As a teenager I might not have been the edgiest individual you could meet.
My record collection included ELO and the Carpenters. In the 5th form I went to a house party, once, but I didn’t like the noise, or cider, and I seemed to be the only person washing-up used glasses. When other boys started to ride obscure Czech made 50cc motorbikes, I preferred a quiet evening in listening to football commentary with expert summarising by the ever sensible Trevor Brooking.
I have always been quiet. Kind people might say I am shy and thoughtful, others might miss I was even there.
Fast-forward forty-three years and the same fifteen-year-old boy still lives within me. Mr Blue Sky makes me smile, I really do not like cider and I will not leave dirty glasses in the sink overnight. I am always quiet with strangers and would much prefer to go unnoticed.
These things have not changed. They make me, me.
However, if you had said to me as a lad that one day I would be a lawyer, an executive, a presenter, a writer and a mentor, literally none of it would have been believable. I had no idea that quiet, shy, insecure people could have varied and wonderful careers like confident, gregarious and assuredly talented people do.
I do not believe I am special, and so this is not the time when I reveal my inner West Coast, head-mic wearing, leadership evangelist. I do not believe if you want something badly enough then you can achieve anything you want. That exhortation mostly oils the egos of those who can thread bollocks on a string of cliches. It also burdens anyone who has not achieved what they want with not wanting it enough. That’s unkind, arrogantly judgemental and wrong. Therefore, if like me, you already feel a level of insecurity about what you offer the world, may I suggest that a loudly confident, Botox-riddled millionaire on a You Tube subscription, is a sub-optimal cul-de-sac for our needs.
I do believe, however, that we all have gifts which offer a lifetime’s permission for exploration and growth. I believe the gifts we have at our fingertips, are all the gifts we need to find our way. It turns out, for example, that the quiet lad who doesn’t like noisy parties is quite good at creating a thoughtful space where others feel comfortable to share their stories.
It is why I am not a fan of artificial appraisal processes, whether forced ranking, or so called balanced scorecards, or all the other faddy over-simplified development models. They all tend to herd us into hypothetical two-dimensional pens where we can all bleat in unison. We become a statistical distribution rather than a community of talents, opportunities and interests. Over time we lose sight of our potential and settle for an alignment to sterile competencies.
A career is not a thirty year trolly dash to collect titles, equity, and bonuses, nor is it a free-style rock climb to the summit of the latest org chart. A career is our nuanced, complex and (I hope) fulfilling exploration of understanding what we offer the world and finding those places where that offer is needed most and where we can thrive.
We are conditioned to believe that careers should have a linear progression. We often interpret events as if we are in a race or competition, and as a result we are all at risk of failure in a game that serves little purpose save that it exalts a few, but undermines the majority, and in doing so often cheapens the many gifts we bring.
In the end, such a frame for our careers denies the world the opportunity to benefit from our potential. But what if careers had a different frame? One that was not defined by systems, “models”, data analytics, or by the embedded conscious and unconscious biases of several generations of, mainly, alpha-male bosses. What if we made our own frame for our career so that it is not an ill-fitting hand-me-down that hides our needs in a cloak of indifference? What if, instead, it could be a lifelong, complex, colourful patchwork where family pieces are stitched to every funny, misshapen, sad, hectic or reflective experience; a frame where we also understand and relish the joy of exploring where our gifts might take us.
I know of course that mortgages must be paid, that responsibilities are paramount and that compromises and sacrifices are woven into the fabric of each and every day. I am not advocating selfishness or a cavalier disregard for the economic needs of the moment. What I do ask, however, is that from time to time we pause to appreciate and understand the wonderful gifts that we have at our fingertips. I want us to know them and to love them. I want us to feel our potential and to know we can explore it in different ways, at different times. I want us to feel that there are always people who have stories like ours who can inspire and mentor our journey; and I want us to know that if we feel a little bit left behind, we are not defined by our current role, salary or the capriciousness of any negative moment in time.
Our responsibility is to love the gifts we have. We are here to make our difference in our way, in our time. It is our career and they are our gifts. We loan these things to others while we work with them for now, but they are ours to take elsewhere if we find our gifts are not valued enough. We should not let our gifts, or our potential, fade away.