Have you ever had those moments where you know your career, that little blip on your radar that suddenly consumes a third of your day, Monday thru Friday, for forty-plus years, may be on some surreal path? I sorta had one of those moments this week, but let me give you some context first:
It was October 2005, a time of the year where the temperature drops enough so that the fumes from the nearby chemical plant weren’t detectable from my office building. The past few weeks had been probably the most tumultuous of my short career, and my mind was taking me places far, far beyond the limits of the drab conference room wall in which I was seated. Unbeknownst to me at the time, this meeting — a gathering of nearly twenty managers, peers, and conference call participants in the UK and Germany would further stoke the recently-lit career coal burning inside me.
I returned from Berlin in June of that year with a newfound sense of a) appreciation for the opportunities I had in such a short timeframe and b) confidence that I could really go anywhere if I challenged myself to give it the ole’ heave-ho. Wishful thinking? Yeah, but don’t try to drag a 24 year-old down; pessimism is a word that some crotchety thirtysomethings invented in the 60’s.
About a month after returning to the States, an opportunity opened in the department I hoped to enter in the near future — it would place me in charge of our European customers, which meant I’d be able to sporadically return to Germany every so often, a country I would almost call a part-time lover if it were human. The aura of progress hovered about my heart for the first time, realizing that this opportunity presented an incentive I had not yet received in my short time as a businessman: a promotion.
My qualifications were lacking; even my own manager agreed with that. The CVs of the other candidates for the job couldn’t even fit all their content on one page, whereas I had trouble filling three-quarters of mine. I wasn’t really a businessman. I was a junior engineer that just happened to strike a lucky deal and end up overseas for a while, right?
The interview came and went; I didn’t expect much. My manager informed me that he was going to freeze me in my position for six months — I was somewhat tight-lipped; after all, I was pretty sure I had few other options. Nevertheless, my desire to explore new opportunity didn’t wane and I applied for another opportunity up there with those Euro-folks. The hiring manager, ever the honest and forthright person for which I had immense amount of respect, caught me in the hall and motioned for me to speak with him in private.
I won’t recollect the exact feelings I had during the discussion, but one was unique…it was something I hadn’t yet really felt, so I didn’t understand how to best confront it. Basically, the manager told me that they had the contract ready for me to sign — I HAD the job — but my current manager refused it. Ah, that emotion…to this day, I didn’t know if it was helplessness, a sense of betrayal, or simple seething anger, but it made me realize something: I couldn’t trust others like I used to.
Fast forward to October. I’ve prepared this meeting for a project I’m undertaking in the job I feel trapped in, and I gave it gusto, directed responsibilities, and got the damn thing greenlighted by representatives in three countries. And that was the point where I realized that, hey, I could probably hack it in the business world okay, and I didn’t need to be pushed under the thumb of others that I didn’t trust with my well-being. That afternoon, I requested my first MBA info packet.
This Tuesday, my supervisor and project manager was out of town for our normal update meetings. I was, admittedly, a little nervous — after all, how much can someone POSSIBLY talk about transit buses after only spending six weeks on the job? Nevertheless, here I was, surrounded by five managers, expected to deliver a whole set of tasks and responsibilities while also keeping the meeting flow at a good pace.
And it happened. In a moment of which I can only describe as cubicle-zen-like (e.g. A moment of zen which doesn’t necessarily need to be shared beyond the walls of your desk, but is still pretty rad), I realized that these people trusted me with the well-being of their organization. It was…well, it felt like an honor, I guess. The company they’ve poured a huge amount of their lives into, and one which serves over two million Chicagoans per day, deserves the full attention of someone with its best interest in mind. And to be considered as such a person, in their minds, is both undeserving and humbling. Challenging, too.
There’s an old, worn-out cliche that many of my fellow yuppies tend to use: “work to live, or live to work?”; it’s designed to suggest that it’s either one or the other, that you either make money and live joyfully off its fruits or simply spiral into a hulking mass of corporate lambswool. But what if I choose to “Live THROUGH Work” and say that my job is merely an extension of the life I live every day? Can I apply the same level of service, quirkiness, and desire to my work (and my clients) as I do to every other facet of my life?
I sure hope so. And in the meantime, I hope it serves as a good litmus as to where I should be taking this pricey ole’ degree of mine. I’ll keep an eye on the coals.