When everyone is special, no one is…

I have talked and written a lot lately about my struggle with career stagnation and professional alienation. Over several years I have become more and more emotionally detached from my trained profession (medicine), and more and more drawn into my avocational pursuits (music, writing, film). With each passing year I understand better and better that these things are choosing me, as the saying goes. Yet as much as I’d like to tell you all an uplifting story about my courageous and bold leap from the safe to the fulfilling, it simply hasn’t happened.

Part of my stasis has been some very legitimate and necessary considerations for my family’s financial, educational, and geographic stability. But deep down I’ve suspected and feared that, even if those considerations were eventually covered, I still might not have the fortitude to make a change. Today, one of those suspicions surfaced long enough for me to really grab hold of it and take a long look.

Its roots go way, way back. Long before the years of clinical practice, before the rigors of residency, before the chaos of medical school, maybe all the way back to a kid who was forming his first sense of personal identity and ability. Somewhere along the line that passes through all these stages, I really started grooving on being special. And letting go of that groove may be the biggest hurdle between me and moving on to something that fits.

I’ve learned a lot along the way, but I haven’t been a rank beginner at anything for two decades and almost everything I had to do before that didn’t really make me suffer for it.  Not, at least, in any way that would make a meaningful and compelling story. This isn’t a boast of universal competence.  It’s just that when I’ve chosen things, I have regularly steered myself to the ones that came easy (with one notable exception, thank you dive school).

But when things choose you, you not free to steer anymore. You either get at peace with going somewhere off the charts, or you drop anchor and go nowhere. Most days I think I am probably standing at the gunwales, anchor in hand.  The thought of a new project or role that might highlight my ineptitude sets off something deep under the surface that makes pitiful excuses about how I don’t really want what I want.  It is a miserable sophistry hiding two simple truths. That the opportunity for most growth comes before you are ready to pay, and that you have to pay for things to matter. The issue isn’t whether I am ready for and brave enough to change. It’s whether I am brave enough to pay, ready or not.

Not sure how this will all turn out, but I will tell you that the anchor drill is getting kind of old.

A little’s a lot.

I was feeling like I hadn’t given much to my acting goals this summer, then decided to reset myself. I got paid for the first time (thank you Great Horror Campout). I saw my name in credits for the first time (thank you STILL for the extras credit). I just wrapped up the final pickup shots for my first speaking role (thanks Bobby McFadden for letting me be the bad guy). I’m getting ready to be psycho dad to close out the summer (thank you Rosario Rieger). All the while I managed to not lose my job or be reported missing by my family.

Bottom line: there’s a huge difference between doing nothing and doing a little. Whatever you love, make sure you are always doing at least a little.

What is your next career, fortysomethings? – IV

APM Rover and APM Hexacopter

APM Rover and APM Hexacopter

In the previous three installments, I talked a lot about some of the qualities that will be important in a world where career change is the rule.  In this world, the ability to learn new skills, particularly technical skills, will be necessary occupational currency.  And by the way, I am not talking about learning how to master spreadsheets or presentation software.  Think more like picking up calculus as your ticket to your next job.

Hey, don’t run away screaming, okay?  It’s not quite that bad. 🙂  The point is that the old model was to master a single skill set and then put learning on cruise control, only passively absorbing incremental new details.  This is small learning.  The new model is big learning, on a continuous basis, over several career phases, by employees who are always looking for the next challenging skill to master.

For me, the next challenge has been electronics, coding, remote digital control systems, motor control, and open source software development.  These have been the gateway skills for the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle and Unmanned Ground Vehicle projects currently taking shape on my workbench.  But it’s also been drum lessons, blogging, screenwriting, acting, scuba diving, photography, etc., etc.  In the past, this type of “unfocused” experimentation has been written of as mid-life crises, a juvenile attempt to re-capture impractical youthful dreams and aspirations. So what if it is, I say?  In the old world, there wasn’t much of a market for forty-somethings with newly acquired gateway skills.  In the new world, it will be absolutely essential to you prove you can jump sideways into a new field and be competitive.

So go out and pick something.  Doesn’t really matter what it is as long as it challenges you, motivates you, inspires you, and educates you.  This is really important or you simply won’t make the time for it.  Don’t be surprised when you run into frequent obstacles, and don’t quit or be discouraged when they come along.  Working through them is the learning, not the stuff that comes easy.

A buddy of mine just posted an article talking about how Amazon is planning to use UAVs to deliver packages.  Maybe I’ll go write a program for mine to meet it at the door and fly it up to my office.

Go learn something hard!


What is your next career, fortysomethings? – III

The third of my completely uninformed and subjective keys to survival as an employee in the world my children now own: creative content generation.

There are volumes of material on this subject and I don’t intend to rehash it.  In the immortal words of Inigo Montoya (as penned by William Goldman): “Let me ‘splain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.”

Creativity is making something better, not always something new.

Creativity is innate, not just in a few individuals, but in all of us.

Creativity is a skill.  Our individual differences in natural ability are rapidly surpassed by differences in experience and practice.

Creativity is more often the ability to mass produce and brilliantly down-select, than it is to brilliantly produce.

Creativity happens when it happens, so you have to be paying attention and capture it when it does.  If an idea comes at an inopportune moment, write it down now, work it later.

Why does any of this matter?  Because contributing to the synergy of ideas is central to being valued on a creative team, and creative teams are central to successful business in the world of my millennial kids.  In almost every setting, teams produce more ideas than individuals, iterate through them more quickly than individuals, and produce more innovative results than individuals.  We need to get comfortable with idea generation, contribution, and down-selection, using all the skills I’ve talked about in parts I and II.

Next time: The fun way I’ve decided to try and bring it all together.

What is your next career, fortysomethings? – II

The second key to survival as an employee in the world my children now own: collaboration.

More new ideas are being generated by more people more collectively than ever before.  This has probably been the biggest adjustment for me in thinking about what the next career will look like.  When I was growing up, great contributions appeared to be made by the breakthrough discoveries of a few brilliant individuals.

Now I suspect that probably wasn’t universally true.  The entire industrial age has been the product of collaboration.  Great ideas building upon each other over time, contributed by multiple individuals.  Yet the contributions were made very serially, with comparatively small groups adding their contributions over relatively long periods of time.

Then comes the internet, and what seems to be a largely sequential process of collaboration becomes first parallel (several teams working in tandem), then distributive (mass networks of collaborators working towards loosely constrained objectives, from which rapid self-organization emerges).  Networks of computers enabled networks of thinkers, which caused the collaborative unit of time to shift in a very fundamental way.  I think of movies, which are probably being made over roughly the same time period as they were twenty years ago.  Yet take a moment and think about how the volume of credits have changed as you wait for the latest Marvel easter-egg.

The point you ask?  Just this:  The would-be collaborator who was not steeped in this new environment as a child must learn two skills.  First, the ability to let go of complete understanding of the whole, while still grasping enough to get the details right on their part.  Second, the ever-valued sandbox skill of sharing.  Be it influence, credit, responsibility, or (perhaps most importantly) vision, bridging to the next career will require finding a good fit among others, in virtual communities as well as in-person.  As a child raised in world still enamored of individual achievement and recognition, this has been a tough one for me.

Next time:  Creative content generation, and finally the fun way I’ve decided to try and bring it all together.

What is your next career, fortysomethings?

Facts and conclusions.

I am likely to live well into my eighties or nineties.  As long as I keep my weight under control, my health in those years is almost guaranteed to be substantially better than the generation ahead of me.  I don’t see retirement as ever being an option, either financially or psychologically, but what I will actually be doing is a huge open question.  I simply can’t imagine doing the same thing I’m doing now for twenty more years.  I really can’t imagine doing the next thing I’ll be doing for the twenty years after that!

I was born in 1967, in that demilitarized zone between the boomers and Gen X.  But there are days where I feel I have more in common with my millennial children than with my peers, even those only 5 or 10 years ahead of me.  Which means I kind of like the notion of hanging around in my kids’ world for as much or more time as I will have spent in “my own”.  But if I do, how will I stay relevant and how can I make myself valuable to them and their peers, my future employers?  Not just for a next career, but probably for one or two more.  This has to happen if I am to remain a sane working adult for as long as I think I will need to.

I think there are a couple of keys to successfully camping out in the millennial world, and whatever comes after.  The first has to be technological competency.  One of the great miscalculations of my teen life was to look at the developing world of technology (which I thought I was quite suited for at the time) as a niche occupation with an uncertain future.  Okay so I got that one thoroughly, totally, mindbogglingly wrong.  Technical creativity is excellent currency today, and looks to remain so for the foreseeable future.  This is true not only for incoming freshmen (who by all accounts are not going to completely close the gaps) but for anyone with the aptitude who is contemplating relevant, meaningful, and secure employment.

Next time:  Collaboration and distributed development, then creative content generation, and finally a fun way to bring it all together.