Thursday, January 14, 2016

It's all just a game

It's all just a big game. Merit, ability, the best person for the job, opportunities to grow as a professional, promotions and other organizational rewards aren't based on any of those things. I've clung to the idea that there is some kind of meaning and significance to be extracted for earning recognition and rewards. I have lived my life with my identity and self-worth tied up in whether or not I can rise above my peers and earn whatever was coveted. Good grades, a spot on the varsity team, the job, the promotion, the raise, the top spot. I have been operating under the delusion that the achievement of these things in some way equates to my value and ability, my worth as a human being. I strive to be chosen, selected, singled out as acknowledgement of my inherent value. Recognition is not acknowledgement of my value. It's not worthless or unimportant, but it's also not the route to happiness and meaning.

My desire to transform my work culture is nothing more than me trying to create a space where the rules of the game match what I find to be the right and true way to determine worth. I see directors scrambling to hang on to some shriveled vestige of clout and power and judge them for not understanding what really needs to be done. I see their efforts to maneuver and criticize them for not getting what's really important. They're playing the game. I'm blundering around, blinded by my own self-righteousness, bloviating about the injustice of my value and worth not being rewarded by important jobs right now.

It's not the job that I crave. It's the acknowledgement of my worth. I've linked meaning to accomplishment and pursued accomplishment as a way to craft my identity. I'm not getting what I want to say right. It's more subtle than this, less strident and sure. I had a realization today. What I held true one moment suddenly felt hollow and empty the next. It wasn't a crushing blow to my sense of worth, but a relief. I felt like I could finally unclench and just be for a moment. I will work on just what it was. This is a good start, it captures the moment in a way that I can come back to later.

Friday, January 8, 2016

What I want?

Every year I spend a couple of days noodling different New Year's Resolutions. They are always very task based, read this, do this many workouts, don't buy so many books. There isn't really a general theme or purpose. There is an effort to change behavior to prevent something (getting fat) or to enable something else (reading books to justify buying more of them), but there isn't a conscious decision to actually change something about myself. The origins of my actions are never addressed by these resolutions. There is never an effort to change my internal dialogue or to pay attention to how I talk to myself.

I've always kept score (resolutions are one way that I keep doing that now that I'm out of school and work in a field that is difficult to measure in a way that spurns competition or data based comparisons). There are few things that I engage in simply for the sake of the experience. Physically pleasing things come to mind (eating, beer, sex) as exceptions to this rule. Spending time with my family. But when it comes to the way I spend time that is my own, there is always some kind of challenge pushing me forward. I read to finish whatever I am reading. My runs are about getting faster personal records. Work is all about doing things to get ahead. Doing something just because you enjoy it is an odd professional behavior. The expectation is that you do things you don't like or enjoy for the future opportunities they offer (including the future offer of a regular paycheck). Sticking with something you like for the simple fact that you like is much more an exception than a rule. At least that's been my experience. 

I certainly fell into the do unpleasant things now for future benefits trap. Unpleasant things, like working hard in school, would unlock fancy schools (the more competitive the school, the better) and other difficult to access resources. I played basketball and ran track, two sports that I wasn't particularly into, to earn a spot on the varsity football team (and than I moved, what a waste). I pursued the exclusive so I could wrap myself in that shiny wrapper and have the world see those things. I wouldn't have to show anything about myself. I wouldn't have to know anything about myself. The things I was part of would impress people and save me the trouble of engaging with the world in an open and vulnerable manner. 

My resolutions are just a continuation of that trend. I set up these challenges to distract myself from life while feeding a need to stand out, raise myself up (at least my own judgement) to a place that separates me from everybody else. My resolutions have just been efforts to keep me busy doing something that isn't a total waste or time rather than working on the parts of my life that really need attention. So the next obvious question, what areas of my life need attention?

I need to stop keeping score. This is all about separating what I do because I enjoy it from doing something because it gets me one step closer to achieving some arbitrary goal. Goals are great, but a goal should be attached to some larger vision. A good goal gets me closer to what I want in my life (or further away from what I don't want). So that's the challenge; setting goals that get me closer to what I want in life. Now the real challenge, what do I want? Not what other people want. Not what people expect me to want. What do I want. 

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Will opportunity be knocking?

I will be responsible for building part of the new business
I will be responsible for building part of the new business
I will be responsible for building part of the new business
I will be responsible for building part of the new business
I will be responsible for building part of the new business
I will be responsible for building part of the new business
I will be responsible for building part of the new business
I will be responsible for building part of the new business
I will be responsible for building part of the new business
I will be responsible for building part of the new business
I will be responsible for building part of the new business
I will be responsible for building part of the new business
I will be responsible for building part of the new business
I will be responsible for building part of the new business
I will be responsible for building part of the new business

A little experiment in an affirmation. (I heard Scott Adams of Dilbert fame talking about them on the Tim Ferriss podcast this morning.) Big changes are being implemented in my professional environment and I want to be a big player in some new spaces. There is no clear picture of what the leadership wants to establish, but the outline that they have shared is enough to tell me that there will be plenty of opportunities for those willing to claim them.

This is the time to put my MBA out there. Not that it will be key in any success that I may have in some new role, but it's the credential that could make the decision makers willing to take a chance on me.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Running away by pursuing that next big thing

Striving. It's my constant companion. It's always there, a constant hum amid the flux and oscillations of my life. I can't imagine life without a desire to attain some kind of achievement. Acquisition of some achievement is my central value. I don't know how to just be. I don't know what my life would look like if I just was. 

Let's take a look at my current pursuits. 

40 books read this year. It's so utterly arbitrary and meaningless in the grand scheme of life. That doesn't matter. It's a goal to pursue. (Just in case you were wondering, I'm still on track to make that goal, although my current reading may put me a little behind.)

Professional status. I'm always looking for ways to move up, have an impact, and get more clout.

Lower times on my runs. Why run easy when you can run hard. 

I keep track of how often my wife and I are intimate. The number has gotten bigger every year that I've been keeping track. Should that really be a factor in our love life?

Then there is the never ending quest for more, better, improvement, a restless chasing of some ill-defined thing. Pursuing covers up the feelings of insufficiency and inadequacy. If I constantly go after that ideal off in the distance, I won't have to stop and acknowledge my current state. 

The crazy part is that there is nothing wrong with my current state. At least there is nothing objectively wrong with my current state. Not that I've ever stopped running after that other thing out there to actually recognize what I'm feeling. That's really the point after all. Avoiding my feelings. The more they're buried, ignored, subsumed under some quest for a glimmer of improvement, the less I have to actually experience those feelings. 

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Letting go

There are two trash bags full of books in my garage. There will be more by the time I'm finished. I've read most of the books that I am discarding, but there a good number in there that I have not read. Those are the ones that I've had for years and have a very difficult time imagining myself actually reading. I've held onto them because I've always told myself that there will come a time when I may want to read that book. It's time to let them go. It's time to let go of books that I've read but know I will never read again (I very, very rarely reread books, the only books I can recall reading were from long series.). I've always fought against my desire to buy books. A few years ago I questioned spending the money. Now it's the space. I've had books stashed all over my house. The shelves are full so they've spread to piles on my desk and stashes in different drawers and cabinets.

The pressure of having all these books bearing down on me has become inhibiting. I can't move forward because I have all of these books, accumulated over most of my life. I just put some Stephen King books that I read in high school into the trash bags, and those aren't the only high school era books that I am letting go. I've had some them for over 20 years and they're unread. Why keep them around? Those were books that were intriguing to me when I was a teenager. Those are artifacts of a different time in my life. By getting rid of the books, I feel like I'm freeing myself to move forward from that time.

The books and my hero narrative are vestiges of a different life. I chose to have the books in my life, but the hero narrative seeped in and has refused to let go. I've clung to these books, telling myself that I can't let them go just like I've maintained a fierce grip on this whole hero thing. There are roles that I must play, family dynamics that I must preserve. No, these are not things that I must do. They are relics of my emotional history. Books were my refuge during the time that I developed my hero thing. Books surely contributed to its strength and persistence. In stepping away from some of these books, I'm stepping away from a part of my past that weakens me. In turning away from the past, I can turn more completely to the present. I am less encumbered to pursue depth and meaning.

The past is not a burden that I am obligated to carry. I can choose to set it down and leave it behind. I make that choice.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

More musings on the role of the heroic, why it's pathetic and what it means going forward

Recognition of this hero narrative as a driver for my behaviors, preferences, and other unconscious motives isn't necessarily a trigger to rethink my entire life and identity. It's a chance to hijack that immediate response to something heroic and replace that impulse with something more intentional. That happened this morning. One of the books in the Kindle Daily Deal was a memoir by an F-16 pilot. My hero pleasure centers lit up at the potential of this book. There was all kinds of elite level stuff, doing things that are hard, being the best, it was all right there. Of course I was ready to buy it, but I stopped and took a moment to think about what I was feeling. I didn't see it right away, but the realization of the link to my hero thing came into focus pretty quickly. I didn't buy the book.

It's not that the pursuit of the heroic if necessarily bad. It's more about recognizing what I'm responding to and finding a different way to react. I've spent too long going with the automatic appeal of these types of stories. Stopping to take a look at what was so enticing about a book describing flying an F-16 against SAM sites lets me see a little deeper into what I have going on under the surface. It's the appeal of the best of the best, the elite, the distinct and clearly different level of performance. Those are the stories that I crave. Winning the competition, being thought of as special, that's what makes my psyche really sing when I come across these things. The stories are definitely exciting and highly entertaining, but it's the elite status of the story teller that really makes all the difference for me.

Pursuing the heroic isn't about going after what you want, it's all about doing what others find unique, valuable, and difficult. Decisions and actions are not based on what I find inherently appealing. My life turns into a pursuit of opportunities to impress other people. It's not even what other people will find legitimately  appealing. It's about what I think should be impressive to other people. It's possible to end up doing something that I don't find all that appealing in an effort to impress people I don't even know by doing something that they might not even find all that impressive. It's crazy! Well, I should say it was crazy because that tendency was much stronger in my youth, but it's echo is still very strong in my life as an adult.

That's another aspect of this whole thing that has me disturbed. If the other orientation wasn't bad enough, the persistence of this immature motivation deep into my adulthood just adds another level of desperation. I can cut myself some slack and see that wanting to emulate heroes was a pretty decent way to deal with a lack of affection from my parents, a pretty weak self-image, and a guide for the right way to behave when I was a kid. It served its purpose and I should have moved on to more mature ways of engaging with life. That didn't happen, at least not as completely as it could have. I carried that legacy into my marriage and parenting and career. The hero encompasses so much of my identity it even colors which books I choose to read!

Seeing myself as the hero and doing all that I could to make that image a reality was limiting. The adoption of that orientation immediately put typical youth activities out of bounds. The hero adheres to all expectations (at least the conception of the heroic that I adhered to) and strives to stay within the lines of cultural expectations. The hero isn't a rebel. The hero accepts the challenges placed before him. To reject those challenges would be unthinkable. I wanted to be praised and adored by authority figures and those who could speak to my superior character, intelligence, and ability. There was no need to explore boundaries or wander off into unpopular but personally appealing activities. The hero makers were pretty clear on what they wanted so I went about giving it to them.

It's easy to take this idea and beat myself with it. But how will this insight impact me as I continue to live my life? Recognizing its role in my choices is a good first step. I don't need to reinvent myself, but consciously moving away from what a much younger version of myself used to get through the day will allow me to embrace and accept me. Chasing some idea of the heroic is really just a way to replace some negative view of myself with something more appealing. (Saving my brother, a task set by my mother, yet another way for me to pursue the hero. I'm really starting to hope that I'm just taking this whole idea too far...) Rejecting the heroic as the ideal allows me to just do what feels right rather that what I SHOULD be doing. Simple example, I was on a kick a month or so ago about reading harder books. The hero should suffer to go beyond the merely mortal and strive for more, and as such he should be willing to tackle the really challenging novels. Breaking that train of thought would be a good first step.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Always trying to be the hero

So my part of the giant corporation is undergoing a strategic refresh. Maybe it's time for me to refresh my strategy. I've been dancing around doing something like this for awhile, but I've dismissed it as just another way for me to think and plan without actually doing anything. A quick little insight into one of my big patterns (something that was really evident in my youth that has ebbed in import over the years but still pulls on my orientation to life) has me rethinking the value of coming up with a new something to center my life.

I've always wanted to be the hero. I came to this insight in a round about manner, but the key to the realization came when I thought about my favorite movies, particularly the movies that really moved me when I was a kid. Top Gun was a favorite. I watched Last of the Mohicans every time I passed over it on TV. Star Wars was my life for a big chunk of my youth. The trend continues into adulthood. Braveheart. Gladiator. Spartacus was the first show that I watched using Netflix. The hero story is not limited to movies. You're always the hero when you play video games. I preferred games where with quests that could be completed. Sports games were never really my thing (unless I was beating my brother). I read comic books and played sports. Making the winning play, being the hero of the game, was one of my go to daydreams when I was in high school. I tried so hard to convince myself that I was distinct and special.

The desire to be the hero captures so much of what has resonated strongly in my life. There are other memories that I can think of, things that are too difficult to record in something like this post, that are consistent with this hero narrative. These recollections (like the predominant story I acted out when I was playing in the trees behind my house or when I was riding my bike back and forth along the road behind a different house) give the role that these heroic stories from popular culture had in my life much greater relevance than simply being stuff that most guys like. I just can't ignore the centrality of the hero image as a core part of my self-image.

As I look back over the patterns that I've followed for the last few years, this idea of trying to be the hero pops up again and again. Heroes go on quests. School has been one of my quests. Getting into law school. Getting my MBA. Those were trials I used to prove my perseverance and mettle. My PhD falls into that category as well. The pursuit of that degree was the driving motivation of my life from my senior year of college until I finished the degree. That's almost 10 years spent focused on achieving a difficult goal. That's not to say it was all about this hero thing, but it's consistency with the hero's journey. Even my decision to volunteer to help with challenging things at work fit into this idea of being the hero. My work on launching new products came after a failure to launch similar products with a different company. That was my way of saving the day. The same thinking applies to my current efforts to get a product through the FDA approval process. It's a chance to save the day.

My initial response to this insight is not positive. This pursuit of the heroic hints at desperation and need for acceptance. This is why I think it's time to rethink my approach. Well, rethinking my approach isn't really the crux of the matter. It's more about figuring out what gets me motivated and excited and decoupling that from this quest for recognition and special status. It's the status seeking inherent in wanting to be the hero that really bothers me.