Each Sunday, I take some time to talk a walk outside to be with my own thoughts for a while. Being away from the grind, it’s when a lot of ideas and insights come to me.
In Utah where I live, there are mountains all around, and I often go on hikes in these mountains. While hiking, and as I climb higher, I can see further; my horizon expands. The air becomes thinner up there too, the sun gets a little hotter, and the trail becomes fainter. The higher I climb, the more effort I expend.
While I was still at the bottom of the mountain, I was with many more people. As I go up, I run into fewer and fewer people. Until, towards the top, there is no one at all…but me.
When you’re by yourself in nature, there’s a certain disconcerting feeling that you don’t belong there, that you belong in the city, eating a nice dinner in a restaurant (pre-COVID of course). There is, at the same time, a feeling that you do belong there, that you have always belonged there, and that you are only truly yourself when you are there.
Our Career as a Climb
The analogy of climbing has often been used to describe careers. (“climbing the corporate ladder”) The analogy is apt in that we must expend energy to move up and to expand our worldly influence. Where the analogy breaks down has to do with what is at the top. Is what we want to reach, more riches, power, and glory at the top of a “corporate ladder”? I don’t think that’s the ultimate goal. What we want instead is to head towards a sense of peace and fulfillment. It’s the feeling of arriving at the summit after an arduous climb and surveying the vista around us, while enjoying the satisfaction of the effort.
Let me use the analogy of climbing a mountain to describe this (career) journey of fulfillment and returning to our authentic selves. This journey has four stages:
Stage 1: Developing Skills and Taking Responsibility for Yourself
Stage 2: Developing Relationships and Taking Responsibility for Others
Stage 3: Developing Leadership and Taking Responsibility for Purpose
Stage 4: Developing Your Unique Gift and Taking Responsibility for Your Unique Contribution
The diagram above portrays the four stages. (you can download it using this link) I will use the next four posts to explore each stage, starting with Stage 1 in this post.
Stage 1: Developing Skills and Taking Responsibility for Yourself
We start off at the bottom of the mountain at the parking lot (or basecamp) with a bunch of other people. At this stage, we’re all fairly undifferentiated. None of us have to expend much energy at this stage. We don’t even know how we stack up with the others or whether we even have “what it takes” to make the journey.
Let’s now shift the analogy towards the career…
Using the business term for undifferentiated products, we are at this stage, “commodities”. When we are commodities, we are lost in the crowd and don’t command much attention. We don’t know our true capabilities, and so we also lack confidence. During this time the advice of “just be yourself” is a tad empty because who you are at this stage is a confused person with a so-so job who comes home to eat a pizza and watch Netflix.
But you say, “But I put in a long day of work. What do you expect of me?”
However, here’s the key distinguishing factor. It’s not what others expect of you, it’s what you expect of yourself.
You must expect more from yourself than others do
If you are to “move up” and transcend your current role, you must first exceed the expectations of your current role. If you want to run, you must first master walking. If you are a student, you must learn beyond what is in the formal curriculum. If you hold a job, you must contribute and deliver beyond your job description.
A tragic but common scenario is that someone is at a job they don’t love. So they do the minimum or under-perform the job hoping to land a better job down the road. They don’t want to give their current employer the “satisfaction” of their full contribution. This is understandable, but this only hurts the person who under-performs.
If you are in a position that you want to move on from, don’t under-perform, over-perform. You are not doing it for them, you are doing it for you. By working hard for yourself , others will notice. As you continue to hold yourself to higher standards, you will find the opportunities to move on and advance. As you advance, you will find the need to learn differently.
You must take charge of your learning
Every year, I sign up for a number of seminars and training events. A few months ago, I went on an Outward Bound trip to Patagonia just to relearn camping skills so that I can go camping with my family.
Before the social distancing norm, I used to have in-person speaking engagements. Now they are all virtual so I am teaching myself how to record and edit videos.
I hear sometimes from people that they will only go to training if their company will pay for it. While it’s great if your company is willing to pay for it, why wouldn’t you want to invest in yourself?
This is a great time for you…if you are a learner. A few years from now, as things bounce back, the opportunities will go towards the people who are learning new skills now.
In times of change learners inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists. ~Eric Hoffer
What you will find is that your company or your school doesn’t know you well enough to give you the proper training. You cannot rely on only consuming what they offer. They are not responsible for your career. You are responsible for your career, and that involves the developing and maintaining a set of relevant skills for the current and future.
Invest time to develop a niche set of skills
A few years ago, a segment aired on NPR about learning. The thought question posed by the program host was, “If all of us are driving every day, does all this practice make us better drivers?”
Well I guess not! LOL!
The punchline was that it takes deliberate practice to become better. While we are commuting, we’re not learning. If we are honest with ourselves, we are in commuting mode much of the time in our life and work.
In my classes, I often use a scenario to highlight the power of deliberate practice: Imagine that you are going to be a James Bond (or Danica Patrick, if you will) type of expert driver in 10 years. You can’t quit your current job and can only train on the side. How do you plan to do this?
Within 15 minutes, people develop very actionable plans about how to study different kids of cars and routes, learn from other expert drivers, and practice on challenging driving conditions. These plans, which only take a few hours per week, if acted upon over 10 years, will indeed make one an amazing expert driver. We are all capable of tremendous learning if we are deliberate.
Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst. ~Henri Cartier-Bresson, French Humanist Photographer
What is that skill that you would love to master? How will you spend a few hours each week in deliberate learning through: reading and reflection / learning from expert mentorship / deliberate practice. If you invest a moderate amount of time consistently, you will transform yourself.
Summary of Career Stage 1: Learning
The foundational practice of Career Stage 1 is about learning. Learning is a life-long practice that you own. One of the core yield of learning is skill and mastery, which allows you to deliver value at a higher level.
Growing up in an Asian family, I was always subjected to lectures about the importance of education. What I have come to know is that education is less about the school that you have attended or the degrees that you have, and more about your commitment to learning. As you continue to learn, you will rise naturally among your peers. You will move up, your horizons will expand, and your capacity to care and contribute to others expands, which will be the topic of the next post.
The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go. ~ Dr. Seuss