Mastery and the squiggly line
"You do not have to be defined
by one job title
by one success
by one failure
by one relationship
by one dream.
You get to dream up new dreams.”
Elaine Welteroth (Journalist and Author)
March, 2016. When my partner and I returned to NZ after years working in the UK, Asia Pacific and US, I was (again) at a career crossroads. Curiosity had been my career guide, but it wasn’t immediately apparent what I was going to do next and unfortunately, a year of travelling through South America hadn’t given me the answer on a silver platter. I felt a bit like a fish out of water returning to NZ (an experience not uncommon to NZ returnees, I would later discover).
When you choose a non-linear career path, you’d better get ready to be a darn good navigator.
Patterns, perspective and taking the (mental) plunge
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that hindsight has given me 20:20 vision, but I’ve seen a pattern emerge over time that wasn’t apparent to me at the start of my career. 1547 days after joining Tech Futures Lab as one of its first employees, I’m setting off on the next adventure with a different perspective. Sure - the unknown is a bit scary, but for me, what’s more, scary is stepping into something that’s predictable, known and mapped out. My need to explore is exactly how I found myself making my first leap - out of commercial litigation and into an MBA programme in Norway (I’ll never forget the befuddled look I got from the firm’s partner when I shared my plans). That was a stepping stone into large-scale digital change management roles, then a leadership role for the world’s largest direct-to-consumer wine merchant, and then to Tech Futures Lab - helping build NZ’s foremost innovation and learning institute for the digital economy.
Making that first leap out of law and into the unknown was enormously significant. And while it’s not as if I became an astronaut or quantum physicist or something super crazy, it was mentally significant for me. I remember being in tears, standing on Shortland St in Auckland down the road from my office as my mum gently but firmly told me I needed to leave my secure, well-paid lawyer gig, with a bit of a safety net but not too much. “You can’t see the wood for the trees,” she told me. I’ve turned that advice into a practice: creating breathing space at each juncture as I navigate the ‘what’s next’.
The identity trap: what do you want to be when you grow up?
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” is a question we start asking kids almost as soon as they can speak. We ask with good intentions, but as futurist and leadership expert Sinead Bovell explains, “as we examine the future of work and the transformational role that technology will play in it, this question may be setting an identity trap.” And that is something I can totally relate to. What’s more, this identity trap / crisis - whatever you want to call it - strikes a lot of people, at different ages and stages. It’s a phenomenon I’ve witnessed first-hand over the last 4 years during which time I’ve had the opportunity to interview almost every single applicant to the Master of Technological Futures, the flagship programme of Tech Futures Lab, and our answer to New Zealand’s capabilities gap for the future of work.
Accidental research - the Master of Technological Futures
Between me and our awesome team, Tech Futures Lab has spoken to literally hundreds of Kiwi professionals from every sector and industry about what’s next in their careers and how they navigate that. Part of the Master’s application process involves an interview, designed to ensure the programme is a good fit and vice versa. When we initially designed the Master’s programme, we had no idea how important that step would be - for us and for students. But it’s often one of the experiences students remember long after they finish their formal studies, as being a pivotal point in their journey.
At an average age of 44 years, the Master’s students at Tech Futures Lab pretty much all have existing careers in professions or community settings, and they’re old enough to have built up ‘life stuff’ - kids, mortgages, investments, commitments, failures, successes. The interview is a conversation between equals that traverses life goals, legacy, purpose and meaning, family and fears. From the very first interview I did, I’ve loved the feeling of helping others at their career crossroads (or inflection points as I’ve come to see them) and leaned into it whole-heartedly.
It’s also become a sort of research project, providing insight into the dynamics of the work-self relationship, the narratives we tell ourselves about who we are or the narratives we adopt based on what others tell us, the common desire to make a positive difference in the world (sometimes said boldly at the start of the interview, sometimes a more gradual realisation during the course of the programme), the joy and importance of creating space to learn and think, and the need to shift our mindsets to unlock our potential.
Change can be complex, the path unclear, the tools to navigate not yet mastered. As you get older, it can feel like a lot of rides on that next decision. Learning and education can support people to thrive in a changing future by giving them the confidence to follow their curiosities, passions and reignite their imagination.
I’ve chosen not to specialise in one discipline or profession: law, medicine, engineering (though I cut my teeth in one of them). Early on in my career, my own squiggly line felt like indecision and uncertainty. It seemed to sit in opposition to my values of mastery and high-performance. I had this nagging feeling that I needed to get clear, find a ‘career’ and be able to tell other people what that was. What was I supposed to say when people asked me ‘what do you do?’ at networking events? “How long have you got?!” I’d think.
‘The squiggly line career’ is now firmly part of popular vernacular, and will probably be the norm now and into the future. I’ve realised it’s also my superpower. Honing skills and capabilities that cross boundaries and cross disciplines is the job I do and am good at doing, it’s just there’s no job title for that yet (creative suggestions welcome). I’ve also found the squiggle to be the secret sauce of TFLers - driven by curiosity you’ll find biochemists turned artists turned educators, and engineers turned platform thinkers and innovation experts.
The MBA was an important navigation tool in my own career journey. Had the Master of Technological Futures existed when I was searching for a postgrad programme years ago, it would’ve been a slam dunk. But, at the time an MBA was the next best thing. I knew those three letters could help others see what I already saw: that I’m more than the sectors I’ve worked in, the roles I’ve done, the places I’ve worked...I’m a problem solver, idea creator, team cheerleader, conceptual thinker, framework builder. Lo and behold, the MBA worked: it was my ticket out of the courtroom and into the boardroom, working with CEOs and their teams to drive performance and change.
I learned that my experience of navigating careers and roles was actually a tool I could use to help others to navigate their own. It’s also helped me to become a more empathic leader and manager. It showed me that learning was a journey, a runway and not always a destination. It helped me reframe questions. I stopped asking ‘how do we get from A to B’? And started exploring: what is B? Maybe we need to look at C, or D, or Z? How should I test each one? What do I need to know before I get started? How do I know when to change course? How much do I need to know, and what sort of experts should I surround myself with?
More values and principles, fewer role titles and jobs
So if you’re a squiggly-liner like me and your north star isn’t a job title or profession, what on earth guides you along the way? What advice should we give ourselves, our friends, our children to help them navigate? It’s not an answer I found at school or university. For me, it’s a set of principles and values, which include:
Doing meaningful work, that contributes to the prosocial impact
A place to flex and grow in my ‘mastery’ - ie where I can lead, work with frickin’ awesome people, be coached, and learn
Seeking out organisations/teams/initiatives that are dynamic, inclined to action and have a sense of possibility.
Being guided by those values and principles has helped stay open to opportunities I might otherwise never have considered but it may not easily help you find a job on a job site. And it’s helped me hone exactly the type of skills which incidentally, are correlated with keeping pace with technological advancement. In his book Metaskills: Five Talents for the Robotic Age, Marty Neumier describes the essential human traits that will spark innovation and act as guiding principles for life in a post-industrial era (and which I love and share at every opportunity):
Feeling (activating our intuition and empathy).
Seeking (being able to comprehend the big picture and overcome biases).
Dreaming (engaging in applied imagination).
Making (using design processes and design thinking).
Learning (understanding how we learn best).
Mastery in your sector, field or industry is simply not enough. Mastering ‘metaskills’ actually makes the work we do more meaningful, purposeful and joyful. We can aim for more than just our employability and the next job. Embracing metaskills is about being fully human, embracing flexibility and realising the whole self we can bring to what we do each day. And these themes continue to come through loud and clear in all the applicant interviews I’ve done for our postgrad programmes over the past 4 years.
Growth edges - mental boundaries
Switching your focus away from roles, titles and jobs and towards performance, mastery and values get you more attuned to your ‘growth edges’. This concept was coined by development and leadership expert, Dr Jennifer Garvey Berger and is something I’ve learned a lot about over the last 6 months, working with an amazing coach (shout out here to Dr Tresna Hunt - also our delivery partner for the Organisational Agility programme at Tech Futures Lab - for setting me on this journey years ago and Dr Priscilla Almada for helping me continue it more recently).
A growth edge refers to the mental boundary of the world you currently know and understand, and the world you cannot know or understand, yet. What’s important here is the awareness that getting to the next level - whatever that might be for you - requires a step-change in who you are being, not what you know. For me, that’s about understanding the tools and techniques to navigate through uncertainty, bring others on the journey, understand how much/little I need to know about a subject or skill set and how much I can entrust it to others. Incidentally, these are all essential leadership skills - whether you’re leading a team of 1 or a team of 1000. It’s not about obsessing over which STEM subjects to do, learning how to code, or reciting brittle academic material.
So here’s what I’ll take away and forward as I end my TFL journey, all 1548 days of it (credits here go to my team, Frances Valintine, our Tech Futures Lab students, our industry ecosystem):
The only way out is through.
Your edges are only mental boundaries.
Build a team around you to go on the journey with. Make sure this team thinks differently to you and can challenge your perspectives.
Trust your instinct but be aware of the data points too.
It’s ok (and sometimes desirable) not to have the outcome in clear focus. Develop your personal values and principles and let these be your guide.
Seek out new knowledge, perspectives and experiences. Often you’ll find that new or ‘emerging’ is a relative term - and that somewhere amongst the billions of other humans on this planet there’s a group of others exploring, thinking, feeling the very things that you are.
If you’re thinking about what’s next for you - it might be that Covid has propelled you there, it might be a new project or team you’re joining, it might be a mid-life crisis or just a desire to explore and have a fresh perspective - step forward. Tech Futures Lab was created to help people take the steps and smash through the mental boundaries, surrounding you with support, cheerleaders, a safety net and a good dose of humour.
As a last observation, I recognise my privileged position. I recognise that not everyone has the ability to choose from the options I do. This article is simply designed to capture my own experience and hopefully help others navigate theirs.
I’m immensely proud to have been part of the journey to date and watch with anticipation as the next patterns emerge.