That’s me

The first time it happened, I was 25 years old and working in Spain on a consulting project for a big Portuguese telecom company.

I was on a small project team responsible for a pile of data analysis that would drive the main project recommendations, and we were nearing a final deadline. The analysis, it turned out, was way over my head. And yet, as I looked around the team and our small office for someone to tell me how to go about it, I had this sinking feeling that the person who knew best what to do was me.

It was terrifying.

Partially the fear came from objectively not knowing enough. I had neither the analytical chops to know how to proceed nor the network of relationships to quickly find someone who could help in time. And I was sure that our firm was getting paid far too much to make recommendations based on what I knew.

So while that moment, stemming from poor planning and preparation, is something to avoid, getting to have that feeling was priceless.

I still remember the quiet, mortifying stillness of, “It’s up to me.”

What an important feeling to be able to identify, because once you’ve felt it you can’t unfeel it, and then you can notice that feeling and notice how much easier it is to kick a decision somewhere – up, down, sideways – to gather more information or maybe to put off deciding entirely.

We kick this habit like any other, with both discipline and nuance.

If you want to learn to swim better, or hit a ball better, or do a yoga pose better, you start with the big muscle groups and body angles and work your way towards subtler adjustments. Just so in the workplace: you begin by making calls in the big, obvious moments where you’ve got no choice but to decide; and you work your way through to smaller moments of stalling, hesitation, and the magical sleight of hand we all engage in to open up “outs” in case things turn out wrong.

It is so much easier to avoid responsibility and future blame.  And it is so much more important to practice putting ourselves on the hook, to practice being the kind of person who makes calls, to practice stepping in to uncertainty.

Step up. Decide. Then make it great.

The person we’re waiting for? That’s you.

That’s not what I’d do

You have two options when you hear this from someone you like and respect.

Either you decide that their wisdom, experience and perspective bring something to the decision that you didn’t see, and they are right.

Or you decide that there are things you know that they don’t know, things you can see that they cannot, and that even though it feels like 9 times out 10 you’d want to follow their advice, this time you won’t.

Either way, your job at this point is to hear the advice, process it, make adjustments, and take action with conviction. Getting stuck in between what both of you thought is almost never right, and moving forward tepidly is the worst outcome of all.

Six months later

When I was in business school, private equity was all the rage. I’d never been an investment banker, and I didn’t even really understand what private equity was, but I did throw my hat into the ring for a few private equity jobs.

The notion of actually getting any of these jobs filled me with dread. I had no passion for that work, and I only managed to land interviews with lesser-known firms where the people I met seemed to truly dislike their jobs and the lives they’d signed up for for the next 5-10 years. I vividly remember the pit I’d get in my stomach waiting for these firms’ final decisions – fearing I might actually get one of the jobs I’d applied for.

When I did get a couple of those job offers, I remember discussing them with classmates who said I had no choice but to take them. Objectively I was not qualified, yet I’d managed to get my foot in the door. I should take the job to learn the ropes, as a stepping stone to the next one and the next one and… My friends essentially rolled their eyes at me for even considering turning the jobs down.

One person, not a classmate, shared a different perspective. He said, “six months from now, all of these people who are telling you what to do, all of these people whose approval feels really important right now, they’ll all be gone. Six months from now it will just be you sitting at that desk at whatever hour of the day. Not them, you. Think of how you’ll feel six months from now when you’re the one doing the job. That will tell you what you should do.”

This isn’t a post about following our passions. Even the chance to follow a true passion only comes up once in a while – most of the time we don’t know what our passions are or we don’t have the skills, the perspective or the wisdom to really make the dent we dream of making in the universe.

But we do, each and every day, and especially when we are at real junctures in our lives, have the opportunity to understand the choices we make. They are our choices, and the minute we own them is the minute we understand who it is who is walking our path.

It is only us.