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Misplaced Frustration

Imagine every arc of every story where there's an aspirational individual who wants to start making big moves in a particular area such as an industry or athletic team. How does this story go? The protagonist, or Star, has one particular relationship with whom they can confide. The Star says, "I'm going to make the most impact to the most people; more than anyone would expect," or something much more gripping and bold. Confidante says, "Whoa, whoa, whoa. You've got some pretty big dreams there, but how are you doing to change the world if you haven't even started working on yourself yet?" Again, an approximation and maybe even more overt than Confidante would say this early in the arc.

Star then starts in on the hard work only to realize that to get to the pinnacle, they have to start with foundational knowledge. Star is frustrated that foundational knowledge is slow, tedious, and no where near the pinnacle. But, by golly, they force themselves through trials and tribulations to reach the pinnacle.

When they get there, all is great, they haven't aged a bit, as observers we all feel super warm and toasty and, for some reason, want to go buy greeting cards.

For anyone who has traveled along the career path, they know the path is not straight, not always linear, never easy, and fraught with opportunity for distraction, misguidance, and adventure. The misnomer many people might have is that the struggle of the career path will lead to Dream Job where the struggles along the path are foreign concepts and being able to focus on the Big Deal is the only thing they will have to worry about.

Very likely, no one imagines Dream Job as being perfection. Dream Job is absolutely an aspirational goal that helps keep motivation up and helps make today's struggle worth tomorrow's reward.

Imagine then, the thing you've focused on, the way you're going to make your impact, is now yours. You know full well that every day is not going to be perfect and you're ready for it. You're ready because you're there for the Big Deal. The impact. Making a difference. Now imagine that drive is where you get to spend 90% of your time. Then 80. Then 70. Then 60. How cozy are you going to feel about your engagement when your time spent on the Big Deal is decaying? Just to make things fun, let's assume that 10% of your time starts off with things that need doing, but don't have a very tight relationship with the Big Deal. Then 20. Then 30. Then 40.

It is not a big logical leap to guess that the joy of a person who's drive to the Big Deal was judoed into another area that didn't seem to relate to the Big Deal.

Before taking one more step down this path, it bares stating; I was not duped. No one made false promises. The divestiture in what I saw as the Big Deal was a function of my understanding of the complexity of the thing that was my responsibility. What I didn't understand was my own frustration, the source, and the reason.

The Big Deal for me, was to help students succeed in college. It's big, broad, a challenge, and intellectually stimulating for me. The best part is that if I succeeded, then another student would have the opportunity to continue to earn a degree. In some cases, earning that degree wouldn't simply be an entry to a "good job," but a change in the path of the lives of their entire family and future. Every time I helped a student find their best path, it was the best feeling. So good.

What was the Other Thing? A federal compliance report due annually. This was known from before the beginning. The language was about chairing a report review committee. In my mind, I'm imagining several hours of meetings to look at someone else's work to help make sure t's are crossed and i's are dotted.

(by the way, 10 extra points for anyone who knows the word for the crossbar in a t. The dot above the line in an 'i' is a tittle, but I have to believe the crossbar has a name, too)

What I came to understand is that I wasn't there to help shore up the work of others. I was there to shore up what would be mostly my work. And, the data in the report wouldn't be cut-and-dry. The data would come as a result of extraction, debate, calling experts for help, and sometimes, agreeing to disagree and moving on. A complex report about safety and security seems like it's tightly conjoined with the Big Deal.

Unless we're counting events that happened a mile away. Unless we're counting events that happened in the parking lot of a hotel in a different state when students were staying there for a conference for 'more than one night.'

Unless we're creating a report that is as close to perfection as possible and nearly no one reads it (based on data analytics from where it was published on the website).

Unless nearly no one was making any kind of decision about attending an institution based on this work.

Unless the "as perfect as possible" product would still result in being dressed down or fine as a result of an audit.

Unless the impact on student success is imagined rather than observable.

This whole process became intensely frustrating. The amount of time that was spent trying to reduce the degree of failure an audit would find was approaching zero merit. Listening to new ideas and aspirations of people fully removed from the situation to increase the information shared in the report was exhausting (e.g. including incidents that occurred 25 miles away).

I didn't like that it was an exercise in futility in that very few people read the report. I didn't like that the people who do the audits said that no one is fully in compliance (so a measure of success is how little they find wrong?). In my head it was compliance. That was the issue. I hated compliance.

If I had thought about it more critically, I liked policy. I enjoyed writing tight reports, proposals, or even accounts of situations. I still do. But because of my experience, I hated compliance. That's not accurate.

Compliance is important and necessary work. Not just for keeping things in line with whatever legal trip hazards may exist, but for possible improvement. An organization can examine the area being regulated for possible process improvement to ensure they're doing better than minimally acceptable. With the right frame of mind.

Until I read "The Infinite Game" I thought it was the compliance that was chafing. It was actually spending so much time and effort to produce an outcome that had no meaningful impact on how I saw my contributions doing the most good. My WHY was nowhere near this portion of my responsibilities. In fact, in my point of view, the tasks I was doing for this compliance matter didn't involve even the WHAT or the HOW. It was just there. In the way. Making meaning and purpose for approximately no one.

What I learned and hope to impart to you is the opportunity to fully understand and contemplate frustration. We are emotional creatures and having emotion about something is perfectly fine. Identifying what's under the emotion is a huge next step.

When you experience frustration or when someone on your team is at their wits end with a portion of their responsibilities, dig down to find out why. The first step may not be smooth. If someone had asked me why I hated compliance, I'm sure my answer would have been, "Because it's stupid, duh," or something slightly more composed. Nevertheless, the drill down is needed here. When we experience prolonged frustration, there is no way that won't affect other areas of the job and life. When that happens, then we've set the right temperature, humidity, and pressure for a sweet batch of burnout.

Do I wish I could take another crack at this compliance responsibility - no. Not even a little. Not at all. But not because it's compliance. Because it is so far away from how I want to make an impact. It's so far away from my natural strengths. And because why would I want to take an opportunity away from someone who is charged up by doing this work? Then them take it on, get revved up and enjoy every bit of it!

I'll continue to get my energy through coaching, training, and presenting.

We tend to know our strengths and demotivators. The fortunate among us are able to act accordingly and hopefully help others to the same.

Cover Art: Unsplash by Andre Hunter

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