I hate to tell you this, but your career will most certainly not go to plan.
You’ll be denied that promotion you deserve. Or maybe your new boss will turn out to be a jerk, or a spineless wimp, or a bit of a dumb-dumb. Or maybe you’ll be saddled with a project you don’t want. Or maybe you’ll have a health crisis that will keep you out of the game for a spell.
None of it will be your fault. But the consequences will be yours to live with.
Ten years ago, I sat in a meeting with two of my bosses (I actually had three at the time), as they told me that a product I built and launched and grew to profitability was being transferred to another division of the company. When I objected (because I believed the other division would screw up the product – and they did), I was told that my attitude was unacceptable and that I needed to be more of a team player. Ugh. You can read my thoughts on team players here.
The entire situation was bullshit.
The organization had been in utter chaos for some time. Those two bosses were playing at corporate politics, and losing, and so they were throwing me under the bus. And we all knew it.
At first, I was angry about the unfairness of it all, but then, right there in the meeting, something amazing happened. It was as if someone had flipped a switch in my head. I swear I actually heard the click.
I realized: I don’t have to work here anymore.
And suddenly, I was in charge. I told them I understood and left the room. The next day, I began networking. And six months later, when I walked out the door with a package, I had options. Lots of them.
Unstuck Project interviewee Emma had a similar experience. She was stressed and overwhelmed in a thankless job. “I was traveling for work, staying at a dodgy motel across the street from a Chuck E Cheese and I finally thought, ‘What the hell are you doing?’.” She quit her job shortly after and now she’s the CEO of another organization.
Like me, Sophia had her ah-ha moment in a meeting. “Business was really hard. We spent more time pointing fingers and making excuses than accomplishing anything. I realized, this isn’t going to get better.” She called an ex-boss immediately after the meeting and was in a new job two weeks later.
Sawyer’s decision to move on came slowly, but after years of feeling stuck, he finally did it. “The decision to leave was hard. I had a young family and I didn’t know where I would go. But I thought I’d rather take control. It was cathartic and liberating.” He’s the president of another company now.
You are not powerless. This is your career. You’re in charge of your experience. You’re in charge of what you take from it and what you give to it. But mostly, you’re in charge of how you respond to its challenges.
Sometimes, being in charge means letting go and moving on, as it was for me, Emma, Sophia and Sawyer. And sometimes, being in charge means digging deeper and making the most of what you have, where you are.
It’s about asking yourself: What can I make of this?
You may have had a project blow up in your face, but you learned a lot from it. Or, your financial situation may make it unwise to quit right now, but the experience you're gaining will make you highly marketable in a year or two. It could be that your jerk/spineless/dumb-dumb boss is helping to hone your communication and influence skills.
Maybe, just maybe, there’s a hint of possibility, even in the darkness. And before you tell me that your situation is particularly impossible, let me tell you about an architect named Chris Downey.
At the age of 45, a brain tumor left Chris completely blind. It’s usually best if architects aren’t blind, but this didn’t stop Chris. He never thought his sight loss was insurmountable. Rather, he realized that the creative process of architecture isn’t so much about what you can see, but how you think.
So, a month after he went blind, he went back to work. He has a special printer that creates raised lines enabling him to feel blueprints. And, he uses bendy wax sticks to design and modify the drawings.
And he discovered something really cool about being blind. He can no longer see buildings, but he can hear their acoustics and feel their textures. This new perspective has made him a truly unique architect. And, a better architect. “It’s not about what I’m missing in architecture, it’s about what I had been missing in architecture.”
It wasn’t easy. Chris sees nothing. No shadow, no light, nothing. He’s in total darkness.
His story reminds me of an essay by Valarie Kaur that a lovely and thoughtful client forwarded to me just this week. It has a beautiful line in it: “What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?”
In other words, what if the loss of Chris’s sight, or the loss a product, or a promotion or a job, isn’t about the death of something, but rather, about something new wanting to be born?
Chris now specializes in making spaces accessible to the blind. He’s worked on a rehabilitation center for veterans with sight loss, as well as spaces at Duke University Hospital, Microsoft and the San Francisco Transbay Transit Center.
He does what no other architect can do. And he has his answer to the question: What can I make of this?
“I took my disability and turned it upside down,” he says.
And of that, a new kind of architect was born.
So let me ask: What inside of you is wanting to be born?
You don’t have to wait for tragedy, pain and suffering to jolt you into action. Too often we wait for things to be born of necessity. But what if they could be born of love?
Why not? After all, you’re in charge.
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