Frustrating career progress (or lack there-of) — one of the prime reasons

photo by my wife: Chandrashila peak in the Himalayas

“Much of modern life is preventable chronic stress injury” ― Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Consider the following examples:

This week I had to ferry my daughter t to her school for one of her board (the big final) exams. Normally she goes by school bus but this day the bus was to bring her back much later in the day and she needed those extra hours for studying for the next day’s exam.

As it happens her school is very far from our house — so far that the school even organizes transport for parents for parents-teachers conferences. I suggested 15 minutes buffer to be incorporated in our travel plans, but that was rejected (see, not much traffic in the route and extra 15 minutes of early morning sleep was too tempting). About twenty minutes into the journey we realized that my daughter may not have carried her calculator which was a requirement for the mathematics exam. It took us a few stressful minutes to realize that she did have the calculator tucked in a niche in her bag.

At workplaces, I have seen a global trend where employees work hard for three or four months and then go on a one or two week long vacation. What I almost inevitably observed is that within a week of getting back from vacation, they get into the same old stressed-out mode. Very rarely did vacations bring any lasting relief.

The last time I trained for a marathon was for an event in November last year. It involved 14 week intense training. It was my best trained full marathon attempt ever. As it turned out, I fell sick (cold, fever etc) the day before the marathon event and I did not end up running the marathon. So many others train equally hard or harder still but very few fall sick. Why did I fall sick?

I have also had personal experience of missing a train because we reached the train station late. I know of friends who missed flights because they underestimated traffic (or something like that) and reached the airport late.

I have had vast experience in seeing employees work hard with a view to progress on their career, only to be disappointed at the end of the year to see that they have not been accorded promotion. This happens so often that finally when the promotion does come through, employee feels a sense of relief more than inspiration and motivation to continue to do well in the future. Why does this happen — due to a number of reasons obviously but one of the most common reasons is that many do not allow for slack in their approach. Did you ever see your peer getting more recognized by senior management and progressing faster than you although s/he ends up working lesser than you (in your eyes) and quite likely delivering lesser overall value. You are probably busy delivering projects, interviewing large number of candidates in the weekends for building teams, doing team events etc to keep up team morale — so, you are overloaded at work and walking tightrope on critical paths of many projects and activities. Your time is locked up in non-negotiable work most of which is day-to-day in nature. This leaves you little time, if any, in reviewing and assessing your progress on higher, more strategic aspects of career growth — like networking with right stakeholders, making your presence felt in right kind of forums etc which are very important requirements for career progress — particularly as you move up the career ladder.

One thing common with all the examples above is that they all involve fragile approaches. There is no allowance for slip-ups and their success relies on straight and narrow paths. The issue with fragile things is that they break relatively easily. Given that world is suffused with randomness, things generally never fall nicely into an ordered path, they do not follow a neatly laid out plan (Taleb wrote an entire book on antifragility which I just started reading).

When it comes to careers, many times progress is hampered due to fragile approaches. For example, let us say that you have been creating enormous value through your hard work and your boss is cognizant of this and is very appreciative of it. Unfortunately your boss leaves the firm (for greener pastures) and you lose your primary relationship capital with him/her. Or let’s say that you may be working on critical projects that leave you little time and energy to prepare for your monthly catch-up meetings with your boss’s boss and other critical stakeholders who influence your career progress.

It is very important to create enough slack in your work load — even better, make yourself largely redundant for day to day work — this will allow you to plan and manage your progress well and also take up critical and sudden projects that inevitably come the organization’s way and cultivate the right reputation as someone who is ready and up to task.

  • School bus: Adding a 15–20 minute slack would have made the travel plan less fragile (more robust) allowing for contingencies like flat tyre etc
  • Work-life Balance: Balance should be incorporated into daily schedules — it should also be looked at as a mind-set rather than an external (material) possession
  • Marathon: Training for a full marathon is quite intense — one should try to avoid taking up any extra load in other aspects of life during such training. I travelled and added strain to my schedule which manifested in my body finally falling apart (rather untimely for me)
  • Big Cities: Traffic in big cities is generally unpredictable hence slack has to be incorporated
  • Career: Active relationships with critical stakeholders within your organization and a few outside, is a critical aspect of career progress



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