When I interviewed for my current job I was told what the long term plans were for my position. Specifically the vague idea was for me to be teaching a subject I had no background with . The laudable goal on the part of my institution was to provide for a future need in a service area that was growing in our community. It was believed there would be a need for this service as the years went by and the growth area was near where I lived. Now if you are asked to do something completely out of your comfort zone and were unqualified for then it could send up alarm bells. It didn’t for me. The first reason it didn’t bother me was because it was a pretty typical conversation you would have in any interview. There are always long term plans for nearly all new hire positions and those long term plans almost always fall apart as new initiatives usually disrupt the prior long term plans. The second reason was because this area was something of an interest for me. I wanted to do it, or in business speak, I was looking forward to the challenge. I was so enthralled by it that I started an extensive level of voluntary activity aligned with the goal before anyone asked me to.
First let me tackle the question of Why would I be asked to teach something I have no background with? The answer has to do with certifications and credentialing in higher education. At the community college level, if you want to teach, you have to have a masters in the discipline for which you are teaching. You may have a Masters, but that doesn’t mean you are a master in every area of that discipline. In my case the Masters is in Information Technology, and the course I was supposed to teach was really more aligned with Computer Science. For those who are not in the know, Information Technology is about using computer systems and networks to get tasks done. Computer science is more about engineering hardware and software. More specifically I can design the systems and how they work together to do what you need to get done in your business, but don’t ask me to code the actual software, that’ll be the Software Engineers with the CS Degree. For the college, they just need instructors who have a masters in the field, or an aligned field. My Information Technology degree technically means I can teach both even if that’s not practical.
The second question relates to why I was excited about the opportunity. This one should be an easy answer. It’s an aligned subject area. If you are dealing with computers in any technical capacity the magic and mystery of coding is something that is alluring. Well it’s alluring to me at least. I’ve always wanted to code in the same way I’ve always wanted to make music. They are both creative endeavors with infinite possibilities.
So what did I do? I did what I always do, I bit off way more than I could chew as the saying goes. The first step for me was just thinking and keeping my eyes open. As soon as my name went live on our website for my new position I started receiving emails and phone calls for product sales pitches. I decided to attend webinars with regularity because I figured the more I knew about what was out there for me, the better off I would be overall. One of them was an innovative set of tools for the specific subjects I would, in theory, be eventually called upon to teach. After a dialog with the company and my leadership I put together a plan to not only get access to the materials, but to set up a completely faux class with test students. Nobody asked me to do this. When I was interviewed, I was told that there would be a Professional Development budget set aside which would be used to pay for training to allow me to get up to speed on the subjects that I would, in theory, be teaching in the future. This was a completely self initiated and voluntary activity above and beyond my normal duties which I was just starting to figure out.
This wasn’t my first run in the extra activity rodeo. Often I take on projects that Interest me. Why would I do it? You would think a person who is as risk averse as I am wouldn’t commit a whole bunch of time to something knowing how often things change. As an example, within just a few months of being brought on, one of the senior leaders who planned to have me teach the new subjects moved on to a bigger role at another institution. Who knows what his replacement will have in mind strategically. They may want to go into a completely different direction. The answer has to do with the importance of activity itself.
This is a lesson that goes back to my days of cold calling as a technology representative. I hated cold calling. I still do. There simply aren’t that many people who are emotionally wired to do it long term. It’s mostly a waste of time. Every now and again the cold calling would lead to a sale but in my mind it really was always about justifiable activity when there was nothing else going on. Still there are benefits to cold calling. For example, over time, you emotionally toughen up. On rare occasions you would get a sale or two. Often, quite often, I would run into other opportunities that maybe wouldn’t net a sale but would teach you about something, or possibly help develop your professional network. That last bit is the most important aspect of cold calling and the part that relates to my extra work trying to teach myself something new. Activity begets opportunities. They may not be the opportunity that you were originally looking for, but they are opportunities. It’s as simple as that.
So why am I bringing this up? I have a friend, his name is Elliot. He is very unhappy with His job. He puts in the minimum amount of time to get the job done. He is highly competent, but that’s it. There is no zest for the work. There is no initiative to do more or be more. This has resulted in my friend being in a non-stop funk as it relates to his job. He’s experiencing the classic “Thank God it’s Friday, Oh God it’s Monday” cycle. I know that if my friend started to do more, he’d discover more opportunities. In his case, doing more can be attending vendor webinars, it could be asking to go to conferences, or it could be volunteering to head up departmental initiatives. He could go to school at night to get credentials in his field, or any number of other work related activities. All that activity will eventually open up other opportunities for him, either in another position in the same firm, or possibly at a new firm. He has no desire to do any of that. To be fair he’s not alone. I’ve often met people in my career journey who are adamant that they will not do any additional work if it’s specifically not part of their job title or if they aren’t getting some kind of bump in salary for the extra responsibilities. That sort of hard line attitude never seems to hinder the careers of those who express it. I can see where managers may see some sort of benefit to their hard line in that they know what to expect out of the employee.
If I represent one end of the spectrum, let’s call me the overachiever, and Elliot represents the average, i.e. meeting the spec then what’s better? I know from experience that being an overachiever doesn’t get you promotions. When leadership promotes people, they look more to those who are successful at implementing strategy than they do workaholics. It took me years to figure that out, but I eventually did. Effective, at least in the private sector, always wins out over smart or hard working. In my case it’s not the promotion i’m looking for, it’s all the things that go along with the extra activity. The knowledge, the experience, the potential for more paths on my professional journey. My path may not be straight ahead with the company, but I know that I have more opportunities to get on a different road than Elliot does. There is something else I have that Elliot doesn’t. I enjoy work much more than he does. It’s not because of my daily routine, it’s because of my self directed activities. This extra activity got me to a job that’s pretty good, but continuing the extra stuff I do put me over the top as far as career satisfaction. I’m ok with the things I have to do, but I really look forward to the things I choose to do. That means I don’t usually get the Sunday night blues because I dread my Monday’s. In fact on Sunday’s i’m thinking about all the stuff I get to do on Mondays.
Of course this philosophy translates well beyond the working world. In dating, if you are fixated on a single type of person, then it’s possible to not realize what other personally or physical types may offer. This translates to social communities as well. If your social circles are limited to specific activities or people then you won’t ultimately try new things and touch new communities of people. Ultimately it’s much harder to experience more of the things that our life has to offer.
Now there is one negative I experience that Elliot never does. I have, as I alluded to earlier, a tendency to overcommit. That means I am always feeling rushed and a bit overwhelmed with all the projects I have going on both in work and outside of it. Elliot, due to his nature of not doing more than he needs too, almost never feels that way unless it’s forced upon him by his job. At the same time I think that Elliot is at greater risk of being let go. Another way to look at opportunities is as connections. These connections can be anchor points, both formally, and often informally. They may keep you where you are from a career perspective, but they also keep you from getting blown away.
In the end it doesn’t matter if it’s making sales calls or forcing yourself to try new things in other areas, activity begets new opportunities. Opportunity ultimately begets more options. Options allow us to choose the things in life that will satisfy us the most. For this to work, you have to want the activity, to volunteer for it. If you can find it in you to do this, then you have more chances to get to what you think of as winning. It’s a great deal of work, no question, but it can also be a fun journey that’s more than worth it. When given a choice between stress over feeling like I’m in over my head with all the stuff I signed on to do ,or experiencing the dread of returning to work on Monday, I’ll take the former over the latter any day of the week. This, of course, is doubly true on Sunday nights!
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Good article! Building your talent stack means that you have the potential take advantage of more opportunities, better. And, as you point out, the more things you are seen as good at, the faster your network will grow, so the more opportunities will present themselves. It’s a virtuous cycle!