What’s old is new once again!

newspaper with headline "Old News"

Reflecting on the reasons why

The past week was chock-full and therefore the days have really flown by. It’s nice to slow down for a few minutes and reflect, something I find myself doing more often lately. One topic I keep returning to is the list of reasons why I wanted to leave the workplace. Some of those are more substantial, and I’ve covered a few of those points already in earlier posts. Some others are rather simple by comparison, though in the end they are no less important! In the end, it all comes down to having the freedom to spend your time as you want.

One of the main reasons I left the corporate world was to make time to pursue my many passions in life. Whether you work 40 or 80+ hours a week, there just never seems to be enough time remaining to fully enjoy your hobbies and interests, right? I’ve definitely been taking the time to change that. Some of my interests are very constructive and beneficial – things like cooking, app coding, getting outside more often for exercise – to name a few. Others are largely, if not wholly leisure-oriented: reading, talking with friends more often, visiting wineries, and one of my favorite guilty pleasures – video games.

The video game generation

As a Gen X-er, gaming has had a place throughout my life, starting in early childhood. Like many, it started with a Pong system and later an Atari 2600. After these and other early-gen systems, a cavalcade of 8- and 16-bit consoles followed, along with PC gaming. Eventually things got pretty impressive in the console market, bringing us to the present-gen systems made by the likes of Sony, Microsoft, Oculus, and others. For what it’s worth, I absolutely love my Oculus Quest VR headset! It’s crazy how much innovation has come in not much more than 40 years!

In recent years I’d all but put gaming down, barring some iPhone apps that came in awful handy during the dull moments of work travel – waiting in long immigration lines, anyone? With rare exception (Dragon Age 3 for one!) I never seemed to have the time nor the patience for gaming, given my busy schedule. This definitely bothered me, as video games had always been great for a variety of purposes: stress relief, exercising my brain via puzzles, socialization, and just plain escapism fun. From conversations with colleagues I knew this wasn’t unusual, but that didn’t make it less frustrating.

For the Horde!

How have things changed since leaving the corporate world? Well, it’s not non-stop gaming 🙂 As I mentioned, I’ve got a lot of other interests. But it’s so rewarding knowing that if I want to make time for it, it’s readily done. Most recently, I’ve started playing World of Warcraft again. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s what’s known as a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG). The title of this section refers to the game faction I’m a part of, in a virtual world that is divided into two major groups. I have such fond memories of this game, one I played for over seven years with many good friends.

Does “retirement” mean that I have now mastered time prioritization? Of course not. That said, there aren’t as many ramifications to staying online a little longer to complete “just one more quest”. Of course, my family would rightfully complain if I was choosing Warcraft over cooking dinner! But it’s a huge difference from the past where the only time I could log on was if I happened to have some extra time in the morning because I wasn’t sleeping well. Now my time is mine to divide up as I want, once any important tasks are done. It’s also pretty easy to shift things around since any deadlines that have been set are likely ones I created.

In conclusion

I recognize that this isn’t the weightiest post I’ve written to date. I’m also aware that many people have little interest in video games. But the lesson within applies irrespective of whatever your guilty pleasure happens to be! In my opinion, it is these little things that are the biggest and most rewarding changes that have resulted from my leaving the workplace. This is exactly what we all plan for in retirement but it’s a different thing entirely to have that be your reality. It also reminds me how fortunate I am to be in this position, one I certainly don’t take for granted.

What do you enjoy most about retirement? If you’re still working, what are you looking forward to once you leave the workplace? I’d love to hear from you.

image source: “Old News – canon rebel t2i” by @Doug88888 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Leveraging your strengths is the ultimate workplace synergy

two exercise dumbbells

This post is part five in a series about factors I have found best enable success in the workplace. Click here to see the other articles in the series.

Introduction

My experience has demonstrated that the keys to enabling success are: never stop learningalign yourself with great mentorsembrace change, work hard, and leverage your strengths. To these I always add good fortune / luck, since like it or not, it has a role to play. Writing on the theme of workplace success has caused me to reflect on my entire academic and work history. That has helped me draw some new realizations, the latest of which are on this topic. Most of us pushed to the task, can identify our key strengths and weaknesses – though we may not always want to admit to the latter! However, I suspect few of us take the opportunity to consider how much they impact our careers. Whether deliberately (which I recommend) or otherwise, it’s vital to consider our strengths and how we can best leverage them to succeed in all pursuits.

A critical realization in graduate school

As I mentioned in my last post, I elected to leave my originally intended path of medicine to pursue an academic one, and went to graduate school for Biology. I feel incredibly fortunate to have had a very positive experience there, something I have learned from so many colleagues is far from an assured thing. Honestly, I loved my lab. I got along great with my fellow students, the lab technician, and my advisor / lab head very well. Quite honestly, my advisor was the first of the strong mentors I encountered as an adult. Our research group had fun together, I learned tons from them all, and felt productive most of the time – not to discount the constant and wholly normal struggles of science, of course! My selected project provided me with lots of avenues to investigate, and many different technical approaches to learn and master. All that said, it was in the second year that I started to question my chosen path.

I don’t recall how it started, but I realized I was not destined to become an academic i.e. finish grad school, do one or more postdocs, and embark on the path to hopeful professorship at a university. It wasn’t that I thought I was “bad at science”. On the contrary, I was skillful and efficient in the lab – something my advisor praised me for regularly. I was good at designing experiments and sufficiently insightful (I call it “being a good guesser”) to narrow the scope of work to the areas most likely to succeed. This meant my work often advanced quickly. I was also adept at learning new tools and techniques and figuring out how to improve upon them rapidly. However, I realized I didn’t have the drive I was certain was needed to succeed in academia. Sure, I enjoyed teaching and guiding undergraduates. I liked lab work quite a bit as you can no doubt tell. But I lacked the passion to undertake areas of new research, and perhaps didn’t have sufficient creativity to formulate and explore new scientific questions. Without these things I didn’t think I would be terribly effective in leading an academic lab.

A second major shift in “what to do when I grow up”

OK the seeds of doubt had been planted but what to do about it? My gut was to see graduate school through and figure it out later. Enter one of those fortunate chance occurrences in life that helped me decide! A former labmate had joined a biotech startup a few hours drive away. She suggested I should come interview there – it would be a free trip after all, and she was sure I’d think the technology was cool. I put together a talk on my research and took the interview. Needless to say, I was blown away by the experience. When I took time that evening to reflect on my day, I realized that a job there would be a perfect fit for what I truly loved about science and where my strongest skills lay. The role would provide endless opportunities to develop new technology as well as to optimize the existing approaches being used. The pressure was high, timelines short, but I would have access to cutting edge tools to get the job done.

As you have likely guessed, I left my PhD program and took the job. Suffice it to say, my grad school advisor was shocked when I told him the news. He was pretty concerned that I’d regret this decision years later, while also confident the job was as good a fit as I thought. It wasn’t a trivial transition, as they needed me to start in the new role fairly quickly. I ended up writing a Master’s thesis on evenings and weekends while working. I also had to drive back to campus a few times to wrap up some loose ends in my research. This was far from ideal, but that approach enabled me to take this next bold step needed to better leverage my skills. Was that first job perfect? Absolutely not. Did I ensure that I learned a tremendous amount, and did it set me on the course to a very successful career in biotech and eventually early retirement? Without question, it did.

Alternatively, what might have happened had I just stayed the course and finished my PhD? Of course we cannot know for certain. What I do know: my coursework for my degree was already completed and my research was proceeding well. By my advisor’s estimatation, I was on track to finish in another two years or so. More importantly, what would have followed? Honestly, I suspect I would have been an “OK” academic at best. Perhaps I would have done some interesting postdocs that would set me on a good course. But I have doubts that my own research program would have been stellar. I certainly might have struggled for funding, like so many do. Perhaps in the end I would have ended up in industry anyway? I certainly would have been leveraging far fewer of my strengths had I stayed in academia. So I would have far less of a leg up on others vs. the path I chose instead – that means no benefit from skills synergy, no career kickstart, and potentially a very different outcome in the end.

Applying this valuable lesson going forward

I never lost sight of what this experience taught me, and found myself coming back to it often in my career. When considering taking on a new project, an expanded role, or a job change, I often asked myself: “how will this leverage my skills, and is there something else that would do a better job of that?” I believe that evaluating this is vitally important. We all have things that are of interest to us, and possess skills to varying degrees. But to learn most efficiently, to have the biggest impact, and to advance quickly, you need to take advantage of your strengths. Applying as many of these as you can in a given role surely provides tremendous acceleration to success!

When I reflect upon the reasons for each job change in my career, I come back to two concepts without fail: I left a given role because I wasn’t learning enough, or I felt that a different position or company would better leverage my skills and interests. Quite honestly, I never left a job simply for a pay raise or a better title. Rather, my motivation was always to keep growing and to succeed in the workplace to the best of my ability. If you have aims to retire early, this is doubly important. Working hard is essential, of course. But like any of these keys to workplace success, it isn’t enough on its own.

In conclusion

I hope you have enjoyed this series. It has been a rewarding experience for me to reflect upon my career and what I have learned from it. I am humbled that anyone would take time to read about this, and I am grateful for the feedback that has been shared with me. I’ve updated these posts along the way, so please consider revisiting them. I believe that there are lessons for all within this series, irrespective of your field of choice and your tenure in it. I hope that you are able to apply something found within to facilitate your own success, whether or not it includes the goal of early retirement. I wish you all the best in your journey. Please don’t hesitate to share your own experiences from which we can all surely learn!

Postscript: It took about eleven years, but my grad school advisor did eventually agree that it had been a great move for me to leave academia for industry. I saw an opportunity to collaborate with him while at one of my companies, as I had access to tools which could answer a key question of interest for his research. Our project turned out incredibly well, and the findings provided a capstone to some fascinating work he had carried out in recent years. We ended up co-authoring two manuscripts as a result of this project. As I told him afterwards, I felt like I had finally repaid some of the debt I owed him for being such a great mentor and positive influence on my career!

image credit: “strength” by ~Pawsitive~Candie_N is licensed under CC BY 2.0

On perseverance and pushing through to the next phase

NASA team with "Perseverance" banner

Failure is often that early morning hour of darkness which precedes the dawning of the day of success.

Leigh Mitchell Hodges (1876-1954), journalist and poet

Great advice from a true friend

It’s been about two weeks since my last post and that’s for a variety of reasons. First, I’ve been busy with a few other projects and that’s distracted me nicely. But it’s also true that I haven’t felt very inspired to write and therefore have consciously set it to the side. While this blog is still quite new in the grand scheme, it has not delivered precisely what I imagined it would – which I know to be expected and is OK, but we are prone to forget these things, aren’t we? In discussing this and a few related things, a dear longtime friend reminded me of some essential advice: it is precisely in these uncomfortable times that we must push through in order to inevitably emerge stronger. This idea caused me to reflect upon the many times in my own life I have seen this to be quite accurate. I’d like to share one of those personal stories with you.

Leaving high school: one of the first big tests for most of us

Upon graduating secondary school, there are several common paths we undertake: entering the workplace full time, going to trade school, or perhaps attending two or four-year university. Most will know this to be our trajectory for years prior, with the details being finalized during our last year of school. This is a huge change – we are truly “adulting” once we cross that threshold! Of course most of us are wholly unprepared for it and completely underestimate the challenges to come. That was certainly the case for me.

I elected to attend a four-year university, ostensibly on a pre-medicine path as I’d always intended. I selected a challenging technical university for a variety of reasons, some good, and others rather silly, such as my “guidance counselor” telling me he didn’t think I would be accepted to this school. Suffice it to say, my freshman year was an eye-opener. Despite years of “the right” preparation in the form of honors and Advanced Placement courses in high school, I wasn’t doing well. This would persist into my sophomore year, with the outcome being middling to poor grades. I didn’t know how to study, I went out with friends too often, and quite honestly, shirked many of my responsibilities as a college student. What was I doing? This was not the plan for which I had worked so hard to enter upon!

A poor “solution” and how to actually push through

My remedy to this mess in which I found myself: on the car drive home from school with my parents at the end of the semester, I announced I was considering leaving university to become a paramedic. I’d previously been a volunteer EMT and firefighter, and this new path would still be medicine, right? As you might image, my half-baked idea went over like the proverbial lead zeppelin – as it should have. I was indeed giving up, which was premature as well as a terrible idea. I certainly wasn’t choosing a path that leveraged my strengths to their fulIest, which my parents made quite clear. I don’t recall the whole conversation in detail but I remember enough of it. They were quite right: This was not at all the solution to my conundrum. I am forever thankful to them for the excellent guidance they provided.

Needless to say, I got back on track when I returned to campus. I was committed to turning this thing around! With a lot of hard work along with some much-needed changes to my social calendar, the remaining half of my undergraduate career saw big improvements. I also became passionate about research, something I initially undertook solely as a means to bolster my poor academic record, in efforts to improve my med school prospects. This resulted in me electing to attend graduate school, which I absolutely loved, and which went exceptionally well – more on that soon. I pushed through what was a disappointing, trying, and painful struggle, and emerged on a much better path.

Outcomes and a return to valuable lessons learned

Did those initial “bad” years matter, and were there negative ramifications from such poor academic performance? In short, no. In fact, the only thing I recall is a single question from my eventual first boss after grad school asking in an interview, “what the heck happened in the first two years of college?”. My response along with his consideration of the remainder of my academic record put any concern to rest. I got the job, setting my biotech career in motion, which led to all the success I have been truly fortunate to find ever since. I hope that fact might give some solace to any of you experiencing the same thing – or to parents of college students in a similar circumstance.

Importantly, what I did gain was a valuable life experience that taught me that you don’t turn away from the difficult times. Rather, you must lean into them, and push ahead to try to achieve what you set out to do. Is success guaranteed? Of course not. But turning away from the difficulty without giving it your all, certainly ensures one outcome. This lesson has served as an important reminder to me throughout my life, my career, and in all ways. Despite all that great reinforcement, I am admittedly just as prone as any of us to forget at times. This is where I found myself recently, and not only about the blog.

You mean this can still happen now?

Just four months after retiring from biotech, I’ve been enticed by potential opportunities that have come my way, including consulting in my former field. These might be very good options for me, but they might also be a convenient way to turn towards the familiar instead of pushing through uncertainty to my next phase. I am exploring a few avenues in my “retirement” right now, and taking on other work has the very real potential to derail them. My friend reminded me of this important fact, and this has given me much to consider. I worked hard to get to this point of having the freedom to spend my time how I wish, and need to take advantage of that!

While I may still elect to do some consulting – this is of course the only way to ascertain if I want to do more of that – I’m now re-committed to my present path. It may not be a linear trajectory, but I am comfortable with that. I am embracing the discomfort of uncertainty and look forward to seeing what will come of it!

What has been your experience with pushing through difficult times, and finding success on the other side of it? I’d love to hear from you. Be well, everyone.

image credit: “Mars 2020 Rover Gets a Name: Perseverance” by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0