A Personal Lesson on ROI
This week I had a conversation at work with a peer I was meeting for the first time. Before launching into the task at hand, she asked me to share “my story.” We’ve probably all received this prompt countless times in work settings, right? You run through the same song and dance to describe your background and generalized qualifications. Where you’re from, where you studied, your hobbies… When I got to the part where I disclosed my academic background, I defaulted to an overused remark about my course of study that's become a staple in my cupboard of canned sarcasm. I told my colleague, "I had two of the most useless majors for this job: American Studies and International Peace Studies."
Pause. Aside: I need to seek some reconciliation for this comment. First, I do not believe that American Studies and Peace Studies are "useless" disciplines, for my current profession or otherwise. Quite the contrary in fact. My professors in both departments were some of the brightest, most passionate, most inspirational people I know, and it was a privilege learning under their tutelage. My time studying these fields taught me how to think about complex problems, form a logical position, and perhaps most importantly, how to communicate that position in a manner that is at once persuasive, accessible, captivating, and actionable, regardless of the topic discussed. I owe whatever development and success I've achieved in my career in large part to the foundation laid by the lessons I learned as an American Studies and International Peace Studies student. It's apparent to me now that this comment is disparaging to the educators and students of both fields, and for that I am sorry. Rest assured that this particular overplayed line has received a dishonorable discharge.
Now back to the scene with my coworker. Typically I follow this comment with some regrettably awkward giggle and then explain that what I mean is that I came to my current job in an unorthodox manner. Traditionally, candidates for positions with large management consulting firms boast of a business acumen or technical expertise that I lacked. I was genuinely surprised when my current employer came calling, and I feared throughout the entire interview process that at any time the recruiting team would find the flaw or deficiency needed to eliminate me from consideration. Framing my background this way usually serves as a playful ice breaker that is at least unique from many of my peers and generally earns a few laughs - not entirely sure if they come as a result of humor or pity.
I didn't get the chance to soften my initial slight this time. My coworker immediately jumped in and asserted that my majors are not useless. That they have merits that are uniquely and inherently valuable in our line of business. That I should be proud of them rather than throwing shade.
Crap. She's absolutely right. I've been doing my former professors, mentors, advisors, and classmates a disservice this entire time. No matter how tongue-in-cheek my comments have been, they fail to recognize how valuable the American Studies and Peace Studies fields, and all who are involved in them, are. I instantly felt regret for all the times I had used that comment, however innocently I may have meant it, and asked myself why I resort to the pessimism in the first place. Why do I speak so negatively about my background and ability?
It's because my style of humor is naturally self-deprecating. It's because I'm admittedly bashful when it comes to playing my own champion. Most of all, it's because I strongly dislike self-promotion (says the guy who writes a blog on his own thoughts and experiences). But at this point, I think I've let my distaste for self-promotion go too far.
I work in a field that promotes professional development and upward mobility, but that also requires me to make my successes and qualifications known. With the many resources that my peers and I are afforded comes the expectation that we’ll use them to develop new skills, capabilities, and expertise, apply ourselves, and ultimately succeed in the eyes of our clients. And every year, when annual evaluations roll around, I’m faced with the excruciating task of communicating my value and accomplishments to those that write my paychecks and allow me to keep on working. It’s not an easy or enjoyable responsibility. This week, however, the linkage from opportunity to messaging to reward became abundantly clear. And the realization that hit is not unique to career advancement.
What I mean is this: I don’t really buy into the concept of the “self-made man.” It’s not that I don’t recognize the individual effort and dedication that frequently yields extraordinary results. Rather, it’s that I can attribute all the triumphs I’ve experienced to investments that other people have made in me. Family, friends, admissions offices, professors, corporate recruiting teams, managers, mentors, clients, coaches… they’ve all allocated some form of investment – time, attention, space, wisdom, money – in a victory that I had the potential to achieve. Shouldn’t they have at least an awareness that their investment was sound?
The fine line that separates recognition from arrogance looms, but it’s high time I get over my aversion to well-earned credit. Each accolade and milestone is a return on the investment made by someone in another person’s success. I owe it to those that pony up and those that make good on that backing to show some appreciation. I missed the opportunity to recognize the fruits of some of those investments with my coworker this week, but there will be many more opportunities. Why not start now?
- To my American Studies professors and mentors, I still seek to witness, understand, and describe the culture, the style, the history, and the human condition each and every day. I hope my curiosity and affinity for my city, as well as my participation in this writing project is evidence.
- To my Peace Studies professors and mentors, I still value positive peace as the goal that drives the work I do every day. From supporting capabilities that keep our deployed troops safe, to natural disaster preparedness efforts. From international frameworks that promote diplomacy to capabilities that defend our homeland from adversaries. I’m advancing the values of peace that you instilled in me in my own small ways.
- To my rugby and swimming coaches, you imparted upon me a love for competition and teamwork that still resonates. Today, whether on the pitch, in the pool, or in the office, I recall my favorite achievements that occurred alongside my teammates.
- To my friends, I can boast experiences unlike any I could have expected, pastimes that make the hours, days, and weeks flow happily by like a river, and innumerable moments of laughter that can be attributed to you.
- To my family, in my wife and our pup I have the beginnings of my own family that reflect all of the values that I admired in you as I grew up. They are exactly what I dreamed my family would be, and I know you’ll be proud to see how this unit grows over the years.
Whew! That feels pretty good. If you haven’t shared your successes with somebody in a while, give it a shot. I’d be happy to listen.