Some time ago, after a lot of dithering, I decided to participate in a leadership development program. I had delayed and delayed before finally committing. I was on unfamiliar ground; all I knew I was looking for something personally challenging, immersive, and experiential. I wanted to come out changed.
The stakes seemed high. I would not sign up for anything until I knew exactly what I was getting out of it.
Then I read this quote from Meno: “How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?”
The quote was in a piece by Rebecca Solnit. “The things we want are transformative,” she writes, “and we don’t know or only think we know what is on the other side of that transformation. Love, wisdom, grace, inspiration — how do you go about finding these things that are in some ways about extending the boundaries of the self into unknown territory, about becoming someone else?”
From time to time, I make a list of things I’m avoiding, and why. Sometimes there are good reasons for procrastinating; sometimes I just need to get my shit together. Other times, I see I’m waiting for knowledge of the unknowable future, a future that could in fact be changed in unpredictable ways by what I’m thinking of doing. Then I have to picture myself in a year or three, and ask if that future self would regret not having acted, even if things didn’t turn out as I’d hoped. If the answer is yes, then it’s time to go in blind.
Willingly going in blind is like being lost and feeling okay with it. When you are lost, Solnit writes, “the world has become larger than your knowledge of it.” However it feels, sometimes we need to start there.
What is a “job”? It seems a very solid thing. Often it isn’t. There’s a job description, some records in the HR database, a payroll arrangement, a title on a business card, a set of performance objectives, a workspace, and a lot of assumptions and expectations spoken and unspoken.
As a container, a job is less like a box with hard sides and more like an elastic bag. It changes. It can shrink in places, stretch in others.
Late last year, President Obama came to town. In his wake, a remark he’d made about advice to young people became widely quoted. He said, “Worry less about what you want to be and worry more about what you want to do.”
This advice translates to the workplace. Ambition expressed as a desired job title or income level is uninspiring and empty. Better to study how your organization’s strategic goals align with what gives you meaning, and think how your role could evolve to serve that alignment.
Your supervisor might not be asking you what you would like to accomplish, what gives you joy, or what purpose you want to pursue via work. But you should certainly ask those questions of yourself.
One day last year I enjoyed a few hours in discussion with some of my counterparts from other universities. That evening in my hotel room I was in a reflective mood. I had spent a great day with people more experienced and knowledgeable than myself, and my feelings about that were not entirely positive.
Fortunately my misgivings didn’t last. After all, I had flown a thousand miles expressly to spend time with people who knew more than I did. This was what I came for, to learn. The comparison of self to others was an involuntary reflex and a distraction.
It felt like a tiny echo from a time years ago when I perceived that things at work were not going well. The challenges seemed larger than my capacity to deal with them. One morning during this period I was trudging to the office when I happened to pass a graffito scrawled on a Canada Post letter box. It said, “You Are Wrong.”
Thanks, I said to myself, that captures my feelings perfectly.
Bit of an odd thing to write on a mailbox, I thought. The next time I passed it, I looked more carefully and found that it didn’t say “You Are Wrong.” It said, “You Are Strong.”
I don’t believe in personal messages from the universe, but if you believe in messages from the universe, I won’t argue. It was what I needed at the time.
The way we see the world is coloured by the story we tell in our head. The story is about our talent or smarts or level of passion, and everything in sight becomes evidence for the prosecution. A question at a meeting is hostile, a colleague’s passing glance is dismissive, everyone else seems better qualified. “Strong” reads as “Wrong.”
A little imposter syndrome is a healthy sign that a smaller version of yourself is about to be eclipsed by a larger version, and is kicking up a fuss about it.