Monday, December 17, 2018

What’s next? Decide what I want to be when I grow up

This is what 35 years of professional
life looks like
Who knew that hundreds of papers in file folders, thousands of emails and digital documents, scads of photos, and boxes filled with old thank you notes could have conjured up the emotions I recently experienced as I started packing up 35 years of stuff as I prepare to retire on Jan. 2.

I wasn't expecting the rush of memories that came from opening a book of quotes from my first job writing speeches for a Congressman or skimming through files of planning documents that set out the vision for big projects that ultimately became successful.

As I sat on my office floor sorting through so much of this, I was overcome by the magnitude of gratitude I have for the crooked path of work experiences I’ve accumulated over the past 35 years and the countless co-workers, bosses, colleagues, professional friends and (yes, even) foes who have taught me so much.

I’ve attempted to sort out some of these lessons here:

Always be kind. There's almost always another side to why someone is behaving in a particular way. You never know what happened at home that morning or what someone is struggling with. Give people the benefit of the doubt by first being kind.

Work your passion. Something in your work should spark your passion. While you may not be able to go to work every day and love every minute, if it's not mostly engaging, fulfilling and (yes sometimes even) fun with people you enjoy, then it may be time to look elsewhere.

Plan the work before trying to work the plan. Rarely does something worth doing well come together well without a plan. The extra time it sometimes takes to research ideas and evaluate options always pays off.

Be clear on the “why” or “to what end” of a situation before making a decision. In both professional and personal decision making, I’ve found I can make a better informed choice by first understanding the “why” of the situation and making sure I know what the end result is I’m trying to accomplish.

Forget perfection and just do it (whatever "it" is). Seeking perfection for yourself or expecting it from others is a thankless, energy sucking proposition. Don’t wait until the house is perfectly tidy to entertain. Stop holding back from trying something new for fear of failing. Don't stand on the sidelines until you're perfectly rehearsed. Nobody's perfect. We all have failures. Celebrate learning from them and move on.

Do something every day that makes you (and others) smile. One of these things for me in recent years has been keeping fresh flowers on my desk and in my home. I've discovered I get a great joy in sharing my delight in fresh flowers with others. It's amazing to me how a few flowers from Trader Joe's simply arranged in a small mason jar with some greens cut from my yard can bring a smile to me or someone else.

Relationships matter. Who you know can get you in the door. What you know can get you the job. What you do makes you a success. In my 35 years of working, every job change was the result of a relationship I had with someone who thought I might be a good fit.

Some of the most long-standing friendships of my adult life have resulted from professional relationships. I've remained in contact with my first mentor from a college job at the State House. I'm still happily connected to many friends from my first job in DC. I still have very frequent contact with the dozens of friends I made during my ten years ETV.

Be in the arena not in the seats (a tip of the hat to the Theodore Roosevelt quote). I want to be around the people who are in the arena with me – those who are willing to take risks and get knocked down with me in pursuit of excellence. Read my farewell post on the Municipal Association's blog for more about this one.

Travel. A lot. With others. Alone. Make a travel bucket list but don’t be limited by it. Put money aside to travel. There’s no better way to get out of your comfort zone than traveling alone. There’s no better way to connect with others than traveling with them. Take time away from work to travel. That's why you have vacation days. The work will still be there when you get back, and no one is so indispensable they can't be off the grid to travel for a week or two.

Pay it forward. There were lots of people who, knowingly or not, mentored, guided, advised and paid it forward to me along the way. Now, I try to pay that back to young folks whenever I can. Plus, it's gotten so I learn more from listening to young folks than they can ever learn from me.

Spelling and grammar count
. In today’s world where emojis and gifs too often take the place of actual words, there’s still no excuse for bad grammar, incorrect spelling or sloppy punctuation. Following the rules shows an attention to detail and a respect for the reader.

Be yourself. No one can do that for you, and you can't be someone else. This has become much easier as I've gotten older and come to understand that no one is really paying that much attention to what I'm doing anyway.

Engaging in creative activities is a wise investment of your time. For far too long, I believed that doing something creative took me away from doing something constructive - whether that meant "day job" work, cleaning the house, doing yardwork or exercising. Creativity comes in many forms - it's not just drawing a picture, making pottery or taking photographs. For me, giving into creative endeavors has brought me new friends, deeper relationships with old friends, expanded perspectives, and a willingness to take risks and try new things.

Keep an open mind and keep learning. The older I get the more I realize I how much I don't know. Read, listen to podcasts, talk to people you may disagree with. I've found this helps me analyze a problem from all angles before making a decision. In today's social media world, it's so easy to get stuck in an echo chamber listening only to those people who share your views and perspective. Get out of that bubble.

Personal financial planning matters. When you're 25 and scraping every penny to write the check for the car payment or rent, don't forget it's just as important to sock away a few dollars for savings. When I paid off my first car, I kept paying myself that car payment each month. Not only has that account funded a new roof, new HVAC and any number of other "emergencies," but it also allowed me to travel and pay cash for a new car. I learned from a very wise person about the importance of retirement savings which is allowing me to retire at a relatively young age.

Move and exercise every day. It amazes me how much better I feel when I get in my steps, get a good sweat going and stretch. This could mean something as quick and simple as taking the steps instead of the elevator or parking in the most distant spot instead of the closest.

Fingerprints are often more valuable than shouting to get credit. I've always gotten a huge gratification from what we came to call the" fingerprint index" at one of my jobs. This is when you can see the fingerprints of your work reflected in the greater good of a project or someone else's success. This works only if you don’t care who gets the credit.

Laugh often and don't take yourself seriously.
There’s a reason people say “laughter is the best medicine.” Take it in large doses.

Say thank you. I'm a huge fan of handwritten notes
- whether they are to say thanks or just a quick hello. While I don't always meet my goal of sending one handwritten note a week, it's a good goal (shout out to a young friend who wrote a note a day several years ago), and I’ve found people really remember your thoughtfulness.

So what's next?

Now it's time to take what I've learned over all these years and put it to good use in a new way. For the immediate future, I'll spend some time enjoying my music, my dog, my bike, and some travel and writing.

Then maybe I'll figure out what I want to be when I grow up!