A few years ago at work, there was a project that required the expertise of an outside party. We needed something very specific created for the software we use, so I called our account representative and explained what it was we needed. After the initial call, he connected us with their internal expert and fixer. On this call, the fixer came across as goofy. He didn’t seem very concerned with my problem and when I asked questions or for clarifications, he couldn’t provide great answers. I got to the point of questioning his ability to do the task. My thought was “Why did they give me the new guy? I’m going to ask for someone else after he screws this up.” I was frustrated because I knew it’d be a waste of my time. On the call, I was not impressed with this fixer. I know a little about how to create the solution but was not in a position to do the work. As the fixer met all of the requirements with sighs and responses of doubt, I became a little frustrated. On top of this, I was concerned his skill level might not be high enough and we’d end up being charged more hours than if we had a more experienced fixer handling the project. I even considered going back to the account rep and expressing that we’d like to get someone else to work on the solution.
After the call, I was sent an agreement for the services and asked a few follow-up questions. In the email signature of the fixer, the title was “VP/Co-Founder.” As soon as I saw this, I froze. What is the VP/Co-Founder of a 30-year-old company with a growing employee count doing working on my simple little need?
As the project progressed, I set up calls with the fixer to troubleshoot the solution we were working towards. Through these conversations, we had good discussions and I learned to enjoy his sense of humor and personality. I realized my initial frustration was unfounded and that I’d incorrectly judged him as a goof. Through talking, I learned that when he started the company he had been their primary developer and built the program from scratch over 30 years ago. I don’t know the details, but I’m assuming over time he had many different roles, but eventually migrated into the role he most enjoyed.
I took a few lessons from this that I thought I’d share.
Know your strengths
Sometimes in life and work, we know we have a set of skills and talents. But our internal self only looks at our weaknesses for ways to improve those, or we allow the peer pressure around us to seek out bigger and better things. We will abandon these strengths to seek out the next best thing. Then we realize the next best thing that was supposed to make us happy has really done the opposite. We look back and think, was living in that strength really that bad?
There is nothing wrong with knowing your strengths and digging into them. There is nothing wrong with seeking out the opportunity of growth in what you know instead of growth in something you don’t. Working on your weaknesses signals that perfection is out there when we all know it’s not.
Don’t get caught up in the corporate ladder
The expectation in work is to always be chasing after the next best thing. It’s to always have something in the works. I think of the TV show The Office. In the last season, Jim and Pam have good jobs and two kids. Jim’s buddy is starting a company based on an idea Jim had in college. Jim loves what he has, but doesn’t want to miss out on the new opportunity either. Through the first episode in this season, Jim sees example after example of their “boring” life. Roy, Pam’s previous fiance, now owns his own company and doing really well. Jim, embarrassed that he’s still working at Dunder Mifflin says “he has some things in the works.”
In the whole situation, Jim lost what he’d had: the happiness that had become second nature.
Know what your goals are
For many of us, we were told over and over while growing up that we needed an education; we needed that college degree. But for many, this turned out to be a curse. It set their career back because they tried to meet the goals and expectations laid on them. In reality, they would have been much better off going to a trade school for a skill they were interested in developing. Instead, they have mountains of debt in dead-end jobs and no hope of paying it off.
In these situations, we’re living out the goals of others. If we don’t know and fight for our own goals, others will shape them for us.
I don’t know this for sure, but the technician/co-founder I dealt with sure seemed to enjoy his job. It’s so easy if we don’t know our strengths, follow the expectations of others, and don’t know our goals, to lose track of what you truly enjoy. To know what you enjoy, you’ll sometimes need to step back and reflect.
I’d guess at some point the technician I’d spoke to had tried out different roles within the company. But at some point on the path, he realized that those other jobs brought him no joy. Seek out what brings you joy, because work comprises too much of our life to only chase money, prestige, and other people’s priorities.