My life has always been a great adventure—I’ve lived and worked in New York City, Morocco and the Virgin Islands, had a horse, a sailboat, a race car, taught scuba, sailed off into the sunset, screamed around world class racetracks. I put myself through college and graduate school. I have earned big bucks, walked home because I didn’t have enough money for the bus, and most of the time been fortunate to live somewhere between those two extremes. Whether it’s true or not, I believe that I control my destiny.
My parents grew up during the Great Depression. They were the first college graduates in their families. My mom put herself through college after her father told her that a college education was wasted on a girl. My folks left their home towns on the eastern seaboard in 1950 to head west because the pay for school teachers was twice as much in California as it was in New Jersey. Work hard, learn a lot, you’ll be rewarded—I absorbed this mantra during my childhood and have lived by these words all of my life.
In John Bogle’s excellent book Enough, he tells his story about founding Vanguard. He espoused hard work, doing the right thing, living according to your values. Bogle suggested that others will find rewards in doing so as well. Then I listened to an inspiring interview with a woman who described starting out in her company’s call center and progressing to the C-suite, through a combination of working hard, earning college degrees and volunteering for projects to gain experience in a variety of areas. This is the way our careers should be!
The universe doesn’t always cooperate
But it isn’t necessarily what happens. The value of the skills and professional growth that we attain through taking on new challenges is ours to keep, but for every worker whose efforts have been rewarded, there’s at least one whose efforts have only led to…more work! You know these folks—they’re chosen first for every project. Heck, you may be one of them. To achieve our goals, we have to learn from all of our experience. That means objectively reflecting on all of the outcomes of our actions, including how they are valued by others. This was a hard lesson for me to learn.
Over the years, I’ve worked in many different environments, from my own small businesses to large organizations. For most of my career, I didn’t even realize, on a conscious level, that I operate on the belief that hard work and dedication will eventually be recognized and rewarded. I love a challenge and thrive on problem solving. It’s my nature to look for things to improve and to try new things. This is such an obvious, out-front, part of me, I attract challenges organically. (This, by the way, makes me a perfect fit for financial planning--bring me your troubles, we’ll craft some solutions!) But it didn’t turn me into a star in organizations that I served for years. And it took me years to look at the evidence—my achievements are much greater working for myself than as part of a larger organization. Working for others I’ve done work I’m proud of, made close ties with colleagues within and outside my organization. But only in my own businesses have I been able to do work that changes lives and delights people. With our sailing vacation business, Ron and I made lifelong friends, people who are still saying 20 years later that their week on our sailboat was a highlight of their lives.
The light bulb comes on
It took a thwarted dream, a major professional disappointment, to force me to look at the evidence. My team hatched a plan to very inexpensively address a couple of our organization’s primary challenges. We were so passionate about this project, we were shocked to be turned down—the executives said they just didn’t want to make any quick changes. It was easy for me to see the writing on the wall for my subordinate. I encouraged her to look elsewhere for better opportunities and, within a few months, she had a new job. I’m thrilled to report that she has since been able to implement many of our ideas in her new organization! It took longer for me to realize how stubbornly I had been persisting in a belief that my hard work and good ideas would eventually be rewarded. An objective review clearly showed that my ideas were not valued in the arena I had chosen. To have the freedom to implement my own ideas and do work that is meaningful to me, I had to redirect my attention to changing the only thing in my control—me!
When I finally lifted my head from the “hard work will be rewarded” grindstone, I was able to channel my energy more productively. I came up with a plan to transition to my own financial planning practice and got to work on my financial planning certification. My days didn’t suddenly have more hours…but I conserved some of the energy that would otherwise have gone in to my existing job to prepare for my next phase. It wasn’t easy! When you’re curious, like to learn about new things and help other people, narrowing your focus and saying no is a major behavior change. But my new path was clear and these concessions had to be made. It was hard to learn to say no to all kinds of things, even those that interested me. People were baffled, some were even angered, by my changed behavior. I’m not a fan of conflict—it wasn’t pleasant. I stayed the course because I knew it had to be done.
I’ve been vocal in sharing what I’ve learned with others, mainly younger women just starting their professional careers. In my perfect world, everyone who worked hard, lived by their values and had good ideas would find the success that John Bogle did. In real life, it’s good to learn early to pay close attention to the signals you receive from your employer (or the market, if you’re running a business as I do today). Persistence is a wonderful thing, until it gets to be foolish. Take the time to look at the evidence. Only you can judge when you’ve tried enough and need to set your sights elsewhere. What’s that much repeated definition of insanity—repeating the same actions and expecting a different outcome?
While my examples are about career and realizing professional goals, these truths have applications in all aspects of our lives—personal, spiritual, financial. We really are in control of our destinies…it’s just that the path is sometimes longer and more circuitous than we expect! Keep your optimism, be true to yourself, and be willing to take a detour if your chosen route is blocked. The best use of persistence is to keep you taking steps towards achieving your dreams, forks in the road and all.
Do you believe you’re in control of your destiny? Have an experience to share? Please let me know at email@example.com. And feel free to call me if you would like a partner in planning to reach your dreams (336-701-2612).
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