The incredible shrinking career goals

Here’s something I wrote about a year ago. It still holds true.

One other thing is sinking in, too… That this job may not last for the long-term. Much as I’d like to think it’s going to last, I don’t know how long I’m going to last. It could turn out to be too much pressure for me, too much work, too much politics, too much for my system. Or I could end up getting laid off, like so many others. I would sorely love to just settle into a career position and set up a home base that I can be reasonably sure is going to be there for me next week. But in this economy and in this technology industry, that’s probably not a safe assumption or a realistic expectation. It’s a volatile world we live in, and I work in an even more volatile industry. Thinking that any of this is going to last forever is sort of silly.

I can’t worry about it, though. I have to focus not just on keeping my job, but keeping employable. The job market is so volatile, and the economy is in so much flux, that I can’t waste a lot of time fretting — I have to take action — make extra effort to keep sharp, keep abreast of what’s what in the working world I function in… keep those skills up-t0-date and honed. Keep myself in the game.

And I also have to focus on the things that make me want to keep myself in the game. In the past, I was able to generalize and accumulate a wide variety of skills and abilities, which made me a valuable all-purpose “utility” worker. I could crank out different types of code and tweak images and update databases and maintain content management systems and build search engine front-ends, and I could shift quickly from one discipline to another.

That’s changed a great deal, in the past four years or so, after my last fall. Suddenly, I’m not able to read new material, assimilate it immediately, and put it into action the way I used to. For a while, there, I was lucky if I could manage to open a book, period, let alone read through a whole chapter… or a whole book. The past 4-1/2 years are littered with technical tomes I bought with every intention of reading and mastering the material, so I could keep up with my industry… yet so many times, I couldn’t even get past the first three chapters. New stuff just didn’t take with me.

Now, friends keep telling me, that’s just part of the aging process… that everybody experiences some amount of cognitive decline as they advance in years. But overnight? That’s how it feels. And I don’t think aging is the sole culprit here. I think it may have a hand in it, but my friends’ anxiety and fear of looking at the true extent of my deficits is a far more compelling reason for them to blame age, instead of mtbi, for my problems. They just don’t want to think about — horror of horrors (and I’m not being facetious) — the possibility that my brain has been impaired and my fabulous breadth and depth of skill and ability has taken a hit that it might not recover from.

Personally, I don’t want to think about it, either. In fact, I’ve avoided thinking about it for years. But I’m now at a point where I need to come up with a better strategy than avoiding facing facts. It’s starting to loom over me, like some professional grim reaper following me around, jabbing my career path in the butt with that big-ass sickle. I really do need to adjust my career strategies and figure out a more realistic and reasonable way to stay in the game, other than dashing about, willy-nilly, following the latest trends and mastering the technology du jour that shows great promise.

That simply doesn’t work for me anymore. Maybe 10 years ago, it did, but no more. And to be honest, when I think about it, I’m not sure that it ever did — I just got caught up in the excitement, as did everyone around me, and we were all so intent on blazing new paths and breaking new ground, that mastery of the material wasn’t the thing — just implementing it was. We were all early adopters and early implementers, so of course there was a lot less need to get it right. There was more need to just dive in, get your hands dirty, and see what was possible. That’s what our job was, and we were richly rewarded for that devil-may-care bravado.

As I said, that doesn’t work for me, anymore. I’m at an age, now, where I need to really dig in and take things to the next level. I’ve got a whole lot more responsibilities and accountability than I did in 1998, and I need to be able to command a better salary than ever. (It might sound contraindicated for a tbi survivor to be declaring they need to earn more money after their tbi, than they were earning before, but I just can’t see limiting myself — plenty of people with less intelligence and scruples and experience than I are doing well for themselves, and I can’t see why I should settle for less.) I need to find a new way of working, which pays better and has better prospects than my fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach of yesteryear. As much as I used to enjoy ranging far and wide and trying new things, here and there, the fact of the matter is that the technology job market is glutted by people like that. Once upon a time, you were one in a million, if you did web development and you were implementing new things. Nowadays, everybody and their 9-year-old nephew is building websites, trying new things, doing new mash-ups, etc, etc.

The territory I helped open up and “settle” in the mid 1990’s has gotten awfully crowded.

And the brain that used to propel me forward into uncharted territory has stopped functioning the way it used to.

What’s a trailblazer to do?

After agonizing over this for weeks and months and years… I recently got a flash of insight from the Give Back Orlando self-therapy materials, as well as information from my diagnostic neuropsych. It’s taking me a while to “get it”, but what I’m getting now is the idea that the information and knowledge I had before my injury (in this case, the technical knowledge I amassed prior to 2004) is still intact. I’ve learned it, and it’s there for me to access. But learning new things — especially language-based information — presents additional challenges for me.  And it might not be as easy for me to do, as before, even after I  get rehabilitated (which should start happening soon, if I can get the contact info on the speech pathologist from my diagnostic neuropsych). Plus, my speed of information processing is slowed and my temper is quicker and I’ve got issues with initiation and screening out distraction.

That all being said, this is my new strategy — to narrow the range of my attention, pick a few good-paying area(s) that are proven technologies, and where I have had lots of experience in the past, and deepen and hone my usage of those areas, those languages, those few specific skillsets. Cut the rest of the stuff loose — the distractions, the newfangled stuff that’s all the rage at the moment, but hasn’t stood the test of time. Focus on the basics — the basics that form the building blocks of many of the technologies we use today. Those basics are not going anywhere, and I know how to use them at an intermediate level. If I can manage to to stop being pulled off in every direction by the latest fad, and focus in on some really core, essential, foundational technologies that I know for a fact are in widespread use (and pay really well), I can cultivate a depth of knowledge and experience that can not only keep me employed but get me better-paying gigs in the future.

Plus, in keeping with my newfound knowledge about myself, I need to cut loose the idea of being this lone-wolf entrepreneur who works alone in a vacuum. That used to be appealing to me — but not for the right reasons. I wanted to work by myself because I couldn’t manage working with others very well. I worked alone not because I worked better that way, but because I didn’t realize I had trouble working with others. It turns out, I actually work better with others — I get to “borrow their brains” and I’m smarter as a result. But I have communication issues that I need to address — slow down, find different ways of communicating, etc. I know that. Once I pay attention to them and take steps to remediate them, I’m actually much more effective. And I’m effective in large organizations with set rules and regulations that are part of a mature corporate culture.

To sum up, here’s my new approach

I need to narrow my professional focus and hone a smaller set of skills. I have fairly strong core skills in a handful of foundational technologies, I just haven’t honed and refined them. I haven’t devoted my full attention to them – I’ve been too distracted. They’re money-makers, and if I combine a stronger focus on them with my years of experience, I can really beef them up.

I need to ply my trade in an established arena.

So, now is the time to start doing it. I know more and more about how my new brain works, and I am developing ways to use it to the best of my ability. And I have the ability to turn a potentially debilitating condition into a “win” of sorts. My career goals do need to shrink. But at the same time, they need to deepen. And while I can’t seem to accumulate and implement brand spankin’ new stuff nearly as easily as I used to, I have this foundation, this base, which I can deepen and evolve, to improve my long-term employment prospects.

So, while my goals overall may be trimmed down, the fact of the matter is, they’re much deeper, and more realistic. Which means the “footprint” may be shrinking, but the impact doesn’t have to.

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Back in the game

Source: stephenhanafin

Okay, I’m back. It’s been a pretty rocky ride, the past several months, with the new job and my spouse going through a lot of personal stuff. Money has been a problem (it still is), and we’re living closer to the edge than we’d like. But I finally feel like I’m starting to settle in.

The business trip I was on, during the early part of this week was a positive and productive experience for me. Truly. We had a company meeting at a great hotel in a nearby city, and despite my reservations, I feel like I did extremely well.

Before going, I was really nervous about not being able to hold my own. There were people there from all over the country, whom I’d heard about, but had never met. There were people there from overseas, as well, and I was concerned about making a poor impression by not knowing the proper manners. I was especially worried about “going off the reservation” and running my mouth and saying stupid things, the way I tend to, when I’m tired and stressed and feeling on the spot.

But I only had a few instances of poor impulse control in conversations. And when I realized I was doing it, I managed to catch myself, stop myself before I went on, and really focused on paying close attention to what others were saying.

There were a couple of times where I was standing off by myself, feeling like an outsider, while everyone else who knew each other were gathered around, talking about familiar things. But fortunately, there were a number of people there who were also new, so I wasn’t the only one. And I also found people approaching me to talk about common projects at work, which was a relief.

All in all, I handled myself extremely well. I didn’t stay stuck in the insecurities that came up, but managed to shift my attention to other things — or just got moving, going for a walk or going to the fitness center, even taking a dip in the pool. I did reasonably well with the food – drank a little more coffee than I should have, and also ate more carbs than I should have. But I can always bump up my exercise to make up for it (which I did this morning).

This is good. I did really well. And what’s coming out of it is a ton of great working relationships with colleagues across the country and also overseas. This is important — so very, very important for me. I had truly believed that I was never going to be able to participate at this level. Truly.

I’m realizing now that with each TBI I’ve sustained over the years, I’ve adjusted down my expectations of what I could do, and what I was capable of doing. The auto accident in 1987, which left me unable to understand the heavy accents of some people for some time, and plunged me into a heavy round of excessive drinking, got me thinking that I have trouble with accents — which is not the case anymore. But there’s a part of me that thinks this is still true.

The accident I had in 1996 which took away my ability to read with understanding for a number of days, got me thinking that I have trouble reading and I will always have trouble reading. It’s true — when I am tired and stressed, my reading comprehension goes way down, and there are many times when I don’t realize till later that what I “read” isn’t what was on the page. But that’s not always the case, and I’m getting better.

The fall in 2004, which turned me into a raging maniac with no patience and a tendency to strike out at things (not people) around me and an almost insane drive to fake my way through everything, had me convinced that in order to succeed in life, I need to adjust down my expectations and not extend myself too much, because if I push myself too hard, bad things happen. I lose jobs. I become almost impossible to live with. I lose money. Bad things happen. And I’m not fit for human interaction.

But after the past few days, I can see clear evidence that this is just not true. When I take care of myself and I pay attention to what’s going on, and I don’t overextend myself to the point of exhaustion… and I carry myself with confidence and reach out to other people, Good Things Happen.

Which is quite exciting.

In a big way, I feel like I’m hitting a reset button in my life. My spouse is, too. They’re addressing some really long-standing issues from childhood which have been holding them back in a very big way. It’s like, we’ve both been going through a truckload of crap, that we can only go through on our own… all the while sharing space in a common house with a (somewhat) common schedule.

The good thing about this is that we can both cut each other some slack. We both “get” that we’re going through some heavy stuff, so we need to go easy at times. It doesn’t always work, and both of us tend to get wrapped up in our crap and forget about being generous and giving a damn about what goes on outside our heads. But things are working themselves out. I’m having the experiences I need to have, and they’re getting the help they need.

All in all, it’s good. And for the first time in a long time — perhaps ever — I can honestly say I feel like I’m truly getting back in the game.