Don’t Wait For Permission
There’s nothing better to remind me of what’s possible, than to spend a day watching children. They show what we’ve forgotten.
Yesterday, because school was out for Columbus Day, I had the opportunity to take my eight-year-old kiddo, Jeremy, to the Museum of Math in NYC. The place was packed and everywhere I looked was a hive of activity. Truthfully, it was all I could do to keep up, as Jeremy voraciously dove in to each exhibit – learning, absorbing, and solving the problems with an intensity that is all too rare in the adult-world. He wasn’t waiting for me to give him permission – he was playing full out.
I remember early in my career, right out of college, my “survival job” (which is what actors call the work they do for money while they’re pursuing their theatre dreams) was for a small educational advisory firm. We did academic placement for Japanese students who wanted to study in the US and Canada. Pouring over transcripts, reading essays, talking to ESL/ international student programs at the colleges, and thumbing through hard-copies of course catalogs in our library (as this was before the days of the internet), were the activities that filled each “academic advisor’s” day. The advisors at the firm all had impressive backgrounds in international education. I, of course, was not hired to be an academic advisor. Fresh out of college with a theatre degree, I was hired to be the admin. For the time being…
One of the things that actors do that sets them apart from many other professions is that they totally immerse themselves in a new world with each role. They have to gain a deep understanding quickly, so it’s in their bones. You’re playing a reporter? Then you learn everything you can about journalism, about what it’s like to work for a newspaper, about what drives someone to tirelessly seek out the truth for a story. You’re playing a Shakespearean Queen from the late 16th Century? What’s it like to live without plumbing and electricity, to be surrounded by servants, and not have your life be your own? You’re playing a corporate executive? How do you think? What keeps you up at night? What do you know about your company, your industry, the other key players? What drives you? With every role, an actor jumps in completely to learn as much as they can, as quickly as they can.
And so it was with me when I landed in the academic advising world. I had never worked for a company before, so I didn’t have any preconceived notions of what was off-limits. So nothing was. As soon as I mastered the admin role (which took about two months), I continued to steep myself in all that was relevant to my company. When I wasn’t studying Japanese culture, I was learning about international education. I listened deeply to the questions that the other advisors would ask. I learned to see the world through their eyes. What did they look for in a good school? What schools best met our students’ needs? Why? What did those schools do that other schools didn’t do? I took on the “role” of academic advisor long before I was cast. I didn’t wait for permission.
The more I learned, the more problems I could see that needed to be solved. The Japanese advisors overseas didn’t know enough about the geographical, economical, or institutional differences in the US to adequately set a student’s expectations for school placement. They didn’t understand the cultural differences enough to prepare the students for living overseas. For me these problems became my opportunities.
Within a year I was an academic advisor, putting out as many, if not more, recommendations than my seasoned colleagues. Within two years I had started traveling overseas to train our Japanese clients and lead cross-cultural workshops at college fairs across Japan. There had been no position for which to apply, no development plan, no path toward success. I didn’t have the “right” degree, or even connections. I wasn’t any smarter, more talented, or more amazing than my colleagues. I just didn’t know any better than to not do what I had always done. Like an actor taking on a role, I immersed myself. I learned. I found problems to be solved. I didn’t wait for permission.
Maybe you’ll get lucky. Maybe you’ve got a manager who has your back and is having consistent “career coaching conversations” with you. Maybe you’ve got a killer talent management team at your company, you’ve been identified as “high-potential” or “emerging leader” and you’ll get carefully groomed to move up the ladder. But while you’re waiting for someone else to direct your career, what opportunities might you be missing?
One of the things I hear time and time again from senior executives, is their frustration with people waiting to be told what to do. The command-control-leadership of the past has left a swath of insecurities that makes it difficult for business to move as quickly as it needs to in today’s environment. Leaders are stretched too thin and there’s simply not time to outline every move that needs to be made. The people who are rising to the top are those who can figure it out and think strategically on their own. They immerse. Learn. Solve problems. Without waiting for permission.
As I was watching the children at the museum yesterday, I was reminded that this isn’t a special talent that some of us are given, this natural curiosity and desire to learn is something we all get at birth. We may have forgotten, but it is not lost.
Immerse yourself. Learn all you can about everything that is relevant to what you do. No degree is enough. No tenure is enough. Get beyond all you think you know and how good you think you are and discover that there’s still more to learn. Find the problems to be solved. Seize the chance to solve them. Create your opportunities.
Because it’s the big secret that nobody talks about… You don’t need to wait for permission.
©OnStage Leadership, 2013
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