I have the easiest job in the world.
Perhaps “easy” is not the right word. After all, my work involves constant travel, detailed analysis, crushing deadlines, and enough pressure to make a pair of diamond stud earrings.
But it’s still easy, in that I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I shudder to think what might have happened if I had not decided, in late middle age, to become a consultant. Previously, I had been an executive in technology companies, and that came with certain rewards and prestige.
In between CEO gigs, I used to consult on turnarounds, because a tech ramp-up is basically a turnaround dressed up in drag.
After my last CEO stint, I started to think about consulting full time. I enjoyed the variety, stimulation, and ability to help real people. Could I change from being a company leader to a company advisor?
While a voice told me consulting full time might be a good career change, another, darker voice decided against it. Consultants borrow your watch to tell the time. Most consulting firms go out of business in three years. Being a consultant doesn’t build shareholder value for you, this voice said.
By the way, I’m clearing up the language of this negative voice, which had the colorful vocabulary of a drill sergeant on Monday wakeup.
I did have some practical challenges, which the drill sergeant never failed to mention. I had no clients, no offerings, no referrals, and no business cards. What in the world, Sarge asked, makes you think you can follow this dream?
Then someone suggested a book, Are You Ready to Succeed? by business professor Srikumar S. Rao. (Upon reading the title, the drill sergeant said, “Succeed? It’s about freakin’ time”).
This book arose out of a Columbia business school course in, of all things, dealing with the internal pressures that we in the business world face every day. One such internal pressure is what Rao calls the Voice of Judgment, which many of us carry around without even realizing it. We have a cheerleader for failure hidden away in plain sight. If it were broadcast on cable we’d cancel the subscription, but because it is in our own head it has free editorial reign.
That was my drill sergeant.
One of the book’s points is that, if you want to succeed, you have to deal with this voice. I followed the book’s prescriptions and my drill sergeant turned into a chauffeur, helping me get to the places I needed to go.
Another bugaboo the book deals with is prestige. Is prestige important? Or is it more important to do something meaningful?
I decided that I would do what I do best and to hell with prestige. At the time it was a hard call, but it now seems obvious.
So for the last several years I kept this little gem of a book on my bedside table. If the drill sergeant tried to make a screaming comeback, I had an ally to quietly push back.
Then a friend suggested I meet his buddy Srikumar S. Rao, a name I obviously recognized. Srikumar invited me to take the fabled Columbia course, once called “Creativity and Personal Mastery,” and now offered to outside groups a few times a year. It consists of three off-site weekends, along with assignments of essays, journaling, and group projects over a three-month period. In many ways the work flows like an executive program in, say, corporate finance. Except I call it a survey course in yourself.
For example, in corporate finance, you do not have a topic of “curbing your mental chatter,” which was by far the most popular topic. It turns out many of us carry around not only a voice of judgment, but a daydreamer, a hypochondriac, and a 70s disco DJ, along with many other unique and vociferous personalities. Curbing these voices, and their accompanying playlists, helps the executive to focus on mission. For me, it also helped sleep. I wake up fewer times in the middle of the night.
This is a surprisingly easy topic to discuss in a group of like-minded people, especially since the concept of trust and confidentiality is emphasized throughout.
It also makes for some gratifying, easy, and close acquaintances. Unlike the executive course in corporate finance, where competition reigns, this course is a more-than-zero-sum game. Everybody helps, everybody wins.
A key feature of the course is Dr. Rao, who is an always-smiling enthusiast of Shakespeare, theoretical physics, mass-market movies, and tennis. One thing he does not do is promote — not during the course or afterwards. After such a profound experience, you’d almost expect to have someone in the lobby selling you a t-shirt. Nope. There’s no lobby and no sales. It’s just a profoundly moving and effective experience, shared with a small group of like-minded travelers.
December 13, 2015