How To Make Room for Inspiration in Your Career

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I recently finished rereading the book, How Will You Measure Your Life? by the late Clayton Christensen. It’s a fantastic book. In it, Christensen discusses the differences between deliberate and emergent strategies.

In your career, a deliberate strategy is the specific plan you craft for your future, while an emergent strategy is a realized pattern that wasn’t expressly intended. In other words, an emergent strategy is the path you take after your circumstances have changed. It’s wise to have a plan, but Christensen believed (and I would echo) that too many people stress about their future and think they’re supposed to “have their careers planned out, step-by-step, for the next five years. High-achievers, and aspiring high-achievers, too often put pressure on themselves to do exactly this. . .”

Having a focused plan may make sense, but all too often things change. We need to make space for an emergent strategy. We need to leave room for inspiration. I am a man of faith. I believe there is a God and that he has a plan for each of us. I realize not everyone listening may share that faith, but it’s hard to argue with the times when we’ve felt guided to do something we didn’t intend to. Or times when a door opened that we didn’t think existed. This is inspiration.

If you’re anything like me, you want to have everything planned out. You’ve got a 1-year plan, a 5-year plan, a 10-year plan, etc. That’s what we’re taught to do, right? But some of the best things that have happened in my career were NOT planned for. Some of the best things have happened when my plans came crashing to the ground erupting in flames.

I’d like to tell a story of someone who had a difficult, unexpected experience in their career.

Hugh B. Brown, a former leader in my church, told the story of the time he purchased a rundown farm in Canada many decades ago. As he went about cleaning up and repairing his property, he came across a currant bush (on them grow tiny berries, kinda like a small grape) that had grown over six feet high and was yielding no berries, so he pruned it back drastically, leaving only small stumps. Then he saw a drop like a tear on the top of each of these little stumps, as if the currant bush were crying, and thought he heard it say:

“How could you do this to me? I was making such wonderful growth. … And now you have cut me down. Every plant in the garden will look down on me. … How could you do this to me? I thought you were the gardener here.”

Brown replied, “Look, little currant bush, I am the gardener here, and I know what I want you to be. I didn’t intend you to be a fruit tree or a shade tree. I want you to be a currant bush, and someday, little currant bush, when you are laden with fruit, you are going to say, ‘Thank you, Mr. Gardener, for loving me enough to cut me down.’”

Years later, Hugh Brown was a field officer in the Canadian Army serving in England. When a superior officer became a battle casualty, Brown was in line to be promoted to general, and he was summoned to London. But even though he was fully qualified for the promotion, it was denied him because of his faith. The commanding general said in essence, “You deserve the appointment, but I cannot give it to you.” What Brown had spent 10 years hoping and preparing for slipped through his fingers in that moment because of what he felt was blatant discrimination. Continuing his story, Brown remembered:

“I got on the train and started back … with a broken heart, with bitterness in my soul. … When I got to my tent, … I threw my cap on the cot. I clenched my fists, and I shook them at heaven. I said, ‘How could you do this to me, God? I have done everything I could do to measure up. There is nothing that I could have done—that I should have done—that I haven’t done. How could you do this to me?’ I was as bitter as gall.

“And then I heard a voice, and I recognized the tone of this voice. It was my own voice, and the voice said, ‘I am the gardener here. I know what I want you to do.’ The bitterness went out of my soul, and I fell on my knees by the cot to ask forgiveness for my ungratefulness. …

“… And now, almost 50 years later, I look up to [God] and say, ‘Thank you, Mr. Gardener, for cutting me down, for loving me enough to hurt me.’”

Brown never became a general, but he believed that the divine redirected his life to do something even more important, to serve a higher purpose.

Like Brown getting denied his general promotion, there have been a few times in my career where I felt I did everything right, everything within my power, to land a job or put myself in a position to succeed and things didn’t work out. The most obvious was when I was an investment banking analyst at Lehman Brothers. I had hustled like crazy to get that job and everything fell apart only a few months after I joined. I found myself out of work with limited prospects. I finally landed a job but for years I was frustrated. I felt like that experience had set me back. I felt that my plan had been derailed.

But, as time went on, things worked out. In fact, they didn’t just work out, I was better off because of the setback. Had I not gone through the painful experiences early in my career I wouldn’t have built empathy for job seekers, I wouldn’t have written a book, I likely wouldn’t have pivoted my career from Finance to HR. I wouldn’t be able to coach and influence executives. I am confident that these experiences—that were really challenging at the time—led me to a path that I may not have discovered otherwise. This was inspiration.

So, what do we do with all this? What do we do when our perfect plan gets derailed?

First off, we try to withhold immediate judgment. When unplanned things happen, we try not to assess whether they are good or bad. They just are.

Second, we need to create space for stillness. We need to create space for perspective. This rarely comes immediately and may take more time than we’d like.

Having a plan is good. But as Mike Tyson said, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. Some of the best things in our career happen when that plan isn’t realized. When that plan gets derailed. We need to create room for inspiration. We need to create room for an emergent strategy. Sometimes, like Hugh Brown’s currant bush, we need to be cut down before we can become the person we were meant to become.