A tiny sliver of enduring value

(This was written on July 29, 2010.)

I am traveling east to west today. We are chasing the sun at 37,000 feet, making something close to a beeline between Washington Dulles International Airport and Seattle, Washington. Our 5:25 PM flight actually left the ground sometime around 7:30 PM, delayed by a combination of a recalcitrant cargo hold motor and cells of thunderstorms. But finally we are aloft and chasing the sun. Twilight is slowly unfolding outside our window. Perhaps by the time we arrive in Seattle around 9:45 PM it will finally be fully dark. Meanwhile the view outside the jet’s window shows a sky still somewhat light but with the ground largely shrouded in darkness. At 37,000 feet, the low stratus clouds hovering over the Great Plains look like waves of sand on the beach and sit far, far below us.

Technically this is the start of our vacation, but flying commercial rarely feels like vacation. The view is interesting but there are too many people too tightly pushed together in this fuselage, waiting for what seems like an interminably long flight to finally finish. Then perhaps my vacation will really start, but I know it really starts after a long sleep because I am already starting to feel the jet lag. It will take a day or two to get used to west coast time.

I leave at somewhat of an inopportune time. Some part of me wants to still be holed up in my office at work, answering email, listening to teleconferences, chatting with coworkers and grabbing a salad at the cafeteria. At least these days my work seems more like play than work. It wasn’t always this way, of course. The first few years in this new job were challenging as I adapted, not always without friction, to a new agency. Moreover, this is my first managerial position, and there was much for this neophyte to learn. Managing, I have learned, is more art than science. An effective manager is also a good people person, which I am not. I am learning strategies to cope with this deficiency. Now, finally, six years or so into the job it is finally coming all together. I feel a bit like a bewildered conductor with a talented but temperamental orchestra that is finally making the excellent new music that I wanted to hear. It is a nice feeling.

Seemingly gone are the old animosities that I felt but which were rarely not articulated. Perhaps after six years you finally become part of the furniture. Perhaps that is what it takes to finally feel the respect you feel is your due. Or, more likely, perhaps I have finally earned the respect that I craved. Now doors open and things happen. My big picture ideas that I felt were so important and have national impact are now on the cusp of fruition. It is a satisfying feeling.

Most of us search for relevance, perhaps in part to feed our own egos but also to feel that our life might have some tiny sliver of enduring value. I know that like most of us I will never achieve greatness. The odds are too large so trying is probably counterproductive. That doesn’t mean that individually and collectively we cannot all do good work. “Think globally. Act locally,” says the bumper sticker. That has been sort of my professional model all these years. Do your best to optimize that part of the universe that you can control but add touches of audacity, vision and perseverance. That’s really all any of us can do. In reality, no one achieves greatness alone, but only through other people. That is certainly the case with me. My contribution is largely one of leadership and perseverance. Others largely did the heavy lifting.

I can rail about global warming, the likely extinction of mankind, and the countless stupid ways we are mismanaging our country and our world. I can contribute to the dialog (this blog is part of that effort) but in the end I must acknowledge that my influence will be marginal at best. We are all within the swirl of larger forces. However, in the tiny area of life within my control, I can still aim and maybe just hit the bullseye.

I am also within a few years of Retirement Number One. I do not have to retire in 2012, but I could opt for a retirement. I already know that Retirement Number One would only be a stepping stone to my next and likely more part time job, which will be something not too dissimilar from the IT work I already do. I do sense though that I my professional life has crested. The view is nice and satisfying, but in the future I will have to set different and likely downsized criteria for my satisfaction and fulfillment. It might involve inspiring community college students who, I have learned, seemed largely inured to inspiration. In many ways, that would be a harder professional accomplishment and perhaps more satisfying. However, whatever large-scale impact I am to have on the world will shortly come to fruition. It remains to be seen whether my strategy will bear the fruit that I think it will. Time will tell.

So I feel wistful. Even if I choose not to retire and stay working until a heart attack fells me at my desk, things would still change around me. Bosses and coworkers would retire. Organizational dynamics would change. New problems would emerge that might be beyond my management ability. I would like to keep my professional life exactly where it is indefinitely. Yet, it cannot stay this way. Life moves too quickly. Too many chess pieces are in play. I know that others will follow in my footsteps and likely be just as competent, if not more competent, than I have proven to be. They too deserve the chance to stretch and to make the world a better place. Part of vindicating your success is to time your departure before the law of averages strike and you screw up something major.

Vacation is about relaxation, about seeing new places, and looking at life from a different perspective, like the suffused rose glow outside our window now alighting the atmosphere. I will get that in the next twelve days out here in Washington State and Oregon, and you will read some of it here. I look forward to tuning out the work side of my brain but right now, at 37,000 feet, it is not yet possible.

Tomorrow though, our latest adventure in the Pacific Northwest begins.

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