I know this guy…when he was about ten…his father lost his job. The father came home one night, just around Christmas, and announced that the company he’d worked for 30 years or so was closing down and he’d be out of a job. This guy always said it was one of the few times he’d ever seen his father cry.
Watching his father struggle over the next few years, bounce from union-provided job to union-provided job, made him feel like he could never ever depend on anyone else to employ him. He knew, he says, from the fact that his father was never the same that he’d never let that happen to him.
That view—that he’d always be responsible for his own employment-dogged him for years.
Then there was the job he had as a teenager. He worked for five years in a locker-repair company. (I know, I know. You never think about it but somebody has to fix all those lockers in school.) Anyway, it was a great summer job. He’d work from early in the morning until mid-afternoon and still have time to go out with his friends at night.
Even better, he worked for this older man who, it seemed, was completely unlike his father—especially when his father was unemployed and sitting around the house. The older man could fix anything and taught the guy how to use his hands. And in doing so, the guy always says, he learned that—if nothing else, he knew how to swing a hammer. He’d always be able to work.
College came and with it a series of survival jobs. Each took him further and further away from his childhood and deeper into his manhood. One year he won a scholarship and a summer job from a publishing company and he turned that summer job into a permanent part-time position until he finished up school when he was hired fulltime.
Later, after a few years at the publishing company, the guy’s father advised him against taking a job that would require him to move. It was promotion out of his current job—a place he’d been working for a few years—and his father cautioned that the “higher up the pole the monkey climbs, the more his ass shows.” He followed his father’s advice but he stewed on it, it gnawed at him.
Later, when he was about eight or nine years into what had become a career at that company, he remembered the advice, and more important, remembered the regret. And so when an opportunity to be promoted, to take a risk, to take a job off the successful track he was on, he decided to go for it.
It helped, in a way, that when he went to his then boss to announce he was taking the internal, lateral promotion within the company, the boss went ape-shit; told him he was an idiot, that he’d never amount to anything, and he’d be stuck in the dead-end corporate job forever. And when the guy just stared at his boss and said nothing, the boss said:
“I know what you’re thinking…you’re thinking you’re going to take this job and prove me wrong.”
The guy stood up, calmly said, “That’s exactly right,” and walked out into the rest of his life.
That guy was me.
After I left that job—as Editor of InformationWeek—I ended up, after a stop, working with a group that started TechWeb, one of the earliest entities on the Web to accept advertising. And after that, I left the company and started a ten-year career as a venture capitalist.
There are dozens of events that shape our careers, our lives. There are the little conversations at the end of the day, over a cup of coffee, that reframe everything. There are the daily mantras we grow up with that shape our values and our sense of the right thing to do in life. And there are the large events, like when my father lost his job, that cause us to take on a new point of view, a monster if you will. In my case, that view has sometimes cost me but more often than not caused me to push ahead, to try different things, to explore, to take risks. In a way, I wouldn’t be the man I am today had I not watched my father struggle through his years of un- and underemployment and had it not been capped by that fearful advice he’d given. For good or for ill, and in full-blown rebellion against my father, I’ve never been afraid to let more of my ass show.
Today, as a coach, I consider myself one of the luckiest people alive. I get to hear peoples’ stories. I get to help people merely by listening deeply and holding onto their stories while they do their work. And among all the things I find so remarkable are the ways in which our lives are shaped by these conversations from our pasts.
In a book I often use in my work-especially with men–psychologist Samuel Osherson explains the impact of these real and imagined conversations on our current lives:
It’s not true…that your father comes to you only once and forever; you meet him again and again in different guises through your whole life. We relive with our mentors our ambivalence over our fathers’ messages as to what it means to be a man. Many men learn from their fathers that to be in the work world means to suffer, indeed that manhood itself is a kind of dreadful obligation. Finding Our Fathers: How Man’s Life is Shaped by His Relationship with His Father
It helps to understand the stories of our lives. It helps to see clearly the ways in which a word or two changed everything. Seeing the patterns that ripple out from those tossed stones of events, conversations, and interactions allows us—if nothing else—to see even more clearly how we became who we are. As I often say with my clients, a good first step to figuring out where you want to go is remembering how you got here.