Monday, February 18, 2013

Chips On My Shoulders

A recent article in Fast Company (Why You Should Stop Wasting Time On Absurd Motivational Articles) stresses the importance of taking bitterness and using it as motivation. I agree that many recent career-enhancement articles are heavy on self-actualization and pursuit of passion. Although I appreciate the essence of these articles, I haven't come across many articles about using the words and actions of doubters, skeptics, and haters as motivational tools.

I am most inspired whenever I am in company of energizing friends who make things happen and are driven. These folks have built their awesome situations through believing in themselves and their goals--and have the skills and experience to back up their passions. But the doubters, skeptics, and haters all have their place, too.

The local PONY Baseball League, which I played in when I was 13 and 14, was a great example for learning about overcoming skeptics. The first summer was a complete bust, as I was a horrible fielder and a batter. Having inadequate prescription glasses was the main culprit, but I was also too complacent--I was just happy to be playing on the team. Not surprisingly, the coaches put me in corner outfield positions for only couple of innings each game, hoping that balls wouldn't be hit in my direction. We had a pretty good team, but I was clearly the worst player.

Thanks to improved glasses and being driven by a fear of not being selected to play for the team, the following season was a significant improvement. Being able to see the ball better helped my confidence--it was the only time in my youth baseball career that I hit over .350. Instead of making brief cameos at corner outfield spots, I played more frequently. I volunteered to play infield positions, which was a new experience at that level of organized ball. I also warmed up pitchers when I wasn't in the lineup, coached first base, and did other things. I went from being an unreliable locomotive to a Little Engine That Could. And our team won the state tournament that summer.

When I joined the football team during my junior and senior years of high school, I was the smallest player on the team. My pep band friends thought that I was just pulling a publicity stunt. My Dungeon & Dragons-playing friends were even more skeptical. The football team endured losing records both years, but I scored a touchdown on my last game of the senior year, in a game which we won.

The chips on my shoulders continue to provide motivation today. In my current work situation as a Field Technician, there is a lingering perception that I am less qualified than my peers to do technical work. Having been a group lead at the less technical Help Desk group for many years before joining the current team may have something to do with the perception. Fair or not, I learned that hard technical skills are valued more than important soft skills such as communication and relationship-building, organizational knowledge, and identifying process improvement opportunities.

Despite my repeated contributions to the team's technical knowledge, the stereotype lingers. I use the doubters and naysayers as motivational tools--while I spend most of my work hours engaged in important administrative tasks that no one else wants to do, I spend time outside work learning technical knowledge that are relevant to my work and my industry. I also build career capital at work and elsewhere by being a Subject Matter Expert for several process improvement projects, presenting at industry conferences, and making connections with people who recognize my value.

Overcoming the chips on my shoulders is an icing on the cake, not the dessert. As long as I keep in mind that I'm learning new skills and experience for the purpose of building career capital--and not for flipping the bird to doubters, skeptics, and haters--I know that I will be in better position to embrace new opportunities. Once I learn new technical skills as part of my personal career enhancement strategy, I know that my established soft skills and a passion for helping others will differentiate myself from many technical folks who are only concerned about learning hard skills. To remind myself that I can make things happen despite naysayers, I only need to look in my closet and look at the letter jacket--with a letter earned from varsity football.

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