Sunday, June 8, 2014

Coming of Age

The most serious mistakes are not made as a result of wrong answers.  The truly dangerous thing is asking the wrong questions. Peter Drucker

At the risk of creating a sort of abridged bildungsroman, I intend to walk through a series of questions I began to ask myself a few years ago, and my gradual progression to conclusions.  For those accustomed to my usual structured style, this personal narrative is likely to be jarring.  If that sort of article doesn't interest you, feel free to jump to the next blog in your reading list.


So having decided that a true early retirement fit neither my original schedule nor my present strategy, I began to ask myself a series of questions.  (You can read my evolving perspective on retirement here if you like.)  All in all, my journey had about 40 or 50 questions, but as an act of charity to my readers, I have pruned this down to about 12.

The first question came courtesy of the late CEO of Apple and Pixar:

For the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?  And whenever the answer has been 'no' too many days in a row, I know I need to change something. Steve Jobs

Despite the fact that this is a decent perspective and Nickelback notwithstanding, I never got anywhere with that question.  What I would do on my last day is not what I would do if I had one year remaining.  I recalled that Edison is purported to have said: "I never did a day's work in my life.  It was all fun."  Thus, I formulated what I thought would be an easier question.

What would I be truly excited to get out of bed each morning to do?

Unfortunately, this did not prove to be much easier to answer.  I resisted the urge to say something like "going to the beach".  After you have been working for 12 months straight, that may be the correct answer.  But after you've been to the beach for two weeks straight, it's no longer the right answer.  I was looking for something sustainable.  At the time, the best I could come up with was (a) helping people, (b) traveling, and oddly enough (c) reading.  That did not seem to be a satisfactory answer, but I pressed ahead with it.

Why do I enjoy traveling and reading?

I was comfortable lumping traveling and reading together in the same question because I intuitively felt there was some linkage.  Although these activities are universally enjoyed, I have long known that I don't approach traveling or reading the way most people do.  I enjoy reading anything and traveling anywhere.  One of the earliest bonding experiences I had with the woman who would later become my wife involved our weekend travels.  We would meet up Saturday mornings to travel.  In terms of destination, all that needed to be agreed upon was the direction to point the car.  "How about West today?" she would ask.  "West sounds fine," I would reply.  That might seem like a travel disaster for many, but this approach never failed us.

But you would have the wrong impression if you were imagining that "it's the journey, not the destination" or that we had simply learned to be content.  Indeed, I was not entirely sure what to make of it either.  I only knew that traveling and reading had a certain magic for me, which led to another question.

Why am I drawn to "magic moments"?

In order to understand this question, you must understand what I mean by magic moments.  This is a term I began using a long time ago to describe serendipities that carry a lasting significance.  For example, suppose you intend to go to Restaurant A for dinner, but find that it's full and opt for Restaurant B across the street.  If Restaurant B turns out to be even better than Restaurant A, then that is serendipity.  But if it turns out that Restaurant B becomes your most favorite restaurant ever and you later end up working there, then I call that a "magic moment".  The distinction is whether there is long-term significance.

But upon further analysis, it seemed there were other sorts of magic moments for me beyond serendipity.  These moments involved some quiet personal epiphany or new awareness.  Because they most often occurred during reading or traveling, I felt there was some connection, although I could not see what it was.  I had this lingering thought that perhaps I was simply an insight junkie, always looking for new connections.

I was getting nowhere with this thread of questions, so I turned to my present employment.  I began to re-examine whether I couldn't just try to be happy at work.  This gave rise to the obvious question.

Will I have regrets if I coast to retirement?  If so, what will those regrets be?

I knew deep down that I would have regrets.  And although I could not articulate exactly what those regrets would be, they seemed to center less around negative issues I might encounter by staying at my current position, and more around what I might miss elsewhere.  This is not an uncommon concern.  Mark Twain may have said it best: "Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do."  From a long term perspective this made sense, but I was still not sure why the daily grind bothered be so much.  I began to think about the following question.

Why am I so restless at work?

This was no small question, as I don't have the employment complaints many people do.  I'm well compensated.  I don't have a boss that yells at me.  I don't have a horrible commute.  I've even been able to structure my position to avoid overtime work.  Yet I loathe going to work each day.  Why is it so hard for me to be happy at work?  Why is it so hard to simply put up with it, get paid, and go home?  I tried really, really hard to be satisfied, but I could not.

People continued to counsel me to work within the constraints of my existing job.  They felt sure that I could adapt to the position, or the position could adapt to me.  In practice, however, that adaptation never happened.

I began to suspect I had chosen the wrong career.  Rewinding to earlier points in my life, that would certainly not be a bad guess.  But a career change is not a simple matter.  I am now in my late 40's and need to be realistic.  I cannot spend 5-10 years learning a new occupation.  If I were to switch careers at this stage in my life, I need to have a foothold.  Thus, I began to ask another question.

What am I already qualified to do?

Here, I felt myself fortunate.  Growing up, I had various hobbies and interests.  Yet there were three distinct fields where I eventually concentrated and excelled.  By the time I had graduated from college, it was not a stretch to say that I possessed entry-level qualifications in all three of these fields.  Unfortunately, as I finished my schooling, I instead chose to pursue a fourth discipline, which is my present occupation.  While it has "paid the bills", this field  was not really a passion of my earlier years, and I have often wondered whether this was a big mistake.  (I chalk up this blunder to emotional immaturity, as I skipped two grades in high school and was perhaps really too young to understand what I was doing.)

Since then, I have pursued an additional field to the point where I clearly have more than "entry-level qualifications", and one more where at least I have a toehold.  Thus, a new question arose.

Would I be happier working for less pay in one of those other fields?

Surprisingly, my answer to this question was a resounding negative.  Yet there were undeniably some moments of flow in these fields - times when I "wanted to get up in the morning" to work hard.  I began to suspect that perhaps there was some common theme here that manifested itself in all of these areas.  For example, a person may be secondarily attracted to both accounting and physics because the primary attraction is simply mathematics.  Might there be some common element among these fields?  Making that tentative assumption, I raised the following question.

What is the common factor in these six fields?

This proved an elusive question, and I struggled with it for months.  I spent many long walks wrestling with this single question.  I tried every angle, but could see no common factor among six very different fields.  Perhaps I simply had an appreciation for several different disciplines.  Not everything in life has to have a unifying factor.  Eventually, like the reporter at the end of Citizen Kane, I concluded that a single word could not sum up a man's life.  And just as the movie then cut to the dramatic scene of the Rosebud sled being thrown into the fire, so I unexpectedly found that my own conclusion was also wrong.


I am indebted to Gary Klein's book, Seeing What Others Don't: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insight, for breaking the logjam of my questions.  As I was reading this book, the following sentences jumped out at me.

Having an insight is an act of creation.  Each insight is the creation of a new idea that didn't exist before, often in opposition to defective ideas that formerly prevailed. Gary Klein

When I read those sentences, it was as if a lightswitch was turned on in my mind.  I was sure this idea was related to my career questions in some way.  Could creativity be the common factor in my six fields?  I was hopeful, but it didn't take long to shoot down that idea.  Only one of the six occupations would even be considered a creative field.  Clearly this was not what I was looking for.

However, a few chapters later in the Klein book, I was to receive another jolt.  He wrote a satirical chapter describing an environment entirely unsuitable for finding insights.  He was actually describing my current workplace in perfect detail!  I recalled my inability to express why my current job bothered me so much.  It seemed too much of a coincidence that creativity should brush up against my career questions a second time.  Perhaps I had been too hasty.

In order to test the possibility that creativity was somehow a common factor, I sought confirmation by independent means.  I asked myself three questions about creativity.

What exactly is creativity?

It was not easy for me to arrive at a definition of creativity that was not circular, so I sought the counsel of books.  This turns out to be one of those questions where you get 10 different answers if you ask 10 different people.  But I did note a few general themes.  The most common definitions of creativity could be grouped as follows:

1. Bringing something into existence from nothing
2. Structuring unstructured things
3. Discovering undiscovered things

This expanded definition helped reconcile the idea of creativity with the disparate professions.  I could also see that depending on the circumstances, I had generally sought out some part of the work that had one of the three slants listed above.  There was certainly much more in common than I originally thought. 

What are creative people like?

Like the previous question, there are many answers.  But two common themes are that creative people are questioners and readers.  Keith Sawyer is a leading expert on creativity.  I will use his words: "Exceptional creators ask questions no one has thought of before.  Exceptional creators also tend to be voracious readers.  Exceptional creators, in all walks of life, are surrounded by books."  Without the right questions, work is reduced to problem solving of the given tasks.  Einstein talked of this fact: "For the detective, the crime is given.  The scientist must commit his own crime as well as carry out the investigation."

What do creative people do?

Here I was content to use a simple definition because it cut right to the chase.  What do creative people do?  They create!  While the words creativity and creative had seemed too abstract, the verb form of the word was more accessible.  Am I happiest when I am creating things?  Yes, I am.  For once in this process, there was a question that was easily answered.

Like the last few pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, I found everything suddenly all fit together easily and rapidly.  The many questions that only days before seemed intractable now seemed to have obvious answers.  Yes, I had this strong need to create things.  In happier times, that was always what had made me excited to start the day.  It was why I enjoying reading and traveling and was the common factor I enjoyed in various fields.  Being in an environment where there is a lack of creativity is why I am so restless in my current job, and the potential lack of it is why I am afraid to switch to another job.  It was also what I would regret on my deathbed if I continued my current course. 


I later realized that part of my initial reluctance to accept creativity as an answer arose from two specific errors on my part.  I took these as warnings.  First, I had confused mental creation with physical creation.  For those with a vivid imagination, the process of creating something mentally may seem so real that the physical step may seem optional.  After all, isn't a new idea a kind of creation?  Not wanting to get hung up on semantics, I suppose that it is.  But still there is a heavy distinction.

Every action causes a change in reality.  Thinking doesn't. Leonard Schlesinger

Or to reword this idea in the form of a rebuke:

I define creativity as the act of turning new and imaginative ideas into reality.  Creativity involves two processes: thinking, then producing.  Innovation is the production or implementation of an idea.  If you have ideas, but don't act on them, you are imaginative but not creative. Linda Naiman

Second, although it's obvious that an appreciation for the creativity of others is not the same thing as personally creating something, there is nonetheless a tendency to think of oneself as being creative by association.  When I was in my teens and 20's, I created a lot of things.  But slowly over time, I began to create things only on paper.  Later still, they were only mental creations.  Ultimately, I was content to simply enjoy the creations of others.  I need to reverse this process and get back to my roots.

This downward spiral of creativity and its accompanying effects can be summarized by the following two quotes.

You go to see a movie, watch a TV show, eat at a restaurant, and you immediately have an opinion.  Your critique of this book began as soon as you started reading it.  But when was the last time you put something forward to be critiqued?  Better still, when was the last time you created something you weren't asked to create.  Instead of focusing your time consuming the creations of others, consider focusing your time on being a creator. Steve Olsher

Chances are you'll find that what you've been thinking of as relaxing "downtime" is actually the dominant force in your life, devouring months and years you can never get back. Steve Olsher


And so begins the very last paragraph of a very long post.  Why did I bother to write this?  First, I hope that someone can benefit from understanding the process I went through.  The framing and reframing of questions, the search for connections and contradictions, the testing of hypotheses - whatever your questions, these methods will be largely the same.  Second, I wanted closure in my mind of this questioning phase.  Lastly, don't confuse introspection with narcissism.  I understand that the world does not revolve around my career plans.  What I have written here is only a small part of a larger conversation.  As Aristotle said, "Where your talents and the needs of the world cross lies your calling."  And now if you will excuse me, it would seem that I have quite a lot of work to do.  You will hear from me again in September.