No One Told Me
I am at a strange point in my career. Now 19 years in, you might say I am at a halfway point. This is just about the time that people actually care about my advice - perhaps it’s the war scars or perhaps just the passage of time. Like most other women of my vintage, I dish out my fair share of the usual suspects: set clear goals, network, pick the right life partner, build a support system, fail fast. All critical and great advice.
But in preparing for mentoring conversations, I am increasingly reflecting on what I wasn’t prepared for or expecting because no one wanted to tell me. The ‘if I had only known’ lessons.
And so here goes, for my new batch of Rotman School of Business mentees and the handful of folks that wander into my life asking for help, I am sharing some uncomfortable lessons I have learned along the way (so far). You will notice I sound deliberate in each of the points. That’s because I do believe that these truths hold true for most people. This might sound closed-minded, but watered-down perspectives won’t help anyone, except perhaps the people dishing out safe, ‘cover all the bases’ advice.
1. You will often have to pick work over family
If you want a high-octane career – partnership, senior executive, CEO, tenured professor, emergency room surgeon, there are going to be times, more often than not, when you have to pick work over family. You will miss your kids’ school events, a milestone for your partner, a friend’s birthday. You will cancel vacations, family dinners, a planned afternoon at the park. You will spend more than your fair share of time at the kitchen table with your laptop.
You will realize, in time, that you make these choices, not because work is more important than your family. But because work gives you a level of stimulation and independence that is worth the trade-off. I don’t believe we are even close to finding a solution for the elusive work-life balance goal that so many men & women strive to attain - not in the so-called career ‘big leagues.’ There are lots of great options for flexible or less arduous work arrangements if this trade-off isn’t for you. No judgement here. Those options can serve you well for your entire career, or during on-ramp and off ramp periods.
But, be prepared. If you are not willing to run full-out to achieve a big career goal know that someone else is willing to do so. And that person will outrun you.
2. At some point, someone will gaslight you
There are people in the world who will intentionally and maliciously manipulate you. I don’t mean that they will be a disrespectful or unkind. I mean that they literally will go out of their way to derail or bring tension into your life for their self-preservation, advancement and sometimes for no reason at all.
You may try to give these people some time to change, try to let things slide. A mindfulness app or two. A bottle of wine. Sometimes you may even try to change them. But you will learn the really, really hard way, that you must eliminate these people from your life. This will mean sometimes taking the unfair course of finding another job or workplace. It will mean swerving from your path to avoid the mental anguish of a head-on psychological collision.
Be prepared to find these people before they impact you severely. They hide out in the upper ranks of trusted institutions and organizations. They are unusually suspicious of others, unable to foster a culture of happiness and motivation, radically unaccomplished for their rank and generally have a polished and charismatic veneer. Find these people and then find a new path for yourself. If you are a genuine good human, you simply will not be able to expect or plan for the kinds of underhanded demented things that gas-lighters will do.
3. At the worst of times, you will likely be alone
When things are going well in your career, everyone wants to be part of your team, your mission, your life. You get invited to special work events, senior leaders offer to mentor you, you are asked to mentor others. Everyone wants to hang out with you after work. You get pay raises, awards and promotions ‘out of the blue’ and there are many wonderful emails about your achievements.
When things are not going well in your career, however, this crowd of supporters will sometimes vanish. Literally vanish. As if simply breathing the same air is career contagion. And suddenly you will find yourself in a slump. As Dr. Seuss wisely once said ‘un-slumping yourself is not easily done’.
So be prepared to have a party of one for tough career slumps. You will have to dig deep, rebuild and accept that you are doing so in the face of much skepticism. At these times, your family & friends truly are your life raft. Not because they can solve your career challenges (remember, I said you will to do that alone), but because they can give you respite, energy and confidence in yourself. Picking yourself up from a slump, dusting off the rubble and letting the bruises heal is tough, but, if you do the hard work, it will ultimately take you to a better place (I promise).
That’s a lot of negative talk. At this point in the conversation, you might think I am real downer of a mentor. The good news is that I have also had a few ‘wish I knew’ moments that skewed to the exceptionally positive:
1. Someone will believe in you more than you believe in yourself
Along the way, for as many workplace psychopaths you will encounter, you will also encounter incredible people. Some of these people will believe in you to do something that you think is impossible. They will see something in a job interview that results in your getting a role you thought impossible, they will throw you a challenge or promotion that you were not expecting and don’t feel ready for. They will award you the big account. They will tell you that you have an exceptional talent and gift.
These people will not be your long-trusted friends or colleagues and won’t have owed you anything. It will feel like they have come ‘out of the blue’ so it will confuse you – you may even perceive them to be disingenuous.
When this happens, run with it. Don’t second guess or naval gaze. Definitely don’t argue. Be prepared to take on the challenge, whatever it may be, by trusting that, for an unknown ‘someone’ to believe in you, they have seen or experienced some overwhelming evidence in your abilities.
2. You will find inspiration in unlikely places
There will be many times in your life & career that you will be doing things that you think are beneath your capabilities. Maybe you are at a small company sweeping the floor or at a bank leading a team that isn’t aligned to your ambitions. You might be on maternity leave cleaning baby bottles looking out the window at nothing, for the 100th day in a row. (note: all these things happened to me!)
Taken at face value, these types of experiences truly will be worthless. But, if you are open to it, these kinds of experiences will take you outside the bubble you were living in. And in doing so, you will breathe some different air, see things from a different perspective, perhaps even reflect on your own experiences a little bit differently.
Be prepared for these kinds of ‘changes of scene’ to inspire you to veer from the goals you might have thought were most important. We all tell new graduates to set and achieve goals, to make a plan (important stuff – definitely you must to do this). But in your career, if you are open-minded, you will find inspiration and career pivots in the least likely of places. I can’t even explain this further other than to suggest that you ask someone ‘how did you arrive at the place where you achieved your career high.’ You will be surprised at the plethora of non-scientific, random answers that people will give you to this question.
3. Your life will be enriched by your career
During your career, you will meet people who will become your lifelong friends, you will laugh a lot, you will achieve incredible things that make the people around you proud. You might see a few places in the world that you might otherwise not have. You will make money and that will change your life, but also the lives and the opportunity set of your family. You will take on much too much and often succeed and it will feel so awesome that you will smile and feel content when no one is looking. You will feel like perhaps you understand your purpose on earth.
For some reason, it's hugely politically incorrect to say everything I just said. Because not everyone chooses to have a career and finding satisfaction in work is considered by our culture to be greedy and selfish. But I don’t feel particularly motivated to be politically correct today.
So, if you are on a high-octane career journey, be prepared for your career to be a life altering adventure, not just a job to pay the bills.
* * *
You might, at this point, be happy or angry about my perspectives. But take them for what they are – this is the lecture I wish I got when I showed up to my first real job, an internship at RBC Dominion Securities, over 19 years ago as a bright-eyed university student. When I started that job, I was a great student. I knew all the answers on paper. But I often smile as I think back to how unprepared I was to handle the human dynamics and political realities of the workplace.
Time has gone by so much faster than I bargained for and there are many days when I wish I did more with my career, but there are also many days when I wonder what my life would have been like if I did less. It’s impossible to know, as I can’t live the same life twice. And this is perhaps my last ‘wish I had known lesson’ – all you can really do is take what I am sharing and what you learn along the way and look forward. What you choose to do with all this knowledge – accept or reject it - is entirely up to you.