How To Make Room for Inspiration in Your Career

Listen to the podcast version on AppleGoogle, and Spotify podcasts

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.

How to Create a Life Worth Living: Interview with Kevin Delaney, VP of L&D at LinkedIn (Episode 18)

In this episode, I interview Kevin Delaney and dive into his book, A Life Worth Living: Finding Your Purpose and Daring to Live the Life You’ve Imagined. Kevin is a VP at LinkedIn where he leads Learning and Development. Prior to that, he was an HR exec at VMware and several other companies. He’s a former colleague of mine, and someone I consider to be a mentor and friend. 

In our conversation, we discuss his lessons from a serious health challenge, his approach to balancing annual planning with daily rituals, his unique perspective on dealing with setbacks, and, of course, how to create a life worth living. Kevin is one of my all-time favorite people and someone who truly walks the talk. I hope you enjoy our conversation.

You can read Kevin’s book here

How to Build a Mindset that Prepares You for Everyday Challenges (Episode 17)

Several years ago, someone who I thought I could trust did something that hurt me. I was frustrated and angry. I was hurt. This person’s actions blindsided me and I wasn’t able to focus or be productive for the rest of the day. Wisdom from the Stoics–Marcus Aurelius in particular–got me back on my feet.

In this episode, I discuss how a simple step, a mindset really, will help us conquer the day-to-day challenges we’re going to face. I also share the daily habits that help me perform at my best.

Marcus Aurelius was the Roman emperor from 161 to 180 AD. He was the last of the rulers known as the Five Good Emperors, and the last emperor of the Pax Romana, an age of relative peace and stability for the Roman Empire. He was the most powerful man in the world and his book, Meditations, is a collection of his journal entries.

He wrote them to himself and he never planned to publish them. His words were the private thoughts of a Roman emperor and he’s admonishing himself on how to be more virtuous, wiser, more just, and more immune to temptation. His philosophy is one of self-restraint, duty, and respect for others.

Going back to that moment of frustration I experienced after I felt someone had wronged me. I had recently finished reading Meditations and I was reminded of this passage. I’ll quote Marcus Aurelius:

“Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil. But for my part I have long perceived the nature of good and its nobility, the nature of evil and its meanness, and also the nature of the culprit himself, who is my brother (not in the physical sense, but as a fellow creature similarly endowed with reason and a share of the divine); therefore none of those things can injure me, for nobody can implicate me in what is degrading.

Neither can I be angry with my brother or fall foul of him; for he and I were born to work together, like a man’s two hands, feet or eyelids, or the upper and lower rows of his teeth. To obstruct each other is against Nature’s law – and what is irritation or aversion but a form of obstruction.”

Marcus Aurelius was a stoic, and stoic philosophy has gained in popularity over the last decade for good reason. Our world continues to be out of control. There are people, whether they be on social media or in person, who want to injure us.

I love Marcus’ response: He acknowledges that these people exist and that they will act in a way that is unsavory, but then here’s the line that stands out:

Therefore none of those things can injure me, for nobody can implicate me in what is degrading.

It’s almost like he’s giving himself a pep talk. He is giving himself a pep talk.

So how does this apply to me? How does this apply to us? People are going to do some less than pleasant things to us. Bad things are going to happen. We can hope for the best, but we need to be mindful that we’re going to come across people who are actively trying to interfere with our progress.

I’ve tried to adopt this mindset. No, it’s not about thinking everyone is out to get you. It’s not paranoia. It’s about mentally preparing for every day. Soldiers put on their armor before going into battle. While most of us don’t engage in physical combat, we do engage in mental and emotional combat.

Our armor isn’t physical but we still need to prepare and we still need put on our armor every day.

This is a daily practice. There are several things I have learned to do every day that prepare me for the types of people and the types of situations that Marcus Aurelius wrote about. My daily practice includes studying the bible and other texts I believe to be sacred. It includes journaling. It includes prayer and meditation. It includes sitting in stillness. It includes exercise, going on a walk, moving my body. I’m not perfect at these practices, but when I do them, and when I do them consistently and on a daily basis I am more prepared for the challenges that inevitably come. Your daily practice may look different, but I encourage you to find what works.

Going back to Marcus Aurelius:

Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil. But none of those things can injure me, for nobody can implicate me in what is degrading.

We would be wise to follow his example. To stay above the fray. To proactively prepare for the challenges that come our way. Having a daily practice will aid us as we continue to progress and strive to be our best selves.

Click here to listen to the full episode

The Profound Power of a Kind Word (Episode 16)

Before publishing Not Your Parents’ Workplace I was overwhelmed with imposter syndrome.  I kept thinking, what am I doing? Who am I to write a book? 

In this episode, I discuss how a specific act of kindness had a dramatic impact on me and share how we can have a similar impact on others. Enjoy!

I always thought about writing a book but I didn’t know how to make it happen. My first job out of college was as an investment banking analyst at Lehman Brothers. Shortly after I joined, Lehman went bankrupt, causing a market crash and essentially bringing the 2008 financial crisis to the forefront of most Americans. I kept a detailed journal of the events leading to the bankruptcy and thought it would be interesting to write a book about the bankruptcy and financial crisis from the eyes of a fresh college grad.

I was partly inspired by my brother-in-law who had just published a book. I started writing and was about 15 pages in when I set it aside. I didn’t know how to write a book and the task was overwhelming

The idea to write a book popped into my head once more after my internship at LinkedIn. I was working as a LinkedIn ambassador teaching BYU students why they should be on LinkedIn, how to build a strong profile, and how to find a job. I loved working one-on-one with students, but found that I was saying the same thing over and over.

I thought that if I could somehow scale the lessons being taught I could have a bigger impact and help even more people. It was at that point I decided to write a book.

Click here to listen to the full episode