Watching the Clock

People of my generation and older have a thing about Millennials. We see these striving, impatient young people and think: patience, grasshopper. All in good time. We paid our dues and so should you.

But then I remember myself before my hair went gray and I realize either this isn’t a generational thing, or I was just precocious and should have been born a Millennial.

The truth is that time moves differently the older you get. For my 10-year-old son, a year is an eternity, a month is forever, and next week is unspeakably far away. But I understand that my years with my son are just one phase of my life – maybe 20 years of hands-on parenting, and half of that is already gone. Months and weeks are too quick to catch. It isn’t that we become more patient as we age (I’m still terribly impatient) – it is simply that our experience of time changes. When a year is 1/10th of your total life experience, a year is a big deal. When a year is something less than 1/40th of your life experience a year is a blip. At work, among colleagues, there can be that same disconnect in how we experience time. For those of us who have more career behind us that in front of us (we hope – let’s not think too much about whether Social Security will still exist when we want to retire) time is compressed. We see the whole arc of our careers, and the first quarter of it, now a decade or more behind us, seems short.

But when you are in that first quarter? Five or ten years is the entirety of your career, not the first quarter. I remember it feeling like everything worthwhile took too long. Promotions always came after I was ready for them, and the time between performance discussions and the actual promotion was always months. It was maddening that something that a supervisor said was justified and possible (a promotion, a new role, a nicer office) could take half a year to materialize. How was that just?

What those of us now in our middle (or later) career years forget, too, is that the first quarter of a career is marked not only by ambition and striving for the sake of doing something important, but also for the sake of not eating beans and rice for dinner every night. This is valid. Sometimes we middle-manager, middle-aged folk have amnesia when it comes to the financial challenge of living on the lower end of the salary scale, even though we once did it ourselves.

Or, in the words of my favorite sage, Albus Dumbledore, in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix:

“Youth cannot know how age thinks and feels, but old men are guilty if they forget what it was to be young.”

Let me hasten to say that though I am neither old nor a man (nor, sadly, a wizard), I identify with Dumbledore. Sometimes I forget what my career was like 10, 15, or (gulp) 20 years ago. But when I talk with people who are now where I was then – I remember. It comes flooding back. I remember what it was like to feel my career was stuck in molasses and the people and systems around me moved unbearably slowly. So, because I haven’t really forgotten, here are some thoughts on how we might gently manage each other’s different experiences of time.

 If everyone seems to move too slowly, and if people keep telling you to be patient:

  • Let go of the idea that people are stalling you unnecessarily. It isn’t personal, and taking time might actually have some utility. Truly.
  • Recognize that if you are talking to someone with a few career years under their belt, words like “soon,” “after a while,” and “later” might mean something very different than they do to you. “Soon” may mean six months to me. To you it might mean a week. Let’s talk in terms of actual calendar time to match our expectations.
  • Make your own plans for career movement that don’t depend on others. Your colleagues may move slowly, but you don’t have to. Yes, you depend on them for official stuff like promotions, but you don’t depend on them for growth. Take classes, read, participate, volunteer for tasks.
  • If you have been told to be patient, stage a strategic retreat. Let’s say you have asked for new responsibilities but have been told that it is too soon, you need more time on the job. Ask when it would be appropriate to talk about it again. That lets your supervisor know you won’t let the issue drop, but is respectful of your supervisor’s time frame. Put the date on your calendar, and when it gets close enough make an appointment to talk about it.
  • Make a plan for what you’ll do if things don’t move fast enough for you and you continue to be unhappy. Simply having a plan can make you feel in control, and lets you worry less about the area where you are out of control (i.e. that promotion that is taking way too long).

 If everyone seems to want to move too fast, and if staff want opportunities you can’t provide:

  • Let go of the idea that this new generation is too impatient and wants things too quickly. True or not, it won’t help us to help them, or get the work done, if we saddle our colleagues with generational labels.
  • Remember that we were in a hurry, too. I remember having the same conversations with my supervisors that I now have with staff wanting to move up. It doesn’t mean we can always accommodate their desires, but we can have deep and real empathy, and that goes a long way.

Be clear about time frames. As tempting as it is to tell someone just to be patient, or to learn all they can at their current job, be concrete about what you mean: “Let’s talk about your career path at your review in six months.” You can set the parameters of how often you are willing to engage in career movement discussions if it feels like career-talk is distracting from work-talk.

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