I’m hardly the first square peg that tried to fit into the round hole of the Corporation’s hierarchy. I worked with people just like me (in this respect) every day – the vast majority of them trying desperately to grind off their corners in a vain attempt to somehow fit into that damned hole. While doing so, they live in complete denial.
Ironically, their peers, bosses, and subordinates usually know the truth, and some will even fill them in – if they were receptive to the message.
Normally, alas, they are not.
It is possible that reaching the conclusion that a high corporate job isn’t right for you may only be possible by experiencing the pain of daily anxiety (experienced over years, in my case) and/or the devastating blow of a major career derailment. That’s what it took for me to get there, and even then I still initially ignored the indicators.
For me, the first signs came in graduate school when I took a class on career exploration that partnered me with another student. My partner questioned whether I was really headed a direction that I would find satisfying – the idea of becoming the CEO of a publically-traded manufacturing company being at odds with what she learned about my likes and dislikes.
Of course I ignored this observation, shaking my head in disbelief.
A few years later I began to experience anxiety over the high pressure review meetings I was forced to endure as a division President. While I greatly enjoyed the day-to-day work, anxiety over those meetings at corporate headquarters was ruining all the fun.
Rather than questioning my suitability for the job, however, I moved to a new employer.
At my new employer, all the ruthless political battling, criticism, and stress-producing confrontations happened behind the scenes. Despite the superficial calm, the job still produced a daily cocktail of fear, anxiety, and annoyance. While the environment was slightly more tolerable, it continued to eat away at me.
This time the decision to leave wasn’t my own – I was terminated. You’d have thought this would be enough to make me sit up and take notice, but instead I again ignored the signals and plowed ahead into another job.
But my mind was finally working on my paradoxes in the background – why was I always so unhappy with my job? Was it the bosses, and the structure, and the environment, and the politics? Or was there something about me?
It took months of self-examination to come to grips with the reality of the situation – I wasn’t in the right kind of job, and pushing higher would only make this situation worse. My discomfort was caused partially by the work, partially by my relationships (mostly with my bosses), and a lot by my own internal wiring.
I quit, but by then I was almost 50 years old.
I quickly found myself in an strange state – “letting go” of many things. Some of these changes were painful, others simply strange. All of them were challenging. I grasped at old work relationships for a time, and discovered a few really did seem to be founded on durable friendships. Too many, it turned out, were just conveniences of the moment. Daily habits were also tough to reform. After years of getting up before 6AM, I found it difficult to sleep in. And the constant checking of emails took even longer to dispense with.
I was also exploring my past at the same time these adaptations were going on. What did I enjoy doing when I was younger, specifically before I became consumed by my career ambitions?
Unfortunately, I learned that many possibilities were now closed to me because of age, education, and experience. I wasn’t going to become a physicist at this point. Or a rock star. Or a star athlete. (Even though some of these probably wouldn’t have happened if I’d been working toward them from my youth).
I had to let those fantasies go.
That still left me with quite a few potential opportunities to explore. And a few regrets, as well.
I began sampling opportunities. I knew I had assets and abilities that I’d developed and honed during my twenty-seven years in corporate life. I wanted to find something where I comfortably fit, could leverage my experience, and where I wouldn’t just be wasting everyone’s time. Many career possibilities entered my thinking, and I was encouraged to consider my options broadly. Teaching? Tour guide? Travel planner? Investment Advisor? Non-Profit Manager? These were just a few of the alternatives I mulled over and discarded – some after a mental analysis and others after a short trial.
Ultimately, I ended up as a part time business owner, part time writer, and part time dad. I layered in a couple new hobbies – beer brewing, hunting – and now feel that I’ve got a satisfying routine. The combination gives me flexibility, and also keeps me out of most of the stuff that I came to despise in corporate life.
The questions that trouble me the most are: Why did this evolution take so long? Why was my unhappiness so difficult to recognize? Did I need the financial success that came about as a result of this long, blind alley in order to have the freedom and flexibility to make a radical career change? Or could I have acted earlier?
I should have been able to recognize the poor fit of my ambition and my personality much earlier, and doing so would have saved me a lot of pain and discomfort. It also would have resulted in a smaller financial cushion when major upheaval became a virtual necessity. While my future career is limited by the number of years I have left, an earlier change would have been limited by financial considerations. No matter what, options are going to be limited in a way that they weren’t when you graduated from High School.
The difficulty in recognizing my poor fit was all my own doing. I put my head down and continued to fight toward my career goal, rather than sitting back and evaluating. I don’t think this is at all unusual. The ranks of middle and upper management are filled with people just like I was. The one thing that would have helped me move faster was a regular period of self-assessment (once per year?) where I could look at what I enjoyed and what I hated in my career. Then I would have had to give some disciplined thought to the alternatives in a search for something that might better achieve satisfaction.
Overall, better late than never I suppose.
In financial analysis we classify things that have already happened as “sunk costs,” and ignore them when determining how to go forward. With your life/career, however, there are no “sunk costs.” You need to be keenly aware of how you may not fit into the role to which you aspire, and what alternatives are progressively choked off because of your advancing age/education/experience.
Don’t continue driving blindly for a goal without coming up for air and reflecting about how you want to spend the balance of your life. And remember, it’s never too late to reinvent yourself. 34.5
Other Recent Posts:
- Stay in the Saddle, or Shoot the Horse?
- In the End, You Must Answer to Yourself
- Fast, Good, or Cheap – Pick Two
- They Don’t Call it “The Bleeding Edge” for Nothing
- Dying By the Sword
- It’s Your Money, Not Theirs
- Foretelling the Future
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Non-Fiction: NAVIGATING CORPORATE POLITICS
To the right is the B&W version of the cover for HEIR APPARENT. Someone is killing corporate leaders in Kansas City. But who? The police and FBI pursue a "serial killer" theory, leaving Joel Smith and Evangelina Sikes to examine other motives. As the pair zero in on the perpetrator, they put their own lives at risk. There are multiple suspects and enough clues for the reader to identify the killer in this classic whodunnit set in a corporate crucible.
My novels are based on extensions of 27 years of personal experience as a senior manager in public corporations