I was recently interviewed for a newsletter of sorts and I was asked questions like '...what's the one word you would use to describe yourself?' and '...what did you want to be when you grew up?'
I'm not sure if I answered those questions as honestly as I thought I would but for what it's worth my answers were Passionateand Batman. I mean, what kid doesn't want to be Batman when they grew up? I still want to be Batman and I'm a grown-up now.
And therein lies the problem. I just classified myself as a grown-up. I pay taxes. I have a mortgage. I carry around too much weight in my middle and I've got more grey hairs than I can count. Hooray for adulthood! See the problem here is that I still don't really know what I want to be when I grow up because I don't actually consider myself to be 'grown-up'. Yes I have a job. I'd go so far as to even say I have a career but trying to pigeon hole myself into one role; one defining characteristic....I don't think I can do that.
Granted, when asked I fired off my answer without a terrible amount of thought. I wasn't trying to be flippant. I just was caught slightly off guard by the question and provided the first answer that really jumped out at me. It was the answer I've been using since I was about 6 so there's some history there but regardless of that fact, I probably could've mapped out my response a little better.
Stewart Butterfield, the co-founder of Flickr and chief executive of Slack uses that very same question when he's interviewing candidates. According to an interview with the New York Times earlier this month Butterfield was quoted as saying
But I have to disagree with Mr. Butterfield. The question is WHAT do you want to be when you grow up? That should naturally lead into WHY? In my opinion a short answer means that your answer is definitive and clearly thought out. Let me show you.
You: What do you want to be when you grow up?
You: Why do you want to be Batman?
Fights Crime and Saves People
Short, sweet and to the point. Next Question.
Telling people that having a short answer to a question like that is 'automatically bad' is essentially telling people their answer.....is wrong. And that in itself.....is wrong.
You see, the thing that irks me is that most of us truly don't ever get to be what we want to be. We make choices that eventually lead us down the path we're on today but it's rare to know more than a handful of people that are doing exactly what they set out to become.
I've always envied those people that knew as early as Public School what they wanted to be when they got older. They kept that idea alive all throughout High School, took courses in College or University geared to that profession and then when they graduated plunged head first into the job market and relentlessly sought out and acquired their job. Destiny fulfilled! Achievement Unlocked! Way to make the rest of us look bad.
I shouldn't really complain though. I love what I do. I didn't set out to be a Training and Quality Manager in a B2B Marketing Company. In High School I earned scholarships to study Music and go to a Dramatic Arts School in New York. I passed on both. Instead, I went to University to study Egyptology. Yes....you read that correctly and yes I could tell you why I did that but that's neither here nor there at this stage of the game.
The point is I found what I'm passionate about; teaching, educating and motivating people. It took me 30+ years to find this passion, but I found it. It's what I see myself doing for the rest of my life. It doesn't mean I won't change directions at some point. I have a restless soul and as Robert Frost once said
The woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.
I realize that I may never be Batman. Not exactly, but I still get to be likeBatman. I get to help people every day. I can be their protector, their mentor and their sparring partner when the time calls for it. I get to use my brains and my brawn to get end results. I solve problems and mysteries. I drive my Bat mobile a little too fast at times and I look good in black. I may never be the Superhero type, but I feel like one almost every time I leave the office.
So for any of you reading this that feel lost, confused or awash in a sea of ambiguity about where your career is going I'll leave you with this. Most of us start off wanting to be Cowboys, Astronauts, Princess and Superheroes and the majority of us will never be those things. Later in life we want to be Professional Athletes, Recording Artists and Movie Stars and only some of us will fulfill that wish. Eventually we will come to a point where the only thing we want to be when we grow up....is happy. Whether that's pushing paper, pushing a broom or pushing a stroller it doesn't matter because when that moment comes, you'll know you're right where you're supposed to be.
Like many people these days I often opt for the drive-thru line rather than walking into the store. The 'convenience' factor plays a large part in the decision making process as does the illusion that the line actually moves faster outside than it does inside. For the record....it does not. But regardless of those things I wait diligently in my car to pull up to that microscopic screen and raspy speaker to ask for food or drinks or whatever.
My order accuracy track record with most drive-thru lines is not good. In fact I would say without a second thought that my order is often anywhere from 'not quite what I ordered' to flat out wrong. Yet I still come back. Time and time again and I set myself up for disappointment every time. Now, I could try and psychoanalyze why I do this (much like most of you reading this) but that's not what this is really about. This post is about the importance of mastering a skill before you take on new skills. Allow me to elaborate.
Yesterday I was in line at Tim Horton's for a coffee. For those of you not familiar with what Tim Horton's is or who he was, click the link to read more. Needless to say, it's an addiction for most Canadians. There was a car in front of me at the speaker placing their order. As most of us do, knowing I was up next I turned down my radio so the person in the store could hear me when I ordered. This also meant I could hear the car in front of me ordering. Most of the order was mundane as orders tend to be, but then the driver said something that made my ears perk up. After ordering his coffee (one cream, one sugar) he said
....and Trish? Please stir my coffee.
And then he drove ahead.
I sat there for a heartbeat or two pondering that statement. Please stir my coffee? I mean....that should be obvious right? You add stuff to a coffee, then you stir it. It's that simple. I do it when I make a coffee at home. I bet you do too. Who did this guys think he was? Asking Trish to stir his coffee! I mean c'mon! But once that split second audacity passed, I thought of how many times I needed to stir my coffee after ordering it from this very same place. I thought of how many times my coffee; a simple pleasure, was marred but somebody's inability to perform a core function of their job. That's when that sentence hit me.
A few months back I had been at a conference in Chicago and during one of the breakout sessions the Speaker said something that seemed so obvious; so simple that I don't think it really resonated with me until sitting waiting for my coffee that day. In essence he said (and I'm paraphrasing here) '...we cannot teach people a new skill or ask them to perform a new task until we know that they have mastered the last skill or task.'
How often do we assign new tasks to our staff or set stretch goals for them to achieve? How often do they struggle to complete those tasks or reach those goals? Is it because they are incapable? In a word....Yes. If we expect our team to do something new and different and it requires them to use a set of predefined skills to accomplish that task shouldn't we ensure that they have mastered those predefined skills first? For example, if I ask my staff to create a pivot table in Excel then I need to be certain that they are competent with Excel on a basic level before expecting them to do more. Taking that simple fact for granted can easily lead to disappointment further down the road.
This Customer ordering his coffee recognized a gap in that Company's basic skills training. Through his own experiences he had come to understand that while the coffee was being made, it wasn't being made properly. He needed to reinforce the basics of the job; to ensure the coffee was stirred in order to get the best possible result. The person receiving that instruction (Trish) had more than likely been trained on how to make a cup of coffee. She was probably shown how to add cream and sugar and I'll go so far as to say she probably was even taught how to stir it. The issue here is not Trish (she was doing a bang-up job).
The issue was that not enough people understood or practiced the basics of the job so no matter how complex the order was; no matter how many times they made a coffee or tea, somewhere along the line they were forgetting an essential step. They were doing it incorrectly and Customers were driving away unhappy. They hadn't mastered the basics and there was a negative consequence because of that.
So the next time you give your team an assignment or you get back a less than optimal result on a project you delegated to them ask yourself whether they had the basics skills down to do the job properly. Ask yourself.....did they stir the coffee?
The house was at the end of my street. An old dilapidated structure with boarded up windows and a rusty fence around the perimeter; a thing of nightmares to a child with a vivid imagination. When the wind blew through the house it would moan and whistle as the air rushed through an incalculable number of cracks and crevices. The thing would breathe.
To the left of the house stood an old watchtower that overlooked the Wabi River; a safe outlet from the rocky waters of Lake Temiskaming. The home and tower had been around since close to the turn of the century. Deep brush and trees grew around it keeping it relatively hidden from passers-by. But all the children in the neighborhood knew it was there; jutting out of the earth at a dangerous angle like a ragged tusk. The tower listed dangerously towards the edge of a steep embankment that dropped 40 or so feet into the river below. A disquieting eyesore to the adults on the block; an ominous challenge for every kid with something to prove. I was one of those kids.
Every day after school my friends and I would walk past the house and the conversation would dwindle as eyes would quickly move to scuffling feet, the cracks in the sidewalks and the birds in the trees. Anywhere…but the house with the tower. Then a thought would pass through the group.
“Please don’t pick me. Please don’t pick me.”
But inevitably someone would throw out the dare.
“Come on! Just climb to the top and wave out the window to prove you did it. What’s the matter? Are you afraid?”….and then the mob mentality would begin. Suddenly the group would join in chanting “Do it! Do it!”
That poor kid….the chosen one had to make a snap decision right then and there. Go into the gaping maw of that tower and risk your life or chicken out and make up an excuse that you heard your Mom calling you home for dinner.
Inevitably, it was my turn to be called out one day; to be dared to go into that tower and climb those rickety steps to the top---to make that life altering decision. Yes, it was life altering for a 6 year old. Being the hefty kid in the group I was an automatic target in the gladiatorial ring we knew as our street. I was tired of being teased and being called Chicken. I wanted the other kids to respect me for doing it. So I did it. I entered the tower and climbed to the top.
The details of my trip inside the tower are largely inconsequential. It was dark, musty and certainly not safe for a child. Things clearly had been living and sleeping there. The stairs were rotten and the building felt like it could fall at any point in time. After a precarious climb I made it to the top, leaned out the window and waved to my friends on the sidewalk below. And that was it. No monster came to eat me. The Tower didn’t come crashing down into the river. The most I got was a high five from my buddies and then I went home. The next day I walked past that house again and looked it up and down like it was nothing more than an ant. So did my friends. That evening we all took turns climbing to the top of the tower because it was no longer something out of a bad horror movie. It was just a set of stairs.
After that night the challenge was gone as was the mystery and sheer adrenaline-fueled panic that came with the premise that you could very well lose your life to that monstrosity. Truth be told….I missed that feeling. I didn’t really know it then, but I certainly know it now. I’m a grown man now and the house with the tower is a distant memory that haunts my deep dreams only from time to time. But it doesn’t hold the same fear for me that it once did because I conquered it and moved on to the next set of challenges.
Moving away, starting somewhere new, making new friends, having a crush, having my heart crushed to powder, graduating, leaving home, being alone, being independent, finding myself, finding someone else, finding each other, making a union, making a family, making a home. All steps in the chapter of my life that have been joyous and terrifying and awe inspiring. Throughout them all I was faced with one constant notion-----I was afraid. Afraid of not knowing what would come next; afraid of not being able to adapt or thrive. Afraid I would fail. We are all afraid of something. I don’t care if it’s heights, or clowns or the loss of a job. We are all afraid of something. And that’s ok. It’s ok to be afraid provided the fear doesn’t control you.
A few weeks ago I was sitting in a meeting that quite frankly bored me. My mind began to drift and I began thinking about that old house with the tower. Before I knew it the meeting was done. When I cleared the cobwebs from my brain and the stardust from my eyes I looked down at my notes and saw this…
There was nothing else written on the page. I didn’t think too much of it and went about my daily business. But on the drive home that night those 5 words kept spinning around in my head. I couldn’t let the thought go that perhaps they meant something more than just some absent-minded scrawls on the paper. The more I thought about it, the more I found meaning in those words.
We are afraid when we do not know what will happen next. We are afraid when we don’t have control of the environment or a circumstance and that makes us cautious and compliant and stationary. We don’t take action to change that feeling because we do not know how attacking that fear will affect us. We are afraid to lose the afraid. It is our safety net and when we challenge the feeling of being afraid, we’re forced to cut that net away. But it’s not the act of jumping that scares us; it’s knowing that there may not be a net to catch us when we fall.
If we take the leap and make it to the other side the fear is gone. That thing we were scared of loses its power over us and we are forced to move on to the next challenge. This means a bigger leap and potentially a larger fall and the cycle repeats itself.
That house and tower were torn down years ago or maybe they finally slipped into the river below the cliff…drowning the ghosts that inhabited them. Regardless of that they will always serve as a reminder to me that there is nothing wrong with being afraid. But being afraid to lose the afraid? Well….that’s just scary.