Responsibilities gravitate to the person who can shoulder them. – Tom Stoppard
I keep thinking of a video by Larry McEnerney from the University of Chicago where he talks about the experience we have of writing stuff in school. Our teachers read it and tell us what they think. They are often complimentary about what we’ve done and tell us it’s good work.
I had this at University too. In fact, I remember that I turned in an economics paper and at a later date I walked past the lecturer and he growled, “Good paper!” That felt good.
But the fact is the people who have read our work and said it was good all the way through had a reason for doing so. They were paid to read what we wrote. And real life isn’t like that.
Except, it takes time to discover that. When we have bosses and supervisors who ask us to do stuff – we do it like we did at school and they tell us if it was good or bad and what we need to change. And then we move to the next piece of work. But do you wonder what happened with that thing you did? Did it change someone’s life. Did it have an impact? Did it do anything at all?
Eventually, as you get more experience and do more of whatever you’re doing there comes a point – a quite subtle shift – where there’s no one asking you to do something or, more accurately, no one telling you what to do. What you make doesn’t go to someone else to approve. There’s no chain of command that your material passes along.
Instead, there comes a point where you’re the end of the line. This thing you have – that’s the thing that gets delivered. You have responsibility.
If you’ve ever flown a light aircraft you’ve heard the term “You have control.” It’s the handover to you – the point at which you’re flying the aircraft. And it’s good with an instructor because you know that at any point you can hand back control.
I had lessons, but I stopped before I went solo. And that’s the point when you have control – and it’s just you. There’s no one to hand it to any more. You have to take the plane up, take it around and set it back down.
If you get to this stage in your career, to a point when the buck really does stop with you – you might realise a couple of things. The first is that all those years when you thought you could do anything, get it all done on your own – you were really doing things but someone else was taking the responsibility. If you didn’t deliver – well you might get fired. But someone else would stand in front of a client and say that it was their fault because they were in charge.
The second, and more important thing is that you need help. It’s easy to be alone and self-sufficient when you just need to look out for yourself. But when you need to deliver for someone else – for a client, for your business – then you see the value of having others, a team, supporters or someone to bounce ideas off, or who will give you a second opinion.
It’s funny, really. You feel most confident when you have nothing to lose. But when you put your reputation on the line, that’s when you need all the help you can get.