Friday, June 24, 2011

Profound Questions

One of my LinkedIn groups had this interesting question posted this morning: "If you had to do it all over again, would you choose your present career?" I read the responses and was very surprised to see mostly negative comments. So many people were not happy with their careers or with the way their lives had turned out. It gave me something to think about. I'm a pretty happy guy by nature and generally assume that most everybody else is, too. A dangerous assumption, I know, but that's my default setting. So when I bump into evidence that my defaults are faulty, it gets my mind going.

I immediately answered the question with this:
If I had to do it all over again, I'd do the same things, absolutely. I was a naval officer for 22 years and did some neat things with wonderful people in some unbelievable situations. Then I became an artist, a completely different universe, loved it and was very good at it. But the art market has collapsed and the things I need to paint are not the things that sell, so I'm looking for an opportunity to make a living while contributing something positive to the world. It'll come. One thing I've learned is that the best things in my life haven't been the things that I planned for, they've been the unexpected: the career field that I never heard of until I stumbled into it, an assignment I never would have asked for, and the woman who came into my life right when I specifically wasn't looking. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat!

Then I went out to do some mowing. Mowing is a great time to do some thinking. It's a physical activity that doesn't take a lot of brainpower: follow the pattern, make sure to overlap the passes, and that's about it. So I thought about the LinkedIn question and why it is I was able to answer it that way.

Way back when (about 1969), my first job was with a food producer. It was a small shop that was set up to experiment with making sausage biscuits and see if they could do it profitably. I was clueless, just a 16-year-old teenager with no skills hired on as general labor for part of a summer. The older guys, who had all been doing general labor for years, even decades, took me under their wing. They showed me how to work hard and carry my weight. None had been to college and only a few had completed high school. Most of them were black, and for a middle-class white kid who grew up in the segregated south, this was an eye-opener. I learned a lot: that people could be smart even if they're not educated, that the people doing the work generally knew more about how to get the job done than the boss did, and that most people wanted to work hard and be respected for what they could do.

Those lessons were reinforced later when I went to work as a waiter at a Red Lobster. My trainer was an older black woman named Rosa. She was skinny as a rail with a beehive hairdo and more energy than anybody else in the restaurant. Rosa hustled. She was always two steps ahead of the game. Rosa was the best waitress in the place and always made more in tips than everybody else. Always. From her, I learned a lot about taking care of my customers, how to give them my attention without being obsequious, and how to monitor seventeen things going on at once. (Are my orders up? The hostess just seated a party of six at my table - need to get their water and forks to them now. This lady needs a refill on her tea. That kid just dumped his plate on the floor - get the bucket over here. How are we on rolled utensils? The coffeepot is almost empty - make a new one.) And teamwork. We all had to work together to get the job done. If anybody was slacking, it affected everybody else, because the pace was intense.

Good life lessons for a kid just out of high school.

So what does all this have to do with the LinkedIn question? Well, a career is a reflection of life in general. I had a good career in the Navy, a good career as an artist, several good careers as a student of various kinds, and a good "career" as a program/project manager in Iraq. Some careers paid better than others, but all of them were very rewarding. The reason is that it's all about people. The lessons I learned from the sausage biscuit factory and the Red Lobster stayed with me throughout all my careers. Treat your business associates, customers, and staff with respect, carry your weight and then some, and focus on the team, and you'll do well. The specific career field is almost incidental.

1 comment:

Jennifer Hornberger said...

We are shaped by the learning experiences we have while we work. I still recall my first employer telling me as I leaned against the counter in a dreamlike state 'if you've got time to lean, you've got time to clean':) good advice for a 14 year old and I carry it with me to this day. things aren't what they seem at first but I still hold on to the meaning and the energy behind every second in life that can count..for something.