Fix what you can

cog

“If you can’t control your peanut butter, you can’t expect to control your life.”
― Bill Watterson, The Authoritative Calvin And Hobbes

You ever have a squeak in your car that you ignored? When you’re younger, you figure if the car is still running, you might as well keep driving. You tell yourself you’ll get to it later, until you’re stranded somewhere on the side of the road with the hope that one of your friends will come pick you up.

For all of my insights and everything I like to think I know, I’m still learning this business of leadership as I go. My entire career has been built venture off the beaten path — sometimes literally — and creating paths where there weren’t any. What’s more difficult is fixing the fraying edges of circumstances where relationships are damaged and mistrust is high. People are cautiously optimistic, but anticipating more of the same. They’ve been promised lots before, only to get little. What would make you any different?

My first job in any organization is to listen to the people who’ve been there. The ones who have been doing their jobs diligently, no matter who is at the helm of the ship and if there’s no one at the helm, steering the ship in the interim. These people deserve their respect, because without them you don’t have an organization. You can’t give everyone what they want. Heck, you can’t even get everything you want regardless of where you are.

Leadership seems to be in part about picking your battles, understanding your audience and knowing your craft. I’ve been a cog in the wheel for a long time and I remain so. You can feel powerless when it appears that no one is advocating for what’s right. When you’re in a position to do something about it, it can be deceptively comfortable to want to offer more than you can deliver on. You just want to make people feel better; but it’s in those moments that it’s more important to balance the concerns of the few with the needs of the whole to find some common ground from which to move forward.

You’ve Never Really “Made It”

I was watching this video with Don Cheadle and Kerry Washington talking about being in Hollywood. The thing that I found interesting was how no matter how successful they both are, they seemed well aware that a failure to work or to recede from the limelight at a particular point would result in becoming irrelevant. Ad-libbing, one of the say “you’ve never really made it, you’re just working. You do work.”

Starting a new job is always a good opportunity to reflect on the milestones in our lives as they occur. For me, it’s remembering how strange it can often feel to be doing a thing that I grew up doing and never had any real designs on making a career. Maybe because when I started, you didn’t grow up to become a “web person” but rather, it was a thing you did in your room and your parents told you to stop doing to do something else. My how times have changed.

I’m not sure how consistent I’ll be about blog posts, advice or anything else unrelated to work, side projects or people things. But I do know I need to make a consistent effort to blog more about the sorts of things I wished someone had told me when I was getting started. I’m not sure I’d have understood everything they were trying to impart, but a good reason for why I will often try to spread the wisdom I’ve picked up is because I recall being in a situation where I could’ve used good advice and just didn’t have the right contacts to tap who understood my circumstances enough to dispense it.

Thanks to the ubiquity of the web, it’s a lot easier now. But even then, you don’t want to ask every stranger you meet for advice, since you can’t be sure what you’ll get in return.

My big thought of the night was, you’ve never really ever made. Whether you’re a Hollywood actor or a web guy working in some random state. You’re always trying to improve your craft, growing and trying to do more. You don’t get to a point climbing up the career ladder where you spend much time peering out at the scene thinking “aah, so this is what success feels like,” because it’s a fleeting thing. You never feel like you have enough and even the best situations come with caveats.

I remember a conversation I had with a friend recently. She’s got a Ph.D., is a professor at an elite college and did so after going back to school in her 30s to get where she is now. We both recalled this moment where you remember your life at your worst moments and think, “surely things will get better from here, right?” Only to discover that it took multiple years in some cases to just get to a point where you felt semi-comfortable enough to breathe. She said, “but if you hadn’t gone through all of that to get where you are, would you even appreciate it?”

I’m not sure the answer. I just know that looking back on the immediate and distant past, I didn’t see any of this coming. I’m living out my dreams and checking a number of marks off a to-do list for things I always wanted to do in the process of all of this. Except in the process of doing so, I didn’t always understand the implications of that pursuit and where it’d leave me.

We watch our mentors, our champions and our friends weave through a world with the ease of a dance champion and believe that by modeling ourselves after them we can follow in their footsteps in a sense. Except it doesn’t always work that way when you’re starting from zero or worse. You have to carve your own trail through the maze, learning with each step we take.

The thing I always go back to is, no matter far you’ve come, you’ve never really “made it” you’re just progressively taking the next step on your path.