One of my favorite TED Talks is this one, by Shonda Rhimes. In it, she introduces what she calls “the hum.” It’s a point in your career when you’re loving what you’re doing, on the broadest level. Maybe every detail isn’t perfect, but you don’t care, because your work is providing constant energy. It’s engaging, it’s exciting. It’s not easy (at all), but you wouldn’t have it any other way. Athletes or artists talk about “being in the zone,” and psychologists study “flow states,” but Shonda’s “hum” is bigger. An athlete or an artist might be in the zone for an hour or two, but a career hum can last for days, weeks, months, or years.
In the talk, Shonda shares how devastating it was for her when she lost her hum after years of success and increased responsibility. I’m no Shonda Rhimes. I was never responsible for every aspect of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of television programming shown in dozens of countries around the world. But I was responsible for every aspect of millions of dollars worth of educational programming taking place in 9 countries around the world, I loved every challenging moment of it, and I was humming. Then, very abruptly, there was turnover in the administration of the institution I worked for, and within weeks, it was like my hum was sealed up in an airtight room.
In the end, I resigned and started working my way through the book What Color Is Your Parachute, by Richard Bolles. It’s one of the best-selling career titles of all time—a massive book full of exercises and advice. Its premise, which seemed obvious, but takes months to implement, is that a job search needs to start with the person searching rather than with existing job listings. This will ring true to you if you’ve ever had a day when you thought, “I need to quit this job,” so you went on a job-listing site and couldn’t even begin to figure out which jobs you might zero in on. It can feel like bobbing for rotten apples, so what do you do? Close the browser. Resign yourself to sticking around for another year.
Having taken that option away from myself, I had no choice but to make progress. I was able to take one major step fairly easily: there’s a section of the book that addresses determining where you should live based on what you value in a city. I wrote a post about deciding to move to Los Angeles so that at least when I do look at job listings there aren’t thousands upon thousands scattered across the country, from beaches to deserts to wetlands to snow-capped peaks. That was only a small part of the work, though. I’d figured out that my next job would take place between desert and beach, but that was all I knew.
In order to narrow things down, there are seven areas of consideration that Bolles leads readers through:
1) What you know and what your favorite areas of knowledge are;
2) What kinds of people you most like working with and those you’d most like to help/serve in your work;
3) What you can do and your favorite functional transferable skills;
4) Working conditions – the environment in which you do your best work;
5) Preferred salary and level of responsibility;
6) Preferred geographical location/surroundings (check!);
7) Your goals or sense of mission and purpose in life.
This post focuses on the first in the list, favorite knowledge areas. Following Bolles’ advice, I considered every job I’ve had in my entire life, including volunteer positions, and made a list of every skill and area of knowledge that I’ve developed. Everything hit the piece of paper, from learning to organize and host literary readings as an intern when I was 20 years old to on-boarding staff at a large, complex organization when I was 36. I then went through the two hundred items that I ended up with and highlighted those that I enjoyed the most, finally producing the following short list that groups them into my favorite knowledge or skill areas:
- Goal-setting and decision-making. I love looking at where myself and my team are at today and thinking about how we can develop, improve, and what we might achieve with some planning. I love actively shaping outcomes and helping others do the same.
- Research, reading, note-taking, and writing based on research. I’m always researching something. Last year it was management techniques and data science. This blog is the outcome of this year’s career planning research. I have a couple of other research lines going at the moment as well. I love that we don’t have to make things up as we go along in life—no matter what I’m dealing with, others have dealt with it before, and they have information and ideas to offer.
Decision-making based on data. The era of data-availability that we live in is incredible. There are electronic touch-points to so much of what organizations and businesses do. As psychologists are known to grumble, “the plural of anecdote is not data.” I studied statistical computing, including learning the R language, so that I can take massive data sets and analyze them upside-down and sideways to identify trends, sticking points, and missed opportunities. Taking well-organized data into a meeting so that decisions can be made wisely is so. Much. Fun.
- Various forms of creation…photography, poetry, drawing, graphic design. This spring, I added silicone mold-making and concrete casting to the list.
Community-building. I’ve moved a number of times in my adult life, from Minneapolis to London to Estonia to San Diego to Hartford. It’s developed my ability to, and interest in, getting to know new people. Both in my work and personal lives, I enjoy getting to know people, connecting people with each other, and forming energetic groups around interests and goals.
- Finance and budgeting. What can I say, I absolutely love budget projections, tracking transactions, and doing budget analysis. I even love doing my taxes.
- Dog training. There is something magical about how they don’t seem to be getting it—sometimes for weeks they seem to be willfully ignoring every plea for them to change their idiotic little ways—and it seems completely hopeless, but I just keep at it anyway. And then, one day: BOOM. They’ve got it. Once they’ve got it, it sticks.
So that’s a start. I’ll address the other six knowledge areas in other posts. Hopefully in the end I’ll have a plan that helps me steer myself into a work situation that’s a great fit.
What About You?
What are your favorite skill sets and knowledge areas ever, going all the way back to high school?
Have you ever hummed? Are you humming now, and, if not, is there anything you can do about it?
Are you able to use your favorite skills and knowledge areas as often as you’d like? If not, can you do something to get them back into your life (even if that means taking up a hobby or a volunteer gig rather than changing your full time job)?
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About What-Nexting: In a nutshell, I resigned from my job in January 2016 without anything else lined up. Now I’m blogging about my process of trying to figure out what to do next…. More details can be found in this post.