Three years ago, I joined my current company. Hired to bring about change: opening a new satellite office. establishing a design team and discipline within the company. spearheading design and development of a brand new product. It was awesome.
I even said so on Twitter.
Like every job, it’s been a rollercoaster. There have been high points and low points. But it’s on the whole, it has been and continues to be fun. Some rights reserved by SchuminWeb
That’s why I was surprised when one of the guys on my team stopped me in the hallway. “You ok?” he asks. His sincerity is intense. It makes me uncomfortable. “Yeah, I’m fine. Why?” I ask. “You look angry,” he said. “Nah, I’m just thinking,” I say. But he pressed on. “It’s not just now. You seem angry a lot lately.” It was a gut punch. I knew I was frustrated about some things, but I didn’t realize I’d become the office angry guy. So I stopped and took stock. Why was I so angry?
For one thing, I was exhausted. It wasn’t uncommon for me to still be awake when my alarm would go off. I was going to bed as I always had, but I’d lie there, running through the list of things I was worried about, frustrated about, angry about. I couldn’t turn off the part of my brain that obsessed about work, and it was taking its toll. In pretty much every aspect of my life, I wasn’t being anything close to the best version of myself. Some rights reserved by Howard Dickins
When I’d get home from work, my wife didn’t talk to me until I talked to her first. She had learned that I was stewing on something, and I was all too willing to misdirect my frustration at her given half a chance. And our lives weren’t equitable at all. She was carrying 95% of the weight of caring for our kids and our household while I would lose my frustrations in video games and whiskey.
My routine of Saturday morning daddy-daughter dates faded away. I wrestled with them less. Tickled less. Read fewer bedtime stories. My heart broke when the little one, Lucy, asked me one afternoon if I was “Busy Papa” or “Fun Papa” that day.
And then right as I was asking myself how the hell I had gotten there, it was time for my 15 year high school reunion. I went to a small fine arts magnet school in Augusta, GA. I was very close friends with the sixty other kids I graduated with. At any other school, we’d have been the outcasts, but at Davidson Fine Arts, we were a powerful tribe of artists, idealists, visionaries. My classmates have gone on to conduct world renowned orchestras, star on broadway, be doctors, lawyers, teachers. One of them is even sharing the stage here today -- hi, Zach.
My reunion was amazing, but it left me in a bit of an early midlife crisis. Somewhere along the way, I’d lost the happy, energetic, enthusiastic, idealistic kid I had been, and I was determined to find him again. To find him, I had to know how I lost him.
Not one big thing. No deal with the devil. Just a lot of small missteps. Little things, poorly handled, over time. I didn’t change so much as I eroded. As I’ve tried to deconstruct my path, where I went wrong, I’ve learned a few things. Some rights reserved by Grand Canyon NPS
Designing digital things spoiled me. Digital is predictable. When I tell pixels to change, they change. They obey. People are trickier. Messier. Ultimately, better. But I think my frustration started to consume me when I had unrealistic expectations about how quickly I could bring about positive change in the organizations I worked for.
That means more than they have a different take on things. It means that they have different information, different points of reference. Their view may be more complete than yours.
It’s too easy to start a debate focused on what you need to accomplish and end on what exact tactics to employ to accomplish it. If you’re not careful, you’ll miss the tipping point where people recognize that the what is the right thing. At that point, you need to back off. You’ve won the day. Let them own the how--they’ll feel more a part of the change, and it’s one more thing you don’t have to worry about.
Focus on the journey you have to make, not how hard it’s been to get to where you are. History can become a millstone, so keep short accounts. Let bygones be bygones, and approach each new day as a new challenge. It’s useful to ask “how do we get from here to there.” Asking “how do we get from where we used to be to there” is useless, because you’re not there. You’re not even likely on the path you thought you’d take from there. So start over. How do we get from where we are to where we want to go? From who we are to who we want to be?
Pushing for change inevitably means you’re irritating someone. If you focus on bringing about change so completely that you’re not showing your value in other ways, you become extremely vulnerable. You have to keep being awesome. Being awesome earns social capital, and you have to spend a lot of that to bring about change.
As frustration builds, you’ll need a place to vent it. Don’t do it at work. Don’t do it after work over beers with people from work. Don’t do it with anyone who is connected to the situation. Chances are they have their own steam to blow off, and if you’re comfortable venting to them, they probably see things the way you do. That’s a recipe for an echo chamber that will do nothing but amplify the emotions of the situation. Find someone outside the situation who you trust enough to call you on your bull. A friend, a mentor, a therapist. Whatever works for you.
Revolutions are loud, painful, violent... and they seldom work. Don’t try to make the jump in one step -- in part because it costs too much to do so, but also because you can’t actually get there anyway. In an organic system, healthy change is iterative. Evolution. Keep raising the bar on yourself as you seek better and better approximations, but don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.
If you fight against the very essence of the company, then you’re the disease -- you’re the cancer. Push to challenge a company to rise to its own ideals, but unless you’re the CEO, don’t try to rewrite those ideals. Recognize a bad fit and exit gracefully.
Nothing is more valuable than your happiness. And if you want to change the world, there’s no better way to do it than by refusing to let it wear you down and steal your joy. In the end, it doesn’t matter how awesome you are as a professional if you suck at being a decent human being.
Changing the world (without losing your sh*t)
(without losing your sh*t)