Thursday, November 28, 2013

Chicago: You're the Inspiration

I spent the first week of November in Chicago, attending SIGUCCS 2013 conference—an annual gathering for academic IT support professionals who work in higher education. This was the seventh time that I attended. During past conferences, I eagerly absorbed useful wisdom and best practices of fellow attendees. But this year I went beyond the usual lessons learned. It was a week of emotional awakening—not just for myself, but for many others who were at the conference.

There seemed to be a heightened level of camaraderie amongst the attendees. Perhaps it was because many of us were repeat attendees and had forged professional relationships and friendships outside of the conference week. Maybe it was because conference-goers were very approachable, friendly, and eager to share both their success stories and war tales. But the primary source of these emotional and personal bonds was the stories that were told throughout the week.

The keynote speakers weaved compelling narratives. We were implored to question our traditional career trajectories and determine when to “fire ourselves.” We learned about telling the right stories by using facts, symbols, and emotions. We were told that boundaries between occupations are meaningless, and emphasis on design is essential.

The program sessions were equally powerful. Themes such as community, inclusion, trust, transparency, and empowerment were repeated and emphasized throughout the week. Colleagues and friends stressed the importance of making a new team member “feel like the most important person on her or his first day of work,” encouraged us to understand others by “assuming positive intent,” implored us to guide support conversations towards common ground instead of blaming others for their lack of knowledge, and showed us how motivated support staff can tackle real-world problems by being entrusted with skunkworks projects. There were lively discussions about questioning the expectations of career paths, making time in our busy lives to focus on things that matter, and allowing people to learn through failing. The engagement level seemed higher than in previous years.

I participated actively during the conference too. I shared the success stories which i observed at my work. I shared the triumphs and tribulations of incorporating my conference peers’ best practices in my daily activities. I brashly questioned the expectations of moving up the career ladder and seeking bigger paychecks. I questioned the dubious nature of certain types of work. I shared the experience of cultivating my passion project: promoting a culture of short presentations in the workplace.

A fellow participant (and a friend) led an engaging and emotional discussion session about the importance of technology in the grand scheme of what matters most to us. IT professionals are often at the mercy of the always-on, always-connected nature of our work and gadgets, but at end of the day, we all have loved ones, family, and friends who matter hell of a lot more than our work. We all have finite number of hours and days in our lives, and taking time to nurture our relationships matters more than time spent fixing technical problems. That point was not lost on me.

The conference incited critical self-examination about what I want in my professional life, and seriously questioned my preconceived notions for my career journey. When I returned home, I made a conscious decision to stop pursuing technical disciplines which didn’t fit in my core competencies. I started to fiercely defend my time. I learned to speak out more with conviction and not become intimidated by potential consequences. I continued the ongoing discussions about time management, storytelling, and workplace survival tips with my conference peers through social media groups and outlets. I started appreciating people in my life who nurture and support. I became comfortable saying “No” to requests which did not sustain my long-term goals, and "Yes” to those which tied in with my core competencies and strategic vision.

To an outsider, SIGUCCS conferences may seem like a technical conference for IT folks who happen to work at universities and colleges. But this year, the conference seemed more like a version of World Domination Summit: there were so many moments where I was emotionally uplifted and inspired. And the message of “you are not alone” was embraced during and after the gathering in the Windy City.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

I Don't Get Dropped, I Drop The Label

I have experienced many awakenings in the past year. Being surrounded and supported by amazing tribes—people from inspiring conferences, social groups, and fellow unicorns--have led to many of these discoveries. Some of them are easily self-evident while others percolate over time before the insight becomes unmasked.

After decades of acknowledging the symptoms but never taking time to fully address the issue, I've realized that I've done an excellent job of letting myself be defined by others' expectations of me and by how I respond to failures. I let arbitrary constructs as role, level of conformity, title, perceptions, and conventionality define whether I was successful or not, in eyes of others--and even myself. I let labels define whether I was a success or a failure at life and work.

It recently occurred to me that I don't need to be the smartest worker at my technical workplace. There are others who have strong suits in various knowledge areas. Does that make me a failure by comparison? I excel at communication, documentation, relationship- and culture-building, and ass-kicking as member of project teams. These are my strong suits and my career capital. I would rather add value and emotional meaning to the lives of my peers by leading with my actions when I am at the office, than bemoan my not being the technical cream of the crop who will get promoted if a leadership post vacancy opens up. If my value propositions have no currency in my current workplace, I am not a failure.

Last month I made a conscious and deliberate decision to abandon my plans for studying for and obtaining paper certifications for technology areas which did not interest me. It was liberating to be unshackled from the mindset of keeping up with others for the sake of doing so, to realization that I had freed hundreds of hours in the upcoming years for investing in activities which add value to my life. I created space to explore friendships, hobbies, volunteering activities, study time for topics which are pertinent to my future, and rejuvenation.

And recently I learned that I was destructively channeling the harsh words of my biggest critic: myself. There has been decades of believing in the self-talk of "I'm not good enough to do this," "I always destroy good friendships," and "great things only happen to other extraordinary people, not to me." Those were the narratives through how I interacted with the world every day. It's a shock that I didn't invest in personal business cards with those critical self-talk as my taglines.

But I stopped those talks. Or at least made efforts to recognize them when they slipped through my mind and mouth. Putting a stop to the limiting chatter has led to the discovery of awesome events and connections. I learned to show courage in public, suppress the "what would they think?" reflexive reactions, and stop discrediting myself after making bad choices. I co-presented several talks at a professional organization conference few weeks ago--I didn't let fear and Ms. Amy G. Dala prevent my entry into the arena. I dared greatly and cultivated amazing friendships and connects in the past year. I feel greater connections and commonalities with these relationships.

There is a line from Kanye West's song, "Last Call", which resonates with my recent realization--"I ain't play the cards I was dealt, I changed my cards." Kanye was initially seen as a "good studio producer, but not a rapper material," but silenced his critics by releasing his first album (The College Dropout), which sold over four million units. 'Ye didn't stop others' expectations of him abilities and passion stop him from recording The College Dropout—the album which propelled his career and stardom.

Sometimes I forget that I've done things in my life which defied conventions and expectations. I was viewed as a nerdy band geek in early high school days, and was mocked accordingly. By time I graduated, I had earned a varsity letter in football. Earlier this year, I had repaired a fractured and strained friendship with a friend whom I had differences with in the past. She is now a great professional contact for technologies that I am interested in pursuing. I have evolved from a careerist tech worker whose psyche was damaged every year after annual reviews, to a creative, forward-thinking linchpin who learned how to channel his time and energy towards things that matter in the long run. I've been asked to join several project teams and collaborate on creative projects during course of this year.

I can spend the rest of my life trying to live up to others’ expectations, and constantly disappoint myself by whatever shortcomings I may have. Or I can try, abort, fail, retry, and succeed on my own terms. The choice is clear.