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Posted by on Sep 2, 2010

I never really meant to do this work

My father, John, was a career counselor, and he told me something many years ago that I will never forget. It chilled me then, and whenever I tell this story to groups there is an immediate reaction.

It’s a story, and it takes the form of someone about to retire coming in to talk to my Dad:

“John, can we talk?

“It’s a funny thing. I’m retiring next month, and it’s hard to believe. It seems kind of like a long time ago, and also like just yesterday, that I was in college and didn’t really know what to major in, so I majored in business (or English, or history, etc.).

“I graduated and didn’t really know what to do with my degree, but there was an opening down at XYZ Co., so I took it, because I had bills to pay.

“It wasn’t a bad job, and I enjoyed being on my own, having a little bit of money. I met Jane then, and we started going out, got engaged, and then married. More responsibility now.

“Jane started having babies. More responsibility, and a promotion, and then the move out to Ohio. Another promotion, the kids were growing up, and then got near college age. One more promotion. Jane and I had our 25th anniversary. The kids graduated and moved on. Empty Nesters, and I retire next month John and it’s a funny thing because I never really meant to do this work.”

My father said, “You don’t want to know how many times I’ve heard this.”

There was a popular ad campaign that said “Life comes at you fast.”

I say we measure time in seconds today, like when you cross the urban intersection and the seconds count down. Every second counts.

And yet, there is a large clock in your life that you never actually see. It’s called the clock of your life (and career). We are periodically shocked by the passage of time – an anniversary, our 10th, 20th or 30th year working somewhere. The kids leaving home. This big clock really makes its presence known at times, but it’s usually invisible, ticking away quietly in the background while we organize our day-to-day lives (often in minutes and even seconds).

One of the biggest decisions a leader – and anyone else, really – has to make is how to spend this big unit of time called a lifespan or career. Leaders who haven’t really chosen what they want and need to do can hardly expect others to be excited by working with them, in a climate of unknowing, lack of commitment and indecision.

You get one shot, with this thing called your life.

Take it.

Because that clock keeps ticking.

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