the template from a similar project and was renovating it to fit our needs. Eventually, I convinced her to take some chances and try things from three or four similar projects that I had done over the years and synthesize them to fit her needs. I only say about three reasonably intelligent things each year, so I pretty much remember every credible statements I have ever made. This was one. I told her, "When you are doing a major project, your choice is always to renovate what was done the last time or actually innovate and do something new."

Later in the week she came to me again and said, "Thanks so much. You're really smart with this stuff."

I was wise enough to accept her thanks, but to also add, "I'm not that smart... I've just been doing it for 12 more years than you. Give it time. It will come."

I see this in college students in two ways, both of which can be very destructive to one's self-confidence. The first is what I would call the “Expectation of Elevation.” This occurs for the student who has always excelled in the classroom. You know the type. Student body president, good athlete, 4.2 GPA in high school. The first shot to the ego in college occurs when they are surrounded by a veritable sea of 4.2-president-athletes. If they recover from not being the only one to know the answer in class and do reasonably well in college, they are then faced with entering the job market with the expectation of a $50K to $60K salary and a management position, only to find out that sea of 4.2-president-athletes has transformed into an ocean of students who did reasonably well in college. (I'm sure I don't need to add that the economic downturn has exacerbated this situation.)

I am not saying that these students would have been better off to adopt a slacker approach to life. Expect less and avoid disappointment. Rather, I am suggesting that mentors should be sensitive to young professionals who are comparing themselves unfairly to seasoned veterans who have been at it for decades. Likewise, young professionals should remind themselves that the best project management assessments that we have tell us that the design, construction, and final inspection of Rome exceeded a day's expenditure of effort and energy.

Guidelines for Career Development Sanity.

Take a day for yourself.

One interesting phenomenon that I have witnessed routinely over the years is people, who have copious vacation time, taking a sick day that is very “wink-wink, nudge-nudge.” Everybody knows they are not sick, but nobody actually says it out loud. The problem with this is that when one returns from the one day junket, they are forced not to talk about any really cool stuff that they did because, remember, they were sick. I would hasten to add here that I think this also becomes a habit over time and people forget that they can just take a day because they have earned. That, in fact, gives us the subtitle to guideline one, “Take a day for yourself: You've earned it.”

Watch a more experienced colleague do their (your) job.
I had the good fortune when I entered the counseling field to be a setting in which I spent a great deal of time with Bruce Crawford. Bruce pretty much my age, but he had been doing counseling for a decade by the time I walked into my first therapy group. The goodest part of my good fortune was that Bruce naturally understood that whatever skill advantage he had over me was solely a matter of experience and practice and he reminded me of this constantly. There was a great deal of “Trust the Force, young Skywalker” early in our relationship. Most of what I know about counseling I did not learn in my graduate training... I learned it just watching him. Thanks, Bruce.

Volunteer to help with a coworker's project.
Seriously. Offering to do something on a project will give you cred with your colleagues, but it will also allow you the freedom not to have any freedom. Does that make sense? I hate it when I am in charge of a project and I cannot leave until it is done and the end is drawing near and I have four or five people who have pieces of the project and they are behind schedule because they have other things to do and those things are more important to them than the stuff they are doing for me. The Nerve! Working on somebody else's project and doing it their way may not build leadership lines on your resume, but it will take some of the pressure off and give you some insights about how those around you work. It will probably make you a bit more understanding about others' limits of endurance when they are helping you. An additional benefit is mentioned above... they will owe you.

Say No.
Yeah. I know it will make the boss like you more, but take it from me. Say No once in a while. It's that simple and doesn't need explanation, right?

Un-schaden Your freude Once in a While.
Do not even try to tell me that you NEVER feel some satisfaction when somebody get it. You know you do. Remember when Katie Couric left all those folks on the Today Show and took the big bucks to read the news for CBS? Admit it. You were a bit tickled. Here's the deal. Be a good sport. Walk down the hall and congratulate your biggest rival on his/her latest successful project. You'll survive. You don't always need to be #1. (Okay... so you DO need to be #1. Give it up for a day.)

Ask for advice.
There is something about asking for advice that scares the beejeebers out of folks. When I was a professor, I remember lecturing about dense, complex constructs with nary a query about the nuances of the lecture. Nobody wanted to appear stupid. Of course, many of these students would come to me after a test and complain that I had not addressed this or that in the lecture, to which I would reply, "When I did the lecture on physiological responses to threat, I ask if anyone had any questions and no one did." Asking question may jeopardize your reputation for omniscience, but actually having the answers may serve you well later.

Slow down.
This is where we started. Slow down. Do not except the fact that you must ALWAYS work overtime. Act as if you do not believe that the organization will crumble without you. Take an extra fifteen minutes for lunch once a month. Go for a short walk in the afternoon. Make a personal phone call on occasion. Relax. You'll last longer.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your honesty. As an older worker having been let go 4 years from retirement, I appreciate these tips. I am still looking for work & will not give up. However, I have slowed down a bit. (Can you guess that I was one of the overachievers?) At any rate, I will take your advise & share it with my kids. Thank you again.