June 13, 2003
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In today’s world, it might seem best
to be a cold-hearted cynic about everything you do, but especially about
your career. While it might feel like you need to protect yourself from
any variety of people out to use, abuse or mislead you, the truth is, if
you succumb to cynicism you will be blocking yourself off from opportunities
that could be the dream of your high-tech career. While you certainly don’t
want to be naïve about your career choices, you do want to remain open
to new ideas and projects.
Too many people these days are living at the extreme ends of the cynic/naïve
scale. More and more I encounter people who have been devastated by layoffs,
company disloyalty and even outright sabotage of their careers by co-workers.
This has left them unable or unwilling to trust anyone or anything. They
have lost the ability to dream. Life has become an endless toil of protecting
themselves from all the people out there who want to harm them in some
While I can certainly understand these feelings, especially in people
who have suffered greatly, the truth is, such cynicism only breeds a stale
life, cut off from new ideas and new opportunities. By denying themselves
the ability to dream, these people have doomed themselves to a drab and
dreary life with nothing to look forward to, nothing to work towards.
In an attempt to protect themselves from pain, they are actually making
the problem worse.
Conversely, some people are so naïve as to beggar description. They
deeply believe every piece of advertising copy, every keynote speech,
every glitzy project plan and then find themselves in a deep depression
when the reality does not match the dream. They may believe that Microsoft
is truly looking out for their interests and that their manager, director
and VP care about their career and well-being above all else. Then the
layoffs start…or continue… and they spend days struck dumb
in amazement over how such a thing could happen.
Your goal should be to find some sense of balance between these extremes.
You want to be cynical enough to weed out the bad, immoral or illegal
opportunities while still remaining naïve enough to listen openly
and honestly to the ideas being presented. Failing on either side leaves
you open to ill effects to your life and your career.
One of the methods I use to establish this balance is to listen to each
opportunity as it is presented, without interrupting or attempting to
judge its worth in the moment. Sometimes you can tell that an idea is
unworkable right off the bat, but take the time to listen and see if there
is some seed of truth, something of value, hidden inside. Try to feel
some of the excitement the presenter feels. Try to understand why this
project is important to them and why they feel it is important to others.
This doesn’t mean you reach for your checkbook, or immediately agree
to resign your current position to join them, only that you listen. You
are being open to the idea without being “sucked in” totally.
You are being naïve enough to listen and dream a little about how
good the project could be but cynical enough to do the research before
jumping into the deep end.
Next, after a bit of time has passed, you begin to look critically at
the project, proposal or job offer. You begin to weigh the pros and cons
in an unemotional, critical fashion. Perhaps you know about other failures
in the area, or have personal or business issues with the others involved.
Now is the time to discover any reservations you might have. This critical
thinking provides you some protection without descending into outright
cynicism. You have less need to worry as you have thought through the
idea or project before committing yourself.
Having a plan
If you decide to join a particular company or project, there are still
some important things to consider. You need to constantly continue to
re-evaluate the opportunity and your place within it. Good ideas can go
bad. Dream jobs can turn into nightmares. You need to continue the work
of balancing between the extremes even as you move forward. More importantly,
you should always carry two scenarios in your head. What would you do
if the project or job was a wild success and what would you do if it was
a complete failure? Much of the stress normally involved in these two
scenarios can be mitigated by a little forethought. The stress arises
from not knowing what to do next. If you are already planning for these
eventualities, though, the effects of great success or dramatic failure
will weigh less heavily on you.
Somewhere between the extremes of cynicism and naivete lies the course
of your high-tech career. Listen openly, but evaluate critically. Support
those ideas you can while understanding the possibilities of failure or
change. Protect yourself and your career without blocking the opportunities
that can lead you to the career you most desire.