Lessons from a career (so far)

Last Wednesday, I completed a 30-year career at my company. There aren’t many times in life when you work toward something for 30-40 years and find that you have gotten to your destination.

My first job was when I was in 9th grade, helping to prepare our neighborhood pool for the summer. I continued to work through school and college, and my first professional job came in my early twenties. I started at my company at age 30.

My mind is a swirl of disbelief and gratitude. Did this really all just happen?

I don’t see this as some terminal point. In fact, if I divide my life into thirds, I’m now beginning the last third, and this will take at least 30 years. This seems like a good time to take stock of what I’ve learned to this point.

Here, then, are five lessons so far:

  1. “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans” – John Lennon

    I had a teacher in elementary school named Ms. Yarborough who taught for 43 years without missing a day of school. In fact, she accumulated 2.7 years of sick leave. Within a short time after she retired, she died of cancer.

    I happen to know that Ms. Yarborough very much enjoyed her time teaching. In that sense, she did what we all should strive to do: she found joy in the journey.

    But many people spend their days waiting for 5:00 PM, and then waiting for the weekend, and then for holidays, and then for retirement. Meanwhile, the most precious commodity any of us have, time, is passing by.

    We need to point in a direction and have an awareness of our goals. We also need, however, to see all the beauty along the way.

  2. Don’t take anything or anyone for granted.

    In the past ten years or so, I’ve noticed how easy it is to take people for granted. That is a huge mistake. People who do their job well and with a good attitude may create such a small wake that we don’t even realize how much care they put into their job.

    In many organizations, if an employee is labeled as a retention risk, that person may receive extra attention in the form of opportunity or salary. This is understandable. I would like for us to consider, however, that those who quietly go about making customers happy, paying attention to the little things, and being loyal could well be the most valuable people in our organization.

  3. The miracle of compound interest

    I can say that I never sought a salary increase or promotion in my career. For that matter, I tried not to think about accumulating enough to retire. It seemed far off and intimidating.

    But something happens when you set aside a little of your salary from a fairly young age. After a while, compound interest gains momentum and at some point your nest egg has grown.

    I know that the most wealthy in America are the business owners rather than the worker bees. Still, compound interest favors those who need it most.
  4. All things pass

    Even though I strive to lead a drama-free life, believe me, there were some moments of anger, tears, and tension in my 30 years. There were times if I didn’t know if I could hold it together.

    It is a shame that we learn life’s lessons over time, such that our wisdom is greatest when many of the battles have already been fought. I know that I would have been a much better solider in my 30s, 40s, and 50s had I known then what I know now.

    Yet, it’s okay. Anger gives way to acceptance and even humor. Tears dry up. We relax as we let go.

    One time I accepted a difference position, only to realize a couple of days later I had made a mistake. In embarrassment, I had to ask my previous manager if I could keep my job, and tell the new manager I wasn’t coming.

    When I told a friend about this one morning at the gym, a fellow who had been at the company for many years, he said, “Oh, that happens all the time.” It was such a reassurance. I always told myself that if I were in a similar position in the future, I would provide the same reassurance for someone else.
  5. Providence is at work and help is all around

    I went back to school when I was 30, with a wife and two young daughters at home. It was a scary time. One day in class, one of my fellow students (and they were all younger than me) turned around and said, “Hey, SAS is hiring student interns if anyone is interested.” On the way home, I went by the HR office filled out the paperwork. Thus began my career.

    In my first job, I was on the receiving end of kindness, patience, and encouragement. Much of this wasn’t something I would say I deserved if we are strictly talking about talent. But somehow there were people like my officemate, Alex, and my first manager, Jenny, who saw to it that I was given an opportunity.

    It’s common to assert that one is a self-made man, who worked hard to make it. While I like to think that I did my best, I know that none of this would have happened had people not given me the benefit of a doubt and overlooked my short-comings. To them, and to God, I have undying thankfulness.

The best part of this week is knowing that this is not the end. Who knows what the future holds, but I will show up carrying with me the lessons, humility, and gratitude gained in the last 30 years.

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