Sunday, October 9, 2011

Career Planning: Three Parts Chance, One Part Planning

This blog is mostly intended for the younger professionals whose careers are just beginning, but older geezers (like me) might also find it interesting, as they face the challenge of honoring their aging parents while maintaining their career. The key messages are: (1) Career paths and opportunities are three parts chance, one part planning and preparation; (2) The professionals that reverse that ratio— place great emphasis on planning and preparation, leaving very little room for chance—are often times the least happy and fulfilled. Wandering is sometimes the most direct path to a perfect destination; and (3) If you sacrifice your career in the interests of others, your career won’t sacrifice you.
There are too many first person pronouns in this story and for that, you have my first person apologies. This is an ode to a different person — a person who doesn’t look for what life owes her, but what she owes life — and the manner in which her attitude towards life has affected the way I look at my career. I share this story, though fearful that in doing so I disrespect the sanctity and solemnity of the entire event — the opportunity granted me. Hopefully, that fear is unfounded, the purity is intact, and the story somehow serves others who face similar quandaries. If nothing else, it serves as a long and public letter of thanks to very special people.
About a year ago, I had a fairly deep spiritual and introspective experience — the kind that happens to people who live alone on a tropical island, ala Tom Hanks in Castaway. It was the type of experience that forces you to rethink your priorities… I mean really rethink them, deeply.
During this experience, it struck me that the overwhelming priority in my life at this time should be to honor the irreplaceable time that remained in my mother’s life. At 87-years old, Ruby Sanders is still in amazing physical and mental condition. She still lives in the same house in Durango, Colorado where she raised six children; where winters are still winters. She’s a product of the Dust Bowl, escaping the plains of eastern Colorado and western Kansas with our grandparents, where they lived for a short time in a cabin with a dirt floor, escaping west to the mountains of Colorado just in time for the Great Depression.
During this hardest of times, the highlight of Christmas was often the gift of an orange or, even more special, a banana. Mom raised her first baby while our father was half-the-world away, in World War II, surviving The Battle of the Bulge.
A few short years after his return from WWII, they would suffer a parent’s worst nightmare, as our sister (their 18-month old daughter) would die painfully from aspirin poisoning. A few years would pass, the wounds of heart would become tolerable, and Mom and Dad would suffer yet another nightmare of parenting as our brother (their oldest son) at barely 18 years of age would be killed in an aircraft explosion. I can remember the scene at our kitchen table, early in the morning, when we found out — you don’t soon forget the inconsolable sobs and tears of your parents.
A few more years would pass — her wounds of heart now so deep they could never heal completely — and she would lose the love of her life (our father) at much too young an age, a victim of genetic cardiovascular disease. Some of us wonder if his heart failure was the result of a broken heart, never fully recovering from the tragic deaths of his children so young in life.
There are more stories of suffering for Ruby — too many to mention here — but throughout these periods of anguish, Mom would remain loving, caring, thoughtful, and resilient, never stumbling for more than a few steps, always hiding her broken heart to support the rest of her children, family, friends and community. Always, her first priority was instilling life and confidence in everyone around her.
About a year ago, during my Castaway reflective moments, I called Mom to check-in. Her voice was cracking with emotion, holding back tears. I prodded, “What’s wrong Mom?” to which she hesitantly replied, “Oh, I’m just so frustrated. I’ve been trying all morning to open this damn jar of peanut butter, but I can’t get it open and I feel so helpless!”
And with that, her little old lady tears came pouring out. It wasn’t long, maybe 30 seconds, and she stopped crying, apologized, and started counting her blessings — giving thanks for even having a jar of peanut butter when so many people have nothing.
With that conversation, I asked myself, “What kind of son am I if I fail to honor such a mother?  What if I fail to help her lead a worry-free life, the remainder of her life — a life that has had so many worries already?” I realized I would be no son at all.
I said a prayer at that moment, planting a seed of hope in the Universe, asking for an opportunity to return to our home town of Durango (population 12,000) so that I might help her lead that worry free life, the rest of her life. The likelihood of finding work in an isolated mountain town that would suit my career path was low, but I didn’t pray to that level of detail. All I asked for was the opportunity to return to Durango, in hope and faith that the details of my career and livelihood would work out.
Three months later, after more prayers and contemplation, I announced to our CEO of the Cayman Islands Health Services Authority that I would be leaving — two years sooner than planned. I didn’t have another job lined-up, nor any clear idea of what I might do to make ends meet in Durango, but my conscience  told me to commit first and plan later….the plan would come together.
Thankfully, it did, with the help of my dear friend Daphne Lawrence and the gracious willingness of Dave Garets at The Advisory Board (where I’ll be taking on a new position), and Lizzette Yearwood, my current CEO, who supported my transformation to a telecommuting role. Now, I have the privilege of returning home with nary a skip in my career to spend irreplaceable time with Mom, sisters, family, and friends.
I share this story in hopes that it might help those who are younger in their career and believe that you can and should plan every step of your career. I say rubbish. Keep your hearts opens to non-career priorities and the opportunities of random chance, for therein is the adventure of life. Jump when there is no safety net and see what happens. You’d be surprised how often you can fly.


Art Vandelay said...

Well said and so true. Combining this with the Steve Jobs commencement address at Stanford and there are great reminders for us all. Thank you for the reminder to focus on what is important.

Watson Wright said...

Dale - I am glad it all has worked out so well. I too, went through some changes, leaving NMFF afforded me an opportunity to move closer to my mother. This past Memorial Day weekend we visited her, and took her from the Nursing home to a mini-family reunion with her sisters, and some other relatives that had come in from other states. A good time was had by all. I drove back to South Carolina on Monday, the 31st. Two days later, June 1st, a sepsis infection took her away in a matter of hours. Life is short, and family is too important to put off. Best of luck and good times to you. Watson

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