The Professional Development Two-Step

The Two-Step / via

This is a guest post by Christopher Chavez — social entrepreneur and nonprofiteer launching Prime Produce, a guild for slow entrepreneurship in Hell’s Kitchen, NYC.

I went through a long period when I would start most of my conversations with “I’m going through a transition” or “My organization is going through a transition.”  These statements were normally accompanied by “I’m growing so much in my role” or “I’m really learning a lot.”

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The Two-Step / via
The Two-Step / via

Sound familiar?

I call this the professional development two-step.

Once I realized that I and many of my peers were dancing it, I began to notice it everywhere. More significant, I began to take note of who was not describing their professional experience in terms of transition and growth. They were interesting and successful people. I couldn’t help but reflect. What tunes were they listening to that had them dancing a different step?

So I began trying on their headphones and listening. What I found was a mix tape of anthems and jingles, full length albums and movie soundtrack snippets, pop, rock and everything in between. Three archetypes, each with its own tune, popped out a bit more than the others during my shared listening sessions.

Here’s how they approach conversations about professional development.

The Swimmers
Song: “Just Keep Swimming

David Foster Wallace starts one of the most celebrated commencement speeches of all time with a story of three fish.

Two young fish are swimming along. A third, older fish crosses their path and remarks, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” One young fish looks to the other and asks, “what the hell is water?!”

Wallace mentions this story normally highlights the ignorance of youth. He goes on to say, it can also illustrate the difficulty of having meaningful conversations about day-to-day routines.

For those who acknowledge they are constantly growing and always experiencing transition, transitions and growth are their water. Like the fish in Wallace’s speech, they exist in it, no matter if they consciously acknowledge it, or unconsciously accept it. Transition and growth are givens.

We don’t have to discard the tune of transition and growth to change it. We can enrich it by asking questions to discover what others are going through and reflect on our emotions and thoughts to access more creative ways of understanding our experiences.

In conversation, swimmers will ask questions like “what have you learned?” or “how does that make you feel?” or simply “what does that mean?” They are curious to learn how each person experiences the words we often hear in casual conversation without always contemplating what they mean to us individually.

The Transformers
Song: “You Can’t Always Get What You Want

Transformers replace the language of transition and growth with talk about choices and opportunities. They tend to participate in activities or hobbies that cause them to try something outside their routine or role. As the Rolling Stones sing, they understand that they won’t always get what they want, but if they keep trying, sometimes they will get what they need.

My friend Jerone Hsu founded a consultancy for Salesforce database customization specializing in nonprofit and social enterprise client solutions. I often hear about organizations transitioning to Salesforce from a number of alternative database systems.

Most of the time, when Hsu and his clients reach the end of the process, they have reason to celebrate. But, sometimes, the old data in a shiny database accentuates a rude reality: the new database has not transformed the old data into new data. (This is why Hsu and his team offer data services to increase the quality of existing data.)

Like data, a person experiencing a transition can slot herself into a new role without having to reconsider her habits or modes of operation. However, these moments of transition, sometimes mask opportunities for deep change and transformation.

We tend to confuse going through a transition with experiencing a transformation. I know I have mixed the two in the past since my habit was to wait for a transition to spark a personal transformation.

But, transformations can happen during a period of transition or during times of relative stillness. Outside events can catalyze them, but ultimately we choose when to accept opportunities to strengthen constructive habits and revisit less useful ones.

The Business Romantic
Song: “The Buena Vista Social Club

Tim Leberecht is the author of a book called The Business Romantic, just released by Harper Collins. In his book, Leberecht explores ways that we can bring romanticism to our professional lives.

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Buena Vista Social Club
The romantics of the Buena Vista Social Club

Before visions of candlelit all-staff meetings start to form — though, why not?! — let me explain that Leberecht presents cases and practices of high performing companies that cultivate a more romantic perspective of business which actually helps to increase their bottom lines.

Among other ways, they do this by allowing for an emotional space at work to not only empower employees to be their whole selves, but inspirit them to be their best selves.

Business romantics stick out because they talk about wide ranging interests and how they pursue them. Their many interests create a kind of stability, since a transition or growth period in one area may be balanced by a time of stability in another.

For me, no group summarizes the reverent irreverence of the business romantic better than the Buena Vista Social Club. Made up of old, master musicians, the group just made music, unconcerned with fame or fortune. They practiced their craft because they were enchanted by it.

What’s on your playlist?

Sharing interests outside of whatever transitions and growth periods we find ourselves experiencing can change the tone of our interactions. Talking about the incredible lessons of a recent meditation experience, bizarre food encounter or great book anchors us.

Next time you find yourself doing the professional development two-step, trading thoughts on how everything is crazy and in transition, or explaining how you are learning a lot in your role, I challenge you to change your tune and try out a new dance step.

How do learnings and experiences bring you nourishment, joy, curiosity and play? How do challenges create situations of starvation, tragedy and pain?

Many of our most powerful growth and transition experiences oscillate between these types of viscerally felt, strongly expressed emotions. Even so, I know from experience that I hesitate to use what I consider to be charged language when describing my periods of transition and growth. I feel like it violates some unstated professional boundary. Perhaps it does. And, maybe through recognizing the violation, and committing it anyway, we can elevate our commonly shared professional development conversations.

Well known studies have been conducted proving a link between our physiological and emotional states. You might remember that biting down on a pencil to produce an artificial smile, if done with some repetition, can actually produce real feelings of happiness. What if a seemingly simple, deliberately chosen change of vocabulary can help us to develop a richer, dare I say more fulfilling, mindset?

I’m curious.

What’s on your playlist? What is your experience with casually used words like transition and growth? Have you found yourself using these words more or less during different stages of your career? Why? I invite you to share a song and a thought below.

Christopher Chavez dedicates his talents and skills to the service of making our world a more vibrant, equitable and interesting place. He and his partners are building a guild for slow entrepreneurship called prime produce. The 8,000 sq ft space in Hell’s Kitchen is unequal parts cafe, living room, workshop, coworking space, roof top garden and upstate retreat space. Opening in the spring of 2015, it will be a place for unlike minds who share like hearts to make time for things that matter. Chavez also has the pleasure of serving on the board of directors guiding the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network of NYC and is the Co City Director of the NYC Chapter of House of Genius.
He invites you to continue the conversation on the #stweets. Follow him @mr_tumnus.

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Caroline Kim Oh
Caroline Kim Oh is an executive coach to nonprofit leaders. She dove right into the nonprofit world after college and spent twelve years running and growing iMentor in New York City prior to coaching. Frequent speaker and advisor on a variety of nonprofit management issues, she’s also a cheerleader for all who experiment to find and tweak the optimal work-life-happiness mix. Find her on LinkedIn and on Twitter, or send her an email.