Layer 6: Work Identities – Example 2
As I reflect on my professional journey I can see a path traveled with many unique twists and turns that probably does not follow any clear line of a clear career progression. My path has always taken many different avenues, through a variety of professional environments, and allowed me to perform numerous types of roles. I have never known what I wanted to be or was clearly pursuing, even thinking ahead and planning for the future still gives me a mild bit of stress. My path traveled, organizations I have worked in, and variety of these experiences and organizations certainly shaped who I am today and how I see the world.
Context Setting: High School & College years
My earliest influence in a work environment was my father. My father worked in construction and owned a small business that focused on smaller commercial development and housing remodels. As a young teenager and through my mid-20s I worked alongside him and often with small and diverse crews of other construction laborers. Much of this work was very hands-on and physically demanding. My father was very skilled in planning for projects, yet I think his greater talent was his ability to adapt to the moment and figure out creative solutions as challenges presented themselves. He tended to internalize his thinking and not always share where he was thoughts were going and how he was making changes. As I worked with him, I developed a strong sense of anticipating what tools he would need and asking questions to help him think through the ideas in his head.
Throughout high school and into my college years, I also worked a mix of full and part-time roles at different summer camps with kids, as a gas station attendant, and seasonally for years with a photography studio at a local theme park.
Interpretation: All of this early experience allowed me to get an exposure and develop relationships with a variety of people with various cultural backgrounds, ages, and socio-economic levels. Relating to others and being able to build relationships is a strength I recognize I have. I feel that these early professional experiences helped me build those skills and gave me comfort navigating through different environments.
I was fortunate to be able to work so closely with my father and learn from him. I think these early lessons and values of hard work and fairness set a foundation of how I tend to show up in workplace settings. I have developed a comfort and skill of adapting the moment, collaborating with others, and applying fun and creative element to my work. I recognize these as strengths I have developed and what bring to professional settings.
Additionally, I had the luxury of being able to choose any path and was always encouraged by parents to follow (or create) a path into something I enjoyed. They never pressured or encouraged me into specific directions and were just clear to choose a path I was happy with. My parents married young and I was born when they were still in their early 20s. My assumptions and interpretations are that they did not have the luxury to explore different career paths and professional passions. Nor did they have the ability to take time off and travel for long periods of time. Out of necessity, and probably social/family pressures, they were forced to accept jobs available to provide for their family. Now in my adulthood, I also recognize that they faced some financial hardships during certain years of my childhood. I feel that these experiences influenced their thinking about my future and I was encouraged to explore careers ideas, travel, and find something I enjoy doing. This attitude and encouragement allowed me the freedom to explore ideas and opportunities that interested me.
Context Setting: Mid 20s
I worked all throughout the time I went to community college and university. Along with some support from my parents, the work helped me off-set tuition and living expenses. My undergraduate degree took me 6 years to complete, however, I graduated unburdened by a large student loan debt. I was therefore not forced to find a “well paying” job that primarily addressed these expenses.
Over the years while pursuing my undergraduate degree I had worked for the photography company. Over the different summers and seasons, I had moved up to the role of Manager of the studio and was in charge of a staff of approximately 12 people. The working environment of a theme park is busy, chaotic, exciting, and demanding. I was in a role of authority at a young age and often leading and training team members that were sometimes older and perhaps had more professional experience in their background.
Soon after I graduated, I was offered a full-time job with this same company as a Regional Manager. I was 24 years old and now overseeing the operations of seven photography studios at theme parks in six different states. With this opportunity, I moved from California to Texas where the company was headquartered. Though based in Texas, I was on the road (and usually driving) a lot and visiting these locations, which were primarily located in the southeastern region of the US.
I stayed in this role and with this company for 2 years. I appreciated what I learned and the experiences I was able to gain from it. However, I knew it was not where I wanted to be long-term and I wanted some sort of change, though unclear what that was.
This experience in these years were formative. I got to travel and spend significant amounts of time in different regions of the US. Theme parks are unique places and attract visitors from all sorts of backgrounds and diverse ethnicities. This allowed me opportunities to meet, interact, and work with people from all sorts of backgrounds. I was given a lot of responsibility and developed some of my leadership and management skills as I led these different studios.
I have developed comfort with the unknown and open to new experiences. Because of my lack of debt and obligations, I was free to explore new experiences and throughout my mid-20s, I purposefully did not try to set any roots anywhere or invest in anything that could feel like an obligation. I did not own much and certainly didn’t have a lot of money saved. However, I had created a life that provided me with a great sense of freedom. I look back on how fortunate I was. I wanted to remain debt free and have the ability to take months-long backpacking type travel. In many ways, I was quite selfish of my time and privileged that I could afford this lifestyle. My curiosity about the unknown grew and so I filled the time by traveling.
Context Setting: Peace Corps (Age 28 – 32)
My mid-20s were a time of great learning and explorations of the world, funded by short-term and seasonal jobs. Through these travels, I had incredible learnings, important conversations, and deep appreciation of the ambiguous. Yet, I had not developed any clarity about what I wanted to do, especially in a professional sense. At the age of 28, I joined the US Peace Corps. This choice came from a combination of my curiosity about new places/people mixed with my desire to help others. Deep down I was looking for something to make a transition to something new. I was burnt out of the theme park environments and short-term seasonal jobs was not going to work long term. I was also looking for a little bit of structure, a longer-term plan, and a transition to some other “career”, but I didn’t know what that was.
I joined the Peace Corps in 2007 and was assigned the Fiji Islands as my post. In the application/interview phase I did not put any preference of region, country, or even type of assignment. I was open to any option. For the first two years, I was placed in a small village community on an outer island (from the main island). The community operated a small tourism operation that included a small 12-bed lodge, coastal walk, and kayaking tours. I helped the community leaders and youth groups with projects related to financial management, environmental awareness/clean-up, and sexual/reproductive health.
In Fiji, I met my wife (we married in 2014) and she was in the same cohort that I entered into. For the first two years, we served in communities on different and distant islands. As the end of our service neared in 2009, we understood the economic situation in the US to be less stable and we knew finding a job would be difficult, therefore we decided to extend our service for another year, and we both served in roles in the capital city of Suva.
Interpretation: As a Peace Corps volunteer I was part of a larger system and dual audiences to serve. My community and the Peace Corps post. As I look back on this work, I see that the role I was serving was a “Consultant” to my community, and similar to the work I do now, but in a very different environment. I understood my work and how I could provide the most value was to help the community achieve the goals that they had set. I was there to help them build their capacity and my Peace Corps training had reinforced this. There was always a temptation to do the work, write a grant application, or make decisions for the community. I learned a lot about myself and how strong my values were about fairness, privacy, and equality. Fiji is predominately a patriarchal society and power imbalances between genders was very apparent. In Fiji, as a white man, I felt I was unfairly given a lot of “respect” that certainly would have taken others more time to develop or earn. This experience increased my awareness of how others may experience me in different settings.
In Fiji, I developed more awareness of how my role as a facilitator of group interactions. I have a deep sense of inclusion and can be hyper-aware of how others are seeming included in conversations, or not. In these community settings, training sessions, group conversations, I focus on ways to ensure more inclusiveness. I was clearly a foreigner in Fiji and was never fully aware of the cultural nuances I was blindly or naively living in. My comfort with ambiguity was often challenged and certainly grew. This time abroad was an incredible experience and brought a stronger level of self-awareness. As I transitioned back to the US in 2010, I had a stronger sense of my personal values: equality, fairness, and individual privacy. I had joined the Peace Corps as a way to find my path and finished my service with less clarity of what that meant for a job/career.
Context Setting: Transitions (Age 32-34)
After Peace Corps, I moved to Washington, DC with my wife. She was from the area and wanted to be close to her family, and we both felt that with the economic situation the country DC offered job opportunities. Navigating the job search process was difficult and rather foreign to me. I had not really ever had to apply and interview for jobs, at least not in the 10 years prior. I wanted to continue in some sort of international development role, however, I only held a bachelor’s degree (in Recreation Administration!) and DC is an educationally competitive city.
After five months of searching, I got a job with a small “management consulting” company that operated exclusively as a federal government contractor. The company about 25 people when I joined and only about 5 years old. I was assigned work on different projects and contracts, and admittedly I often was internally questioning what I was doing or what value I was providing. I was able to connect with my colleagues and build collaborative relationships. However, I was feeling useless, lost, and unclear about what I wanted.
The nature of the work required employees to be “billable” to client work, and when not, billable all were expected to take on internal corporate projects to help develop the company. And I found tremendous satisfaction in this internal work, of developing the capacity of others. I led the intern program, supported HR initiatives, and developed/facilitated internal summits and training sessions. However, though this work was valued, it did not produce revenue for the company and within 2 years of my employment, the company was making difficult decisions. I had expressed my feelings of unhappiness privately with the HR Director, perhaps foolishly, and certainly with a great deal of naiveté. In the end, I was let go from the organization.
Interpretation: This experience was an important moment of my life. I had always felt comfortable navigating different environments of ambiguity. I was new to the corporate environment and had to dress differently, with suit and tie. I often felt like a fraud. The experience of being let go from the organization brought me questions about my own sense of self-worth. Questions that I had never had to ask myself. In this experience, I experienced feelings of inadequacy, embarrassment, and wounds to my personal pride.
It was also simultaneously the best thing that could have happened to me. I was feeling stuck in this role, and this unplanned exit forced me to be unstuck. I felt liberated and energized to find the next step. Fortunately, it helped me to focus on what was important and what I valued.
This experience has helped me to better empathize and understand what people are going through when they are feeling stuck and lost in their career. I can recognize that my life experiences have prepared me or given me comfort in dealing with significant change. My journey has never followed a clearly defined path, and it has never been clear where it is headed, and probably never will be. Adapting to the moment is something that comes naturally to me, and I tend to embrace it.
This company was quite compassionate in my exit and helped support my next steps by paying for my MBTI certification in the week after I left. This was not a huge expense on their end, and it set me up for successful transitions to directions that aligned with my skills and interests. Clearly, this company was not the right fit for me (nor I for them). However, I did develop more clarity about what I enjoyed doing and provided value to others.
Context Setting: Current Role (Ages 35 – present)
After some searching, I eventually landed at my current place of employment, which is a large-size financial institution. I took on a talent development role in the learning and development department. My role focused on career development and talent development initiatives. Over time the role evolved into an internal organization development consultant. Essentially, the nature of my work is to support leaders and teams as they navigate changes, experience challenges, and help with their development. This is done through facilitated sessions, coaching, and data gathering.
The organization is quite hierarchal and has numerous departments and silos of work areas. My life experiences and organizations have always been relatively small and flat in structure. This meant I always interacted with all levels of an organization. I am certainly aware of levels and the positional power of different roles, but don’t feel intimidated by them.
I feel connected to the work I do in this role and I recently completed a graduate degree in this subject. This role requires and values my interpersonal and facilitative skills. In this collaborative environment, I use a great deal of creativity and adaptability to address my client’s needs, and they are always unique.
Interpretations & Reflections: I am still processing what this current phase of my life means, especially in the context of career, work, and organizations. I can see that my journey has influenced my thinking that a job is to be enjoyed and passions should be pursued. Life circumstances allowed me freedom to seek new experiences and take time to discover my strengths and interests. Through my professional journey I discovered what is important to me and have been able to use those skills and values in my current role. I thrive in the setting where I can facilitate group interactions and help groups/teams/individuals develop more clarity and understanding – of each other and of themselves.