At one point or another we’ve all found ourselves “friend-zoned” by our jobs. We’re good at what we do and secure in our position, but somehow sidelined out of the the career progression track. You start to notice managers getting younger and decisions seemingly being made without your input. The oversight is not necessarily out of malice; who thinks of a car’s alternator unless a battery dies? New management might know you only as someone good, someone we don’t have to watch (and, consequently, someone they never watch.) If a conversation with HR doesn’t resolve the issue, you’re left with two choices: 1. You can quit your secure but stalled job, or 2. You can find a way to positively disrupt your career. But how?
There might be no word more overused in Silicon Valley than “disruption.” It is what Uber did to the taxi industry: fundamentally rethink personal, commercial transportation. It’s what Netflix did to the video rental business. Once SpaceX achieves reliable landings of its rocket boosters, commercial launches will never be the same again. (ULA has taken notice of this with obvious concern, which is evidence that disruption is already occurring.)
The lessons as they apply to your job are simple. If you’ve been doing things the same way for years because when you first came into the job it’s the way they were always done, it’s time to rethink everything. Approach the problem mindfully and with a pioneer’s spirit reinvent your job. Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, constantly “thinks about reinventing everything—even small things.” Regardless of what your job is, it is almost inconceivable that technological advances in the last five years haven’t somehow transformed the way things could be done. Have you embraced the transformation? Have you written a portfolio with crunched numbers and drawn up a comprehensive plan for implementation? How did management receive it (or have they received it)?
If you look at your job, however, and can think of no other possible way of doing it, maybe it’s time to change the way you think.
BACK TO SCHOOL
Maybe you need a Masters of Business Administration degree. It’s a surefire way to let management know your goals with the company. Before you sign up for night school, though, consider a degree in a field completely unrelated to your own. Speaking from personal experience: my undergraduate degree is a Bachelor of Science in computer science and my graduate degree is a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing. It’s hard to think of two more disparate disciplines: hard math and algorithm design versus the crafting of prose and study of fiction. Without that foundation in computer science, however, I would be a much worse writer, if I were still a writer at all. No part of CS directly taught me how to write, but subconsciously, every essay, story, and book I write uses the fundamentals that discipline. What is software development but the deconstruction of some massive, elaborate system into very small, manageable problems? Creative writing isn’t so different. To write is to take some massive idea or concept and break it down into very small, manageable problems: chapters, pages, paragraphs, sentences, and words.
This isn’t to encourage you to get an MFA, but rather to demonstrate the value of adding to your toolbox a set of ideas radically different from your own, and to allow your mind to assimilate them into your career. It’s not just how jobs performance is improved; it’s how new industries are started. Marry computers and biology and you get a new industry: bioinformatics. When NASA decided to send men to the Moon, one of the first things they did was hire a geologist: a scientist who studied rocks. Why? Because they didn’t know what might happen when the Lunar lander touched down. (Would it sink into the Moon?) It later occurred to NASA to train all astronauts in geology, as there’s not much else up there. (The only civilian to set foot on the Moon, in fact, was Jack Schmitt—a geologist.) Today, the marriage of geology and space exploration has resulted in an entirely new field of science: planetary science. This year’s spectacular arrival of the New Horizons spacecraft at Pluto was a planetary science mission, conceived, planned, and operated, by space scientists who study rocks.
FIND A MISSION
Theranos, the healthcare company studying ways of running sophisticated tests on tiny samples of blood, was founded in part because of its CEO’s experience working disaster relief. According to Success, she wanted to find a better way to help those in need, and that mission has been the (now embattled) company’s driving force.
What problem exists at your company or agency that could be solved if only someone would do it? If the problem is even tangentially related to your job, seize the moment. Make a plan. Make it your mission to find the solution and go after it with every atom of your authority. Consider Huey Long, the colorful governor of Louisiana in the 1920’s and 1930’s. After being elected governor, he demanded that Louisiana State University get the greatest stadium in all of college football. The legislature balked. He then asked what they would fund, and was told that money had been set aside for dormitories. That was good enough for Long. He ordered the construction of a ring of giant student dorms with bleachers on the ring’s interior overlooking a giant field of grass in the middle. Tiger Stadium was born.
Disruption is not for the timid, but no great thing is. It’s your career. It’s your life. Why spend it as an automaton? The opportunities are out there, and might not even require leaving your office. Take them.