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

Advance by working smarter, not merely harder

sign: work smarter, with "harder" crossed out

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

Hard work is the difference between dreaming and achieving.

-Anonymous

Introduction

“Work hard” seems rather simple by comparison to the other four keys to success in the workplace: never stop learning, align yourself with great mentorsembrace change, and leverage your strengths. However, there is much more to this element than meets the eye! My conversations over the years have led me to conclude that many people believe that simply working hard is sufficient to gain recognition and to get ahead in the workplace – not so, as many of us have found! Yes, it is vital to be a hard worker. But it’s also essential to make sure you get as much leverage from that hard work as possible, so that it leads to career advancement and personal growth. There are a lot of things that fit with this important concept, and I will focus on three broad areas in this post.

Work hard in the right roles, for the right people, and for the right reasons

Most people will readily identify that working hard to achieve and exceed your stated goals is an important element of getting ahead in the workplace. A related point is that you must also work with those who will value your efforts and take your achievements into consideration when it comes to identifying future opportunities for you. This post isn’t one about the power of aligning yourself with great mentors, but this concept warrants mentioning again here. If your boss or your company culture doesn’t value the hours you put in, your many successes, and recognize you accordingly, it’s time to change that situation! Never stay in a job that fails this basic requirement.

I’ve written about the value of continuous learning and embracing change as growth drivers, and these are indeed vital. However, it is also essential not to only look ahead to your next opportunity, treating your present role as merely a stepping stone. Ensuring that you work to gain the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in your current job will result in a strong foundation to build upon for the next challenges to come. In my experience, at least two years experience in a given role is a good starting point. Be sure to go beyond merely “putting in your hours”, and make sure you learn and grow as much as you can while in each role – something I’ll cover in the next section.

On a related point, make certain that you aren’t chasing titles as your primary motivation versus choosing roles that truly advance your abilities, leverage your strengths, responsibility level, etc. Unfortunately, this is a trap into which many people fall. I once very nearly turned down what ended up being an amazing career opportunity solely because “I felt” it should be a Director role vs. the Senior Manager role I was offered. In the end I took the role with a compromise solution of “Associate Director” and about a year later I was promoted to Director. In hindsight I can’t imagine missing out on such a great opportunity over something as insignificant as a title! Equally bad if not worse is the time I was strongly considering taking a C-level role at a small company even though I could tell that the place was a train wreck, was not very interesting technology, and would otherwise not advance my career. That title (and compensation) was just so darned attractive! Thankfully I wisely moved on to other opportunities, ones that truly leveraged my strengths, and accelerated my path to financial independence and early retirement. I’ve seen far too many people take jobs that do not advance their career progression nor their abilities, simply because they thought a given title was important unto itself.

Constantly seek opportunities for growth

I’ve already written about the value of continuous growth and learning. One way to ensure you are working smartly and not only hard, is to take deliberate steps to make certain that this growth happens for you. Yes, great mentors will help you in these pursuits. But even then you are not relieved of the responsibility to be your own best advocate. There are many ways to do this. Put your hand up when special projects come around that are of interest to you, even if this may mean “more work”. Seek opportunities where you can work across teams or with other company sites. It’s amazing how much you can learn simply by getting out of your typical work environment. This will also demonstrate your willingness to learn new things and to grow to those around you.

I have always appreciated team members who put in the required hours (and more). All good managers value hard work. However, I appreciated it even more when employees independently sought opportunities to drive improvement. Some of my most successful team members have shared the same attribute: when they see something that can be made better, they don’t simply raise it to their manager’s attention. They also came with a proposal for how to improve it, whether or not it would benefit them personally. Managers may not always agree with such ideas, or the timing may not be right to take action, but I can think of many times where I approved these kinds of projects. These can provide great learning opportunities for you, as well as to demonstrate your capabilities to your manager and others with whom you work. Be known as a problem solver and one who understands everything can be improved! This only helps build a strong network who will aid you on your journey, which is the topic of the next section.

Gain massive leverage from your network

If there is one lesson I took from biotech, it is that it is a small world. Despite the many thousands of people working at so many companies around the world, “everyone knows everyone”. Most industries are like this, particularly once you work at a certain level of responsibility. You simply can’t have a conversation with someone else in your industry without realizing how many contacts you share. Why is this important? It is shocking to me how many times that simply knowing someone at a given company has opened a door to me. Getting noticed is half the challenge when it comes to finding great jobs, right? Leveraging your network is a sure-fire way to ensure you aren’t lost in the noise. Having a large network also can help you find great candidates for roles on your team. So I assert that you should always be building your network. How?

No one starts with a huge network when they enter the workplace. It must be grown from the ground up and nurtured along the way. There are likely many ways to do this. My primary recommendation to you is simple: be someone with whom people want to work! Be that coworker who is regarded as reliable, who always puts in the effort needed, and is a pleasure to work with – someone people will seek out when they need help. While this isn’t difficult, many people seem to struggle with this. I’m sure you’ve known coworkers who were technically competent but who had some attribute that made you avoid them – maybe they were a bully, a know-it-all, or one never willing to compromise. These people may find a way to advance but it is far less assured and may take a lot longer. Rather, you must act in ways that make people remember you for positive reasons – it’s that easy. I once worked with a rather prickly programmer. I got along with him pretty well despite his grumpiness, and had taken the time to figure out how we could best work together. As a result when I needed help he was generally very willing to support me. One day he pulled me aside and said “You know, Jason, I figured out what really bugs me about you: you’re probably the most liked person at this company! Not the most likable, mind you (ha!). But you’re easy to work with and get along with everyone – and that really annoys me.” Do you need to be friends with everyone at work? Of course not – that’s impossible. Just carry yourself in the right ways, be gracious while being your genuine self, and I assure you that people will respond well.

Another simple thing is that you need to put yourself out there and actively build your network. Make sure you introduce yourself to colleagues at your company, key vendors, and customers. Seek opportunities to attend conferences and meetings where appropriate, and get the most out of those events. Attend the cocktail hours, dinners, and workshops and try to make good contacts at each. You aren’t there solely for fun, right? Will every conversation be a great one? Of course not. But I’m surprised by how many people I have met at these events who have turned out to benefit my career at some future date. Of course you have to keep up relationships to stay top of mind. These days, tools like LinkedIn, industry forums, and others make this much simpler. If you worked with great colleagues in a previous company, make sure you reach out to them periodically to find out how they are doing. I landed one of my best jobs simply by asking someone with whom I used to work out to lunch. Not only did that role give me great startup experience, I met my future wife at that company!

There is a flip side to all of the positive things I mentioned regarding network building. You must also remember that your reputation follows you. If you are someone regarded as difficult to work with, a slacker, or otherwise with challenges, your network will freely share that information. People talk, and when it comes to considering candidates for jobs, they will unbeknownst to you, use their own networks to vet the fit of someone for a role. Make sure that conversation can only go in a positive direction!

Conclusion

Working hard at any job is stable stakes – you’ve simply got to do it. I’m sure that’s not a surprise to anyone! But there are some relative straightforward things that I recommend that will allow you to work much more smartly as well. The leverage you will gain from that can accelerate your success in the workplace. What “working smart” tips have you found to work for you?

photo credit: “Work Smarter” by JuditK is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Reflecting on the first three months of retirement

September 5th calendar

To see all of my milestone posts to date, please select this link.

Today marks three months since I left my job and career in biotech behind. I find it useful to reflect on milestones and this feels like the first “big one” for me relating to my retirement. As I’ve written about before, I spent the first month preparing for and carrying out our family’s move to a new home in a new town. My second month was largely consumed with unpacking, organizing, and carrying out improvement projects around the house. That means that the third month was the first true test of what this next phase in my life is really like. I wrote a milestone post after six weeks, but I feel so much more prepared to review what this has felt like so far at the three month mark.

Keeping busy has proven to be easy

From a practical perspective, many things have been as I thought they’d be. I created space to focus on hobbies and interests, such as cooking. I have also devoted time to learning new things, including WordPress for this blog and improving my iOS app coding skills. We recently got our beer brewing area set up and my wife and I have the first couple of batches in our new home under our belts as well. I’m also pleased that I’ve stuck to getting outside more and exercising, with my morning walk being something to which I truly look forward each day. The latter has also helped me achieve my retirement goal of getting back to reading a lot of books, as I’ve learned just how many audiobooks are freely available on Spotify. In case you’re interested, The Count of Monte Cristo (free audiobook; paperback) has been by far my favorite to date! Given this list of what I’ve been doing, I feel really fulfilled and generally think that I have been spending my time productively.

Continuing on the theme of “doing things”, it’s also been nice to start exploring our town and broader area with my wife and daughter. Of course there are some limitations to that pursuit due to COVID-19 – not something that was in my retirement plan, of course. Given the unseasonably hot weather we’ve had on the Central Coast, that has largely taken the form of visiting the beaches and hiking trails about 30 minutes away, on the much cooler Pacific coast. My wife and I have also enjoyed visiting a number of area wineries and breweries (yes, there is a budget line item for this!) that have appropriate outdoor seating. We don’t yet feel like we know our new town well, but are optimistic that 2021 will provide us fuller opportunities to do so once we have the worst of this pandemic behind us.

What has retirement felt like so far?

Focusing more personally, there have admittedly been surprises in how this “feels”. How can you know what it is like to leave the only career you’ve known until you do it? The short answer for me, anyhow – you can’t. First and foremost, I have felt very positive and motivated the overwhelming majority of the time. I’m very happy that I haven’t found myself dwelling on whether retirement at this time was the right decision – which would be pretty scary. We spent ample time making the decision of when I could retire, and several years preparing for it. I’m certain that helped. That said, sometimes I find myself dwelling on questions like:

“Am I really being productive with my new-found free time?”

“What comes next: Start a small business? Buy one? Pick up a fun part-time pursuit?”

“Do I take a bold step into something new or test the waters first on several things?”

These aren’t bad questions of course! But I have to take care not to allow what should be exciting brainstorming opportunities to devolve into concern or stress over not knowing what to do next. Admittedly I am seemingly prone to this if I’m not careful. Believe me – I know how fortunate I am to be in this position. I’m not looking this gift horse in the mouth! But in all honesty, retirement is a huge change and one that shouldn’t be underestimated. I expect everyone goes through these thoughts at times, irrespective of how prepared they are for retirement or when they do it. I suspect this is a good time to get back to mindfulness practices, like meditation, which can surely only help.

Retirement impacts the whole family!

It’s important to acknowledge that retiring results in changes for everyone in the household. In my case I think this has been overwhelmingly positive – but admittedly I think we should talk about it more as a family. I’m happy that I’m now able to help more with daily chores, be a better partner with my wife in helping our daughter with school, and just be present that much more often. I know I missed an awful lot given the time commitments of my former career – including a lot of international travel. I’m very happy that those tradeoffs are no longer part of what we need to manage as a family.

Above all, I am incredibly thankful for the endless support that I get from my amazing wife, Lorri. She is incredibly patient with me even when I’m feeling overwhelmed about questions like those above, which can lead me to be grumpy at times. In addition, she is always quick (and correct!) to remind me that there is no time pressure to decide on “what comes next”. I have the freedom to spend my time as I wish! I have also realized that I need to be more open about what I’m feeling and work through it as a team. We are so fortunate to be in this situation together and these three months have taught me I am prone to keep much of this to myself – I’m working on that. I can’t imagine going through this journey alone and I am so grateful that I have such a great family on this wild ride with me!

On to the next three months!

I can’t believe how quickly these last three months have flown by. The first two months in particular went very fast given our move and time spent getting our home in order. That said, I am happy with what I’ve accomplished so far and feel fulfilled by how I’ve spent my time. While it hasn’t always been smooth sailing from an emotional perspective, I know I made the right move and am excited by the seemingly endless possibilities of whatever I choose to do next. Yes, there are still important decisions to be taken but I remain ever grateful that I have this opportunity to do so. I wonder how this post will read to me a year from now, with that much more experience. Here’s to all that is yet to come!

photo credit:
“Friday, One more day to go DSCF3565” by tomylees is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0