I have never thought of myself as a competitive person. I like to win — who doesn't? — but even playing team sports back in high school, I always sensed I lacked the drive to win like some of my teammates. So, for a long time, I told myself that competing and winning was not my thing. I began to realize this was a lie when, a few years into my career, I began to track who was getting promoted and when. If I was not on track based on my own internal scorecard, I became stressed.
I took on extra projects and responsibilities, stayed later and later, even watching to see who left and at what time, to make sure I was the last one out. I was determined to prove my worth and achieve the next milestone. I was competing. A few years into my retail merchandising career, I was promoted to an assistant buyer position. I loved my new boss, and because she ran one of the larger business areas in women’s’ apparel, she had two assistants. Every Monday morning we completed an “Open to Buy” form to submit to the divisional director. This was before the days of computers and Excel spreadsheets. It involved a complicated set of formulas, a status on inventory, sales, what was shipping, what was on order and what our gross margins were.
Mastering it eluded me for a long time — and I was a math whiz. My fellow assistant buyer nailed it every week, which frustrated me, but I finally had to ask her for help. Learning that process helped me understand profit and loss, balance sheets, and financial statements of all kinds and has served me well for my entire career. More importantly, I learned that collaboration and working in community is a more fruitful path than competition and trying to figure it all alone.
The Hill of Knowledge
The feeling we get when we master something is powerful. It can encourage a belief that we are in control, the master and hero of our own story. Many people spend their entire lives pursuing knowledge, skills and expertise. We can stand on the “hero’s hill” and believe building and sustaining a well-ordered world is up to us to figure out and conquer. This world is built on the belief that acquiring knowledge and information will get us where we want to go. It focuses on skill and competence development. We know the playing field, and growth is all about learning the rules of the game, the plays we need to make well, and paying attention when those rules might change. Traditional leadership and professional development is generally based on this foundation and promotes acquiring needed competencies and implementing behavior changes.
While this is not inherently wrong, it is quite incomplete. And yet people can spend much of their adult lives in this zone. Our western culture is full of people who believe this alone is the journey.. Particularly for those of us who have had the privilege of higher education and career advancement, we rely on this set of beliefs to derive our sense of identity. We buy into the fundamental operating principle that “we are what we do.”
Maggie Mertens expounds on this for The Atlantic, emphasizing how “More and more Americans are realizing that voluntarily leaving your job today isn’t always just about securing a better lifestyle; it’s also about the redefinition of self. “
For others, everyday work is simply a means to an end. Work is a necessary evil, and the only purpose of work is for this group is the paycheck. For those of us in this group, we may build skills and competencies as well, but we are less likely to locate our identity in our daily work. But our dissatisfaction is real and often comes from the belief that our work ‘owes’ us fulfillment of some kind.
With many people leaving their jobs, often without another one in place, the idea of “meaning and purpose” resurfaces or workers looking for something more. “My work just doesn't have any meaning” or “I want to do something with a bigger purpose–that serves people and makes the world a better place!”
[Note: There is a third group of people, those with little or no agency, working in the margins with no access to opportunity, support or resources. This is worthy of a focused reflection. Which I will undertake in the coming weeks.]
We Are What We Do
The primary skill many of us have developed in order to achieve success is problem-solving. Problem solving is a necessary skill in any kind of work, but looking at every issue or opportunity that crosses our path as a problem to be solved significantly diminishes our ability to actually learn and grow.
Our identity as “we are what we do,” is easy, over the course of a career, to believe. Yet, when a crisis happens, the next promotion doesn't come, we don't accomplish the next thing, or our work becomes increasingly dissatisfying something begins to shift for us. The confidence begins to slip and suddenly we don’t feel quite so in control.
In my own work of walking with people on this journey over many years, I have seen the slip from the hero’s hill happen in three primary ways:
Through crisis: A significant and often painful disruption —an abrupt termination of a job, a personal moral failing—either at work or personally, the loss of a valued relationship or other personal or professional crisis. This new environment requires learning, unlearning and adapting in order to succeed. Amidst this drastic change, we feel an urgency to wrestle with the unknown, embrace the pain and integrate it, let go of what we know in order to learn and relearn in the pursuit of something new.
Through discontent and frustration: We have a growing awareness that a better destination exists and we explore options with a sense of dissatisfaction for the status quo. Our interest is piqued by the notion of living an intrepid life, and we are longing to discover new territories and even to push our own boundaries. But we do not fully understand how to define or even recognize our own needs, wants and possibilities.
Through choice: We understand that life must shift and desires to prepare for a rigorous journey that, while not fully planned, has a trajectory worthy of pursuit. Often based more on intuition than clear rationale, there is a commitment reflecting a dogged intention toward a higher purpose, and a drive to discover possibilities that warrant intentional preparation as we step out into the unknown.
This season, no matter how it comes, offers a choice to either move forward in the journey, or to scramble back to the hero’s hill where control seems possible and accomplishment and performance is central. It also comes with a dawning realization that what we know won’t get is to where we want to go and our problem solving skills are not sufficient anymore.
Many people make the latter choice because it seems easier and familiarity is comfortable. They pursue different versions of the same thing — more accomplishment, more performance, more productivity, more problem solving. And that is affirmed and supported by all the definitions of worldly success. The next promotion, new car, further education, or advancement will provide us with fulfillment of that deeper desire that we have for meaning and purpose. It is easy to stay in this mindset because we are surrounded, even supported, by it in our culture and relationships, workplaces, and the media bombardment that comes at us daily.
It is from the heroes hill that the most significant failures occur. Those failures are often rooted in a kind of pride and hubris that keep us attached to the belief that we are in control and the masters — the heroes — of our own story.
For some of us, we sense and believe we might be part of a bigger story. The story of God at work in the world. Because of His great love for us He invites or calls us to join Him in creating, renewing, and redeeming some of the brokenness that seems to be everywhere.
So as you stand on the hero’s hill, and as that sense of yearning and desire for something different tugs at the edge of your heart and mind, how will you respond?
It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
Throughout this series, the phenomenon of ‘metamorphosis’ from caterpillar to butterfly will give us a powerful analog and reference point. Caterpillars exist to eat and eat and grow bigger and bigger, but there is a point at which something mysterious happens and everything shifts dramatically as the chrysalis is formed. What happens in the chrysalis is the nature of this journey. Are you ready to step into the chrysalis? Or will you turn back and secure your feet firmly to the safety and comfort of the known, even as it feels stagnant at best and harmful at worst? I hope you choose the former, it is not for the faint of heart but its rewards can be remarkable.
Up Next: The Big Quit Part II: The Disruption Season
Special thanks to executive editor, RuthAnne Jenkins.