I suspect I wear a mildly pained look when I am asked, “What do you do?”
If I were a lawyer, teacher or doctor, the answer would be easy. Or if I just stuck to my knitting and exclusively played out the MBA in me, the answer wouldn’t be that hard either — something like, “I do market studies to gauge customer attitudes … and a few other things.” I could even answer the “few other things” with relative ease, and people would mostly nod in understanding.
But there is this other side to my work. I like to write non-business stuff and have feverishly worked on a series titled “At My Pace.” In this series, I select a topic, establish guidelines and solicit contributors to create a short piece that gives the reader a range of experiences and — it is hoped — insight on said topic.
I also pen a piece, but mostly I use my consulting skills to identify findings on topics like the pace of our journey — driving on the autobahn or meandering on the carriage road and why? My goal is to facilitate conversation and build bridges of understanding sans judgment. It is how I make more sense of my world and maybe help others.
So the contorted look on my face when asked what I do is whether to answer door number one (market studies), door number two (“At My Pace” series), or explain them both. In some ways the work is similar. I listen to people, probe and extract their experience for sharing. In one case the subject is technology with jargon and acronyms like ROI. In the other, the subject is personal, bordering at times on spiritual. I never tear up in the first case but am often moved in the latter.
In explaining what I do, I am aware of a subtle expectation these days to “stay in your lane,” meaning to stay focused in the area of one’s expertise. I understand this preference. Organizations are complex and the challenges are steep. To achieve our goals, we often need narrow over wide, specialized over general. There is a reason why expressions like “core competencies” and “subject matter experts” populate our vocabulary. There are personal reasons too for staying in your lane. There we are safely ensconced in our comfort zone, feeling competent and in control.
But for me, there is a competing desire to stay fresh and enthused. I like trying to exercise new creative muscles. If I were a twenty-something, I’d be thinking about growing my skills and managing by personal brand. Alas, I am way past that. But I have an inclination and history that has always made me want to widen my lane.
In high school one of my favorite novels was “The Great Gatsby.” Of the many beautiful lines Fitzgerald wrote, the one that stuck with me the most has no sizzle. Narrator Nick Carraway has graduated from Yale and is viewing his future. He remarks, “Life is much more successfully looked at from a single window.” When I read this as a teen, I understood this as a call to stay narrow and focused, and at some visceral level, I wanted to challenge it.
There is also the football player I admired growing up. I was a diehard Denver Broncos’ fan, and this was before they were any good. I craved being a coach some day and routinely wrote our coach, suggesting tweaks on play calls. But the player I admired most wasn’t a Bronco at all. Mike Reid was an all-pro defensive lineman for the Cincinnati Bengals, and he was also a classical pianist. I loved his range of skills, even if not a Bronco. He eventually added gifted songwriter to his credits, composing many hits including Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me.”
What does this tell me about me? I can see that from early on, I have had a compulsion to go wide. I double majored in college before it was the thing to do. I would go from my biology lab to my poetry class where I loved Wallace Stevens because he wrote great poetry (let the record show he was also an insurance company executive).
The angst I experience in explaining what I do is followed by the pleasure I feel in doing them. I would like to be that person who knows a lot about a little, but I have also accepted me being me. On a good day, I bring perspective, experiences, alternate views and immense curiosity. I mostly love sitting down to work — writing, market studies, no matter — and that may be just enough.