The Best Investment

“You’ll see I am no criminal
I’m down on both bad knees
I’m just too much a coward
To admit when I’m in need

I took a walk.”

– “Take a Walk,” Passion Pit (2012)

A friend of mine recently got some health news that can be categorized as either good or disappointing.

Like so many things in life, it depends on perspective.

Learning that a health condition that you thought may be over is, in fact, ongoing, can be both a) frustrating if you were betting on the odds that you conquered that hurdle or b) reassuring if you know there’s a course of action that can lead to eventually feeling closer to the way you used to feel.

It’s a fitting allegory for life.

As humans, it’s completely natural for us to project forward, to have a plan, to decide that life is supposed to be X, and Y, and Z – and precisely in that order, in the exact amount of time that we expected to get to those places.

But that is rarely, if ever, the way it turns out.

My ambitions have never been anything of a secret. Triathlons, advanced degrees, corporate leadership and sometimes political aspirations are all visions of grandeur my family and friends have had to endure probably eye-rolling diatribes on.

Many of the great moments in my life, and many of the most difficult moments, have been driven by the same thing: a drive to accomplish something more (and the success that follows), and that same drive and the obstacles life throws in our way that prevent us from getting there.

But lately, I’m dealing with a different twist on the latter.

The recognition that sometimes we don’t deserve, or we’re not qualified, to be in the place we’re “supposed” to be.

We have a couple options here: we can declare – to ourselves and to those who will listen – that we’ve been slighted, wronged, that nobody sees our brilliance.

Or we can accept that our self-perception is skewed, wrong, half-baked, not earned.

That acceptance of one set of realities doesn’t and shouldn’t be a reason to throw in the towel.

But it can be a powerful catalyst to evaluate the way we steer the days ahead.

Never have I more clearly understood the adage: when one door closes, another opens.

It’s not that simple, of course.

We have to adjust our calculus, reassess how we want to move ourselves forward and then consciously choose to try to open that next door.

But we can only do that if we choose to accept what we are not.

Only then can we debate what it is that we are (or should be) and seek the place where we can contribute value and continue to grow.

When it becomes clear that certain opportunities reap no reward, save incredible (and, perhaps, detrimental) sacrifice, it’s best we leave them alone.

Move on, as they say.

* * *

It is an incredibly young three months into life post-masters degree, post-presidency of Tempe Community Action Agency; and I’m still learning exactly what to do with the massive banking of unstructured time that’s come as a result.

A lot of the first two months, for sure, seemed to be nothing more than a sort of shipwrecked healing process.

Rocking back and forth in the waves of unstructured living, my free time seemed guided by the whim of the moment, but the last month has started to take on the shape of structure.

I’m trying to make mental notes of the things that provide true value to me – my kids, my family, my health, my career – and starting to create life guidelines to make sure my actions match the emotional value I place on these things.

Simultaneously, I’m trying to figure out: what’s next?

It’s a nagging, nagging question for someone who has always had a “master plan” and now, truth be told, has no real plan at all.

The road ahead is no real road at all. It’s not even a trail.

There’s not even a map. Or one of those convenient Google directions thing that shows you the many alternatives to point B, along with the distance and various time sacrifices you’ll make should you choose one of the alternatives.

There’s nothing at all.

And that’s something completely new.

* * *

I’ve dabbled with what to do with this degree.

What does a communicator at heart (with a penchant for strategy [and a mega-nerd understanding of Southwestern water law and utility infrastructure]) do with a midlife technology pedigree?

At 42, I’m decades behind IT peers who have lived immersed in the world of programming and systems infrastructure. And, as a former journalist and magazine editor, I’m shell-shocked by the post-recession experiences of my former colleagues for whom “journalist” or “communicator” shaped the range of career options.

When I decided to go for my masters – with kids aged 9 and 6 and a host of other responsibilities firmly in tow – the conventional wisdom was MBA. It provided, easily, the widest range of options.

Heidi and I are the offspring of a combined three – three! – C-suite executives. And I say that not in some braggadocio way, but only to illustrate that we lived, witnessed first-hand, the pathway to one sort of success – corporate – in a way that not many have.

We know the sacrifice it takes to climb that ladder; and we understand the value of the wisdom that comes from people who have lived it, watched others live it, and watched many others fail.

So what did I do? I took their advice … and like any overly-confident, 40+-year-old version of a fuck-the-man Gen Xer … totally ignored it.

I don’t regret it.

In my current role straddling the world between communications, customer service and technology, the knowledge provided by that degree provided real-time benefits to being better at my current job.

But it’s probably not enough to make a truly transitional career switch – not at a company of my size.

At my core, I’ve spent 20+ years communicating ideas to people. That I understand one particular domain – a powerful one, the Internet – in communicating to people makes me no more a true IT professional. It makes me a communicator with an understanding of technology.

Nothing more, nothing less.

Astute corporate types, and certainly those in the HR world, will understand what I’m getting at.

Increasing levels of expertise at the get-it-done level comes with real world experience, not the conceptual level of understanding that comes with academia.

Degrees provide insight into the why to do things and, yes, often into the how, but they’re no replacement for actually living the experience.

It all comes back to that 10,000 hours thing.

Malcolm Gladwell made it law.

New studies have called it into question.

But it’s power in corporate America lives on.

Interview questions are often – not always – geared towards: do you know the details of the initiative? Not: do you possess the higher-level knowledge to drive the initiative?

And, perhaps more importantly: the skill to make others believe in the vision?

That varies by company, no doubt.

But I digress.

That’s not what I wanted to get at here tonight.

* * *

What I wanted to get at (and I’m sorry that it took this long … but, hey, it’s my self-healing blog) is that we reach a point where we have to start to balance the “worthy to strive to attain” and the “appreciation of what we have.”

It’s a critical, critical moment in my opinion because, again, that perception issue I related to in the anecdote about a health diagnosis plays an equal role – perhaps a more important one – in life happiness.

You gotta’ get out of your own way, sometimes.

In life. In career. In relationships.

How you perceive the diagnosis is equal to your response; and how it shapes the days ahead.

Sometimes, in transitional periods, the best plan is to have no plan at all.

God, that’s a cliché.

But here’s the difference.

We can talk about understanding acceptance as a mental exercise; and that’s all well and good.

But sometimes, it moves down into your chest.

You feel it; and believe it.

Rather than just think it.

And it’s only then that you act upon it.

That’s where I am.

It’s untended ground.

Rough, choppy soil with nary a crop to be seen.

What does that soil become – when you’re locked in that mental battle between what you think you want to be …

… and what you actually are?

* * *

Rather than answer that question, I’ll tell a really simple story.

Last night, my son Beckett and I went to the Arizona Diamondbacks game.

Those things – if you tack on the drive there, the drive back, the game itself and the pregame dinner – provide five to seven solid hours of one-on-one interaction.

If you want to get to “be there” for your kids, I highly recommend you find something they like that provides for multiple hours of alone time.

Between 5 and 11 p.m., he shared many facets of his life – his aspirations, his workout regiment, his favorite classes, anecdotes about his friend and his sister.

I mostly listened and laughed.

And, realizing when I got home, that my son got what my daughter did not – alone time with me – I pledged to spend the following evening alone with her.

It was a busy night; and the time to do that didn’t come easily.

But at 8:30 p.m., goals for the night be damned, I climbed into her bed.

And there I laid, watching the videos of her choice.

The antsy “goal-oriented” demon in me demanded I get up and do what I wanted to do.

But I forced myself to lay there instead.

She showed me videos – the things she liked – of internet celebrities making slime and trying seven different Starbucks drinks in seven days.

The kinds of things that pain my “serious” inner journalist.

But the longer I laid there, and commented, and laughed and jousted with her, the less important the cell phone with its endless YouTube videos became.

Soon, we were talking about those videos, and then about Starbucks itself, and coffee and then about her slang vernacular.

“Do you know what, ‘It’s so wig,’ is?” she asked me. (It’s so amazing, it blows your wig off, by the way) and did you know “totally tubular” is coming back?

Before long, the phone was dropped, lost in the sheets, and we were laughing about the way her friends are bringing back sayings that predate me by 30 years.

The conversation isn’t saving the world; and yet it’s so important.

For her. For I.

And it has nothing to do with a roadmap.

It has to do with just showing up.

Fulfilling a promise. Expecting nothing in return.

And yet: cha-ching, cha-ching, cha-ching go the dividends.

1 comment on “The Best Investment

  1. Thomas Avery

    Enjoy your thoughts. I go there myself sometime.

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