No, this blog post is not about coffins or a reminder of our inescapable mortality. Although I thought about this recently during a recent trip to Florida. It was my birthday and friend who lives there said Florida is the state to grow old and die, apparently residents jokingly refer to it as “God’s waiting room.”
What I’m referring to are the boxes all of us find ourselves in professionally. By boxes I mean the way the people we work with define us – our capabilities, personalities, positions, strengths, weaknesses, etc. From CEOs to one person small business owners, if you engage with other humans, you work inside a box. To think otherwise is to deny reality.
The box we are in matters, much more than we care to admit. It can determine what projects we are assigned, what meetings we are invited to, the business we win, whether investors will fund our idea, our chances for promotion or getting that next great job offer.
Our boxes are determined in part by our actions, behavior and performance. But they are also a product of people’s perceptions, which are beyond our control. And that can be maddening, especially if we feel misunderstood or underappreciated.
Boxes are a relative reflection of our status in the communities of people with whom we work. Seth Godin refers to status as “the engine of culture” because all humans care at some level about how we are perceived. That’s why the whole conversation about boxes is so important.
There is a school of thought that with hard work, a willingness to accept feedback and patience that we can change our boxes. I believe this to be true. Based on my own experience I know that it’s possible for each of us to grow and change, to redefine our boxes.
Having said that, every once in a while, I’m reminded how difficult it is to change perceptions. Not too long ago I was with one of my oldest friends. He had seen LinkedIn posts about my video series and blog but hadn’t watched or read any of them. Apparently he has trouble separating the version of me he knew when we were kids with who I am today.
And there you have it, despite the cumulative effort of more than 30 years to improve myself I’m still in the same box I was as a teenager. It can be frustrating at times, but I’ve also accepted it. He will always be one of my best friends, I’ve made peace with my box in this case. My guess is each of us has similar stories.
The lesson for me professionally is if you really want to change your box sometimes you need to change your surroundings. Especially if you’ve worked in the same place, in the same role, for a long time. Sure, you can change people’s perceptions incrementally over time, but that may not be enough to get you what you want. If you don’t want to leave, then similar to my experience with my old friend, I suggest you come to terms with your box.
For those who have been through a career transition, like I have, it’s quite common to feel a sense of relief after leaving a role, no matter the circumstances. I think it’s because you’ve escaped the box. There’s a feeling of liberation and new possibilities. It is a rare moment to redefine one’s career. If you’re in such a position right now, don’t waste the opportunity. Think clearly and specifically about what you want your new box to be and the actions you need to take to make it happen.
To me the only mistake is to ignore or deny you’re in a box. Self-delusion always disempowers. Yes, we must acknowledge that elements of human perception and status are beyond our control, but it is within our power to do the hard work required to present our best selves at work. Or make different choices about where and with whom we work. Being honest with yourself is the best path to leading a fulfilling and productive career before we end up in that final box, or Florida. (Sorry FL friends, couldn’t resist.)