Saturday, March 25, 2017

Mid-Life Crisis and Alternate Universes

One of my favorite Onion jokes of all time is "Alternate-Universe James Hetfield Named Taco Bell Employee of the Month". This genius post encapsulates the randomness of the world we live in, since the likelihood of James Hetfield being a guy who does odd jobs, plays guitar in a basement, and loves metal is so much infinitely higher than the odds are that he becomes a rich superstar as the singer of Metallica.

This philosophical view is somewhat similar to Taleb's theories in "The Black Swan" and his other books where, if you did your life over and over, you would get vastly different results and individuals attribute too much of their luck and good fortune to their specific actions and experience. We are all dealing with the "Survivor's paradox", where those who did well get to tell their tale and those who didn't fare so well are essentially erased from the common consciousness.

I saw this car down in my garage in Portland and thought to myself "This is the alternate universe for Carl" which is to just keep my prior job and old way of life and buy a shiny new expensive car (this is a Bentley, I would have bought a new BWM 7 Series, but who's counting) as a distraction. That would have been a fine life, a life I understood, and the car purchase would have been a modest but visible change and distraction from what was otherwise a quite predictable path.

Instead, however, I changed everything, by moving jobs and careers and physically relocating away from my entire ecosystem of family and friends to the Pacific Northwest. This was a vast change, much larger than cosmetically purchasing a new conspicuous automobile. Starting a new job forced me to change everything, from the way I listened and studied, to the way I interacted with the environment around me. I went from walking to work to commuting by car (like 90% of the world) which is a primary negative, although at least I have been listening to podcasts which turn that driving time which was initially pure frustration into at least a positive learning experience.

For me, the goal in any professional career is to
Avoid negative events or surprises that could have been anticipated and mitigated through preparation, research, communication or hard work
This philosophy requires continuous dedication, work, outreach, and communication in order to get ahead of problems so that they can be framed in a constructive way rather than "blowing up" on you at the last minute. This in turn requires a team of skilled professionals who can take unstructured randomness and turn them into processes that deliver consistent outcomes and raise exceptions so that they can be escalated and dealt with. We also need to be able to anticipate new situations based on what the company or organizational unit is facing, and develop new strategies to at least meet these challenges head-on rather than being surprised and dragged along someone else's line of reasoning which may be inferior or expeditious rather than being optimal.

Whenever I find myself in a negative or "catch up" situation, the question I ask myself is
Could this situation have been avoided if I had taken alternative actions?
Often the answer is yes, and for this I hold myself accountable, and try to change my forward looking actions to do better the next time. This is a very high bar and I would not generally recommend it for most people - it demands a very high level of personal responsibility and commitment to work and the ecosystem of your career (continuous learning) that can be daunting.

It is interesting when I get questions about hobbies and what I think of Portland or Oregon and I basically tell people that I don't have hobbies and I don't think about what's outside much at all because changing jobs and moving into an unfamiliar company and learning everything from scratch at a rapid pace is all-consuming. I don't think I will be able to pop my head up for a few years. To do my job at the standards to which I hold myself, there is a lot of work to do in terms of self-knowledge, team optimization, and changes needed to pivot to what is important to the organization as a whole.

On top of that, you need to keep up your web of professional connections outside of work, which means collaborating on common problems, going to conferences, and helping others outside of your organization professionally. Jobs now are transient and subject to change along with the organization so you need to continually groom your network and participate in events outside of work or you could be left high and dry if you need to leave your job whether it is for work, family or other reasons outside your control.

I was in auto-pilot in all these areas with my old career and job so I could have just picked up that shiny car to distract myself and continued on until retirement. My old job too was all consuming in its own way except I had more of the variables under control (or so I though, could have been 100% wrong) and could anticipate conversations and where everything was going much easier than in a new, unfamiliar environment.

Due to the way corporate jobs work, when you are vested after 5 years you are in a far better place financially then when you start over from scratch elsewhere. Thus you walk away from a lot when you leave and you need to stay for a while at your new employer to even have a chance (unlikely) of ever making it back. With this in mind people ask me if I have regrets from moving but in reality I don't give it a thought because it is wasted effort since there is no way to turn back the clock and change my situation - I've moved on and am going to put 100% into making my new career a success. There is simply no other way. In a way I liken it to the NFL - whether you are a 5 year veteran or a rookie, every day is hard and all-consuming, and the pace and workload and requirements just go up, up and up every year. There is no slacking or relying on insider knowledge - you need every scrap of knowledge and intensity just to stay in place or move forward slightly. Someone is always coming up from behind and looking at your job as an opportunity for advancement, and that's the way it should be, since that's the way it always worked for me on the way up. That's capitalism, especially since almost all companies (not the government, sadly) are constantly looking for ways to economize and there's a large number of new applicants out there, unless you have specific and useful skills and experience (which I'd highly recommend you try to obtain and make apparent through self-marketing).

Cross posted at Chicago Boyz


Dan from Madison said...

There is a lot here and this is a good post. As far as the car goes, that one is easy. If someone can afford it and it makes their life better, I begrudge nobody. That is a personal choice and we are all free to choose in this country so go nuts. Personally I think a car like that is simply a bad investment but that doesn't matter to the owner of the car.

As far as your career and stability, it is interesting how our lives have tracked. I was in a very stable place up until a year or so ago, and now everything is completely different. Several weird, random events (I would go so far as to call them personal Black Swans) forced me to dig deep and change myself. For the most part, after getting through the fog, it has been good. Tough, but good. But life is tough at times.

The good news is that after what I have been through in the past year, I know I can get through anything. Hardened steel.

Anonymous said...

You said a lot of right things, but omitted the Big Elephant: what made you leave [career, family&friends, city and convenience of walking to work]?
I can tell you, that consideration, in last paragraph - that after certain time at your company you become vested and at the level of benefits that very unlikely achievable in a new place - what keeps me from looking elsewhere.
If that makes me a coward, fine.

But I understand fully what it means, to work so hard and absorb new info all the time, to live workdays so intense that coming home one has no interest for any "hobby". I lived like that 10 months out of last year. At the end I was exhausted and welcomed the end of contract. Now...I miss the excitement, and sense of personal growth.