Do You Know What’s Important?

“How did you go bankrupt?

Gradually-Suddenly Theory

Gradually-Suddenly Theory

Gradually, then suddenly.”

– Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

Raising kids is the leading case study in gradually-suddenly theory. It goes like this: each meal, each bedtime, each walk to the mailbox is steeped in slowness, but they’re all bullet trains to adulthood. I learned this old-adage the hard way when I saw my first daughter get married this summer. One moment, she was still a kid and then…she was fully grown. I was ecstatic for her. I was floored. I was gradually letting go and then suddenly a father-in-law.

Likewise, careers are funny children. They grow up slowly and then quickly. The have growth spurts and angry periods and times of great joy and unsettling complexity. You forget to watch them for a month or two, head buried in life’s other work, and they’re suddenly in a very different place. On the brink of major milestones. On the edge of major drops.

A Director of Marketing in his mid-thirties recently came to me looking for a new challenge. I asked him what kind of role he was targeting, what direction he wanted to take. He confided to me, “Director of Marketing was the plan.” For him, the question of What’s next? was a heavy one. An overwhelming one. And the next logical stop, CMO or other high-level position, left him with a “meh” feeling. He’d been so squarely focused on the sudden that, by the time he got there, he felt little sense of having earned or accomplished the feat. The needle had moved, but to where?

An Australian mom-blogger hit the nail on the head for me: “We each face sudden declines. Moments where we realise what we’ve been neglecting, treating poorly, or taking for granted…Either we’ve stopped paying attention to what’s important, or we’ve decided that not knowing the truth of our situation is preferable to seeing the reality.”

We dig into career ditches the same way we’ll eventually (hopefully) dig out of them: gradually, then suddenly. When we’re not paying attention, not taking stock or measure, letting lunch times and deadlines slip by us, taking jobs despite the “meh” feeling, trading good pay and good commutes for good meaning, we’re gradually declining. Then suddenly, we find ourselves in a very uncomfortable place.

For the most part, the things I am best at in life are the things I am most gradual about: skiing (your first-run is almost never a black diamond), my faith, my family. In our careers, each day presents us with the chance to pay attention, to do the work of the gradual, before the sudden catches us with its stark truths. Hope is not a valid career investment strategy. Waiting for the next promotion or for the days to pass quickly is not a growth plan. That’s where education, personal development, networking, new risks and constant self- evaluation come into play.

As Jim Loehr says in the Power of Story:

“We look out of the airplane window reviewing our belief system and realise that it’s an anti-belief system, a rejection of our values…We don’t see the consequences of one bad decision – I’ll eat this, I won’t go for a run tonight, I’ll take this job and pay off my loans, this job will give me confidence.  But each decision makes it less likely we’ll do the ideal, and the effect mounts.”

In this way, says Loehr, even small changes can lead to a sizeable impact over the course of a year. Ask yourself: do you know what’s important? If the answer is no, there is nowhere else to direct your search except within yourself.  Time to circle back and find meaning. Time to shake things up and let them settle into their natural order. What takes priority? What’s next? It’s all up to you.