Time and Commitment Are Not Synonyms

Road AheadThis is the sixth in my series of Suit Yourself essays.

I have loved every one of my jobs, and the longest I stayed in any of them was six years. I’m a big fan of changing jobs. You get to start out fresh, with all the presumptions in your favor. Having learned from your previous mistakes, you get to operate in a new way in a new place and with new people (who didn’t witness those mistakes). You get new challenges, a new honeymoon period, and another crack at that great souped-up learning curve that characterized every new school year. (Is there anything better than new school supplies and the annual possibility of doing things right?)

New jobs improve your ability to recognize (and believe in) what you truly bring to the party. This, in turn, helps you become self-aware about your strengths and weaknesses and leads to a self-confidence that is grounded in reality. Once you know what you’re good at and enjoy doing, what more than one employer or boss has rewarded as valuable, you can do a much better job of assessing new opportunities, marketing yourself and becoming a high impact, valuable – and satisfied – employee.

There is a veritable river of opportunities flowing by at eye level. Sadly, too many of us are so busy watching our feet to be sure we don’t trip that we completely fail to notice the flow. If you can take your eyes off your feet and look confidently forward, you can fish freely in that river.

Of course, no fish (in the form of new employers) will bite if all they see is frequent job changes. You can only fish effectively and enjoy the benefits of changing jobs if you consistently display in every job you hold the same levels of commitment and performance that you would exhibit if you planned to retire from the place. Actual time spent isn’t the relevant measuring stick. Contribution is. It’s important to stay nimble, but the checks and balances that distinguish the employee of value from the flibbertigibbet are commitment and great performance.

Transience is a fact of life in the world of employment. Times change, and so do people. Since every job has its aggravations, someone with clear priorities who knows what she’s good at and likes to do will only be satisfied in a job where the prize (career success) is worth the price (working the job day in and day out). Further complicating matters, what was once a prize worth the price can – and will – over time become otherwise due to internal or external changes in circumstance.

I left my first job because part of what was great about it was that it was all-encompassing. This worked beautifully when my top priority was learning my craft and building my skills, but not so well once I had a family and no longer wanted to work day and night. In contrast, I might still be at my second job had the 1986 Tax Act not rendered the company’s business uneconomic.

In both cases (and in all subsequent cases), I chose the job in the first place and committed myself to it over time as if I were planning to stay forever. I was planning to stay forever insofar as one can plan these things. For one reason or another, though, things changed and my plan had to change to stay consistent with my (changing) skills and true to my (changing) priorities.

I suppose this point is somewhat akin to that concept of quality vs. quantity time that is so frequently applied to justify or crucify (depending on the applier’s point of view) working parents. It seems to me, however, that any focus on time is misplaced. Time is simply irrelevant to the assessment of value in an absolute sense.

Time is a red herring - 100% commitment to a job and great performance in it are far more relevant and meaningful measuring sticks. So what do 100% commitment to a job and great performance in it look like?

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