Nudist in a suit

Random observation: It snowed today. On the ride home, the views looked like an Ansel Adams’ concept of a mountainscape.

This morning I had my baseline evaluation – basically a check-in we all get to go through to see how we’re doing, what’s working and what needs work – with my afternoon supervisor and the program director. We covered a lot of ground talking about challenges I’ve faced, what I’ve done to meet them and where to go from here.

Among my strengths that were mentioned are my m@d spr3@dsh33t ski11zzorz compulsively organized and extensive record-keeping habits (woohooo – geek props!), my maturity and experience that give me an edge on professionalism above my younger and less experienced colleagues, and my ability to fling myself off of the metaphorical cliffs of new experiences and enjoy the screaming on the way down. They also attaboy’d me on how hard I’ve worked to meet the challenge of working with and opening up to kids, which I have to admit was what I originally perceived to be one of the biggest, if not the biggest, challenge ahead of me (aside from the whole getting up early thing).

I was wrong. We’ll get to that.

My weaknesses include a tendency to skip from problem to solution without much thought about stuff like funding, implementation and so on. I also am having some trouble finding direction and focus in the areas of community outreach and volunteer recruitment, which I admit were way low on my list of things that I wanted to do as part of this position (so, of course, I end up as volunteer coordinator in both positions). But my biggest obstacle at the moment (which I self-diagnosed and brought out in the discussion) is my utter lack of experience with and temperament for working in a hierarchical organization.

I am closing in on 40 years old and during that time I have had very little experience in the normal, workaday, hierarchical boss-manager-employee employment structure – a few years at most if you put all the hours back-to-back, most of which was accumulated in small, disparate chunks of little more than a month or two of part-time work. And that estimation is stretching it a bit, to account for the odd month or two of work I may have forgotten about.

Most of my working life I have been either an independent contractor or a solopreneur – a lone ranger, if you will, riding the range of the work frontier with just me, my gear and my trusty horse Trigger.

Okay, so I don’t really have a horse. But you get the picture.

As a result, I’m finding it very difficult and psychologically constricting to work in a situation where every decision, every act, every correspondence, every idea and every alternative has to be seen, vetted, approved, reviewed, revetted, reapproved and so on through an entire flow-chart’s worth of people.

In my evaluation, I compared it to being a nudist in a suit. While a person who has been wearing a suit all their life may not even notice their clothes and feel no restrictions in their movements, the nudist is going to be standing there feeling like they’ve been encased in a movement-impairing cocoon of clothing. Every action will bring them up against the unfamiliar and uncomfortable boundaries of waistbands and shoulder seams and cuffs and collars. Even if the suit is well designed and custom tailored, the nudist will be conscious of unexpected encumbrances and feel curtailed in their movements, even if they’re not.

A suit guy thinks “I’ll just reach over here and grab my briefcase,” and automatically adjusts his movements to account for the suit. A nudist will just stand there, paralyzed, thinking, “Sleeves!” and trying not to touch anything.

This is almost entirely what’s behind the whole solution-with-no-implementation thing. I’m used to seeing a problem – hey, it would be really great if I could have access to this file online – and then going straight to the solution – let me just upload this file to my website – with no need to any other thinking. But now, if I think it would make life easier to have a file online, I have to keep in mind that someone is going to have to upload the file, someone (most likely someone else) is going to have to create and or update the file and a third someone (or a whole group of someones) is going to have to approve the whole idea of having the file online to begin with, not to mention all the people who are going to have to decide where it should go, who’s going to pay for it and who should have access to it. And none of these people will be me.

In my own work if I decide I should send out some letters suggesting a strategic partnership for an upcoming promotional event, I whack out an email, populate the BCC field with the likeliest suspects and pop it down the Intertoobs before dinner. In Americorps, though, if I want to do something like that there’s an immense and frankly intimidating process of getting the idea itself sent through the system and, assuming it gets approval, doing the same thing with the partnership prospects list, the promotional event outline, the funding considerations and finally the letter itself.

It’s the whole “making sausage” metaphor – watching it being made kills any appetite you might have had for enjoying the results.

I have lots of what I feel are great ideas for finding volunteers, solving problems and other cool stuff, but I have to fight really hard not to just drop them altogether and focus on doing “good enough” rather than face the prospect of going through all of that only to have the plug pulled 8 miles into a 9 mile haul. And it’s a fight I lose a lot.

The thing is, this is all perfectly normal for someone who’s done the whole 9-5, timed breaks, decision-by-committee lifestyle for most of their adult working lives. These people instinctively understand how it works and have spent their entire lives operating within those parameters. To them, it’s just the way things are done – they don’t feel any constraints. OTOH, I’m totally feeling my sleeves.

Of course, this is all part of me learning new things, stretching myself and exploring new territories. But at the same time, it’s a reaffirmation to myself that I really am more in my element as a solopreneur or independent contractor. It validates the choices I’ve made about my life and lets me know that even when I’m pulling my hair out over some decision I’ve made or project I’ve gotten myself into, at least I have the option of changing course at will, no approval required. I can throw a hundred things against the wall and afford to have only a few stick. And I can act on my ideas while the inspiration is there, and before all the reasons “why not” come swooping in to sabotage my fun.

And that’s not a bad thing to know about your life. Not a bad thing at all.

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