Last Friday I got to speak at career day for Bright Elementary. Their principal is a friend, and I got to be part of it for the second year now.
During my elementary school years, the word career was never mentioned. That was a long time ago and my career has been on my mind very much since then.
Right before I became a mom (a career-changing move to be sure) I looked around and decided on a specialty. I sat for a 4-hour test to get certified as a project management professional during my third trimester.
So often I’d seen the corporations I worked at lose their focus. For years I’d worked on global telecommunications systems that got lost in the moment to stumble and miss the long view. The field of project management had all the answers sorted out in bullet points and flow charts.
At last! A solution to this constant problem. With this new certification and all the evidence behind it, I knew I’d be back from maternity leave to take on the world.
Fast forward to career day at Bright Elementary.
I really wanted to tell these kids about my career, and let them know the things I wished I’d known–the things that would help them as they made their choices for the future. The night before I sat down and prepared what I’d say. How could I describe my career in a way that would make any kind of sense for them? My career was not even making sense to me.
I had just been laid off. A soothing-voiced HR person had met with me the day before to take my badge and go over the paperwork that said my job was done and never to return. Making my notes to give these kids career advice, I decided to focus on the positive.
Careers are like that. It was not age-appropriate to talk about all the ways it doesn’t work out and all the ways you have to swim against the current to get what you need.
Friday morning I gave my talks. Speaking back to back, for three half-hour presentations I told these children about what I do.
What I tried to do.
What I hoped to do again.
“How many of you have projects here at school?”
They easily told me: “Over there. See? A self-portrait.”
“Yes! Exactly! A project has three criteria:
1. It ends; it has a deadline
2. It is one-of-a-kind unique
3. It is progressively elaborated.
That’s true of building a new hospital and it’s true of doing a self-portrait. Let me explain. Your assignment was due at a certain time, wasn’t it?”
“At the end of class.”
“That’s right! And you couldn’t just copy the guy next to you. You had to make your own. So it was unique.
Progressively elaborated is my favorite. It means you have to figure out the details over time.”
There were listening.
“Progress means to move forward. See, at the beginning when you sat down to draw your self-portrait you didn’t know what it was going to turn out like. Would it have arms? Would you color the background?
You didn’t know. You had to decide as you went along until by the time it was due you finished it all and decided what it should have. And then it was done.”
And my career day presentations were done. Not bad, I think.
I carried the PMBOK book back. It is an impressive book. All of us who study it recognize its greatness and how little it resembled action in reality.
Sure, if we followed all the knowledge it contains everything would work out so beautifully. And we never can, quite.
When I started to learn about project management I wanted things to work out beautifully. The books seemed to say that they could, if only. My frustrations kept hitting the short sightedness of the right now and the emergencies.
It is in my nature to look beyond the moment. There should be a point to it. There should be a target that we are aiming at over time. That is the guiding map of the project plan. And it is hard to achieve.
It’s hard to keep your eyes looking past the horizon. Still, I agree with Browning: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?”
The meta-story. Call it heaven. Call it whatever you like. We have to have a concept of a something to reach for. My principal friend is shining at light past the horizon for her students. The bigger story is that this job I just lost is not my focus. I’m reaching for the big picture.
I can almost touch it.