Jobs Have a Life Span: There’s a First Day and If You’re Wise, A Last

My friend Whitney Johnson's new book, Build an A-Team: Play to Their Strengths and Lead Them Up the Learning Curve, is now here! As this killer book explains, the secret to having an engaged and productive team is having a PLAN for developing all employees--no matter where they are on their personal learning curves. In Build an A Team--you'll learn how. 
An organization is a system, with a logic of its own, and all the weight of tradition and inertia. The deck is stacked in favor of the tried and proven way of doing things and against the taking of risks and striking out in new directions. John D. Rockefeller III
Urban Meyer, head football coach at Ohio State University, is a master of changing and elevating organizations through his own personal disruptions. Meyer started his head coaching career at Bowling Green, then went to the University of Utah for two seasons, accumulating 22 wins, only 2 losses and a Coach of the Year distinction. From this pinnacle he hopped to the University of Florida where he spent six years and earned two American football college national championships. But his final year at Florida was less impressive, with decline beginning. In 2011, he jumped off that fading curve, and did a little sports commentary for ESPN before jumping back into coaching.
 He didn’t start back at the top. Though it has traditionally been a force to be reckoned with in college football, Ohio State was in considerable disarray with a losing record when Meyer came aboard in 2012. The program was under sanction by the NCAA for rules violations. They were ineligible for the conference championship and couldn’t play in a bowl game. These are serious hindrances to recruiting and retaining top young talent. Despite these constraints, the team was undefeated in Meyer’s first year at the helm. Two years later they won the national championship. Urban Meyer rapidly scaled a new and challenging learning curve and took the Ohio State football program with him. At the end of the 2017 season, the Ohio State Buckeyes have a 73-8 record during six seasons with Meyer at the helm. Despite his disruptions, or perhaps because of them, Meyer has never coached a team to a losing season and has a stunning overall win-loss record of 177-31 as a head coach. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him disrupt again when his current contract expires in 2020. Urban Meyer is a man who understands the power of endings and new beginnings.
 The S curve of learning provides a useful model for envisioning your career as a series of personal disruptions. At the low end of the S, we begin in a new role, slowly acquiring new competencies. In time we reach a tipping point into rapid growth and development, as we discover what works—often through failure—and enjoy the stretch of high contribution that comes with confidence and competence. But growth and its associated enjoyment tapers off again at the top; the S flattens out as our growth potential is maxed out on that curve. Without a new challenge to tackle, a new problem to solve, or new learning to acquire, we stagnate and ultimately decline; we may skate across a plateau for a while but ultimately the precipice awaits. It’s time to jump to a new curve.
Tuck Everlasting and Death Genes: Why Stasis is the Real Killer
A classic of modern children’s literature, Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbitt, explores the problem of stasis in human existence. The Tuck family has unsuspectingly drunk from a spring that makes them immortal. They are marginalized as everyone and everything around them continues in its natural progression. Eventually, they encounter a young girl, Winnie Foster, whom the Tuck’s young son wants to persuade to drink from the spring, so that they can be young together forever. But Pa Tuck, more experienced and wiser, warns Winnie how this lure becomes a trap, snapping closed:
 “Dying’s part of the wheel, right there next to being born…. Living’s heavy work, but off to one side, the way we are, it’s useless too. It don’t make no sense. If I knowed how to climb back on the wheel, I’d do it in a minute. You can’t have living without dying. So you can’t call it living, what we got. We just are, we just be, like rocks beside the road….I want to grow again, and change. And if that means I got to move on at the end of it, then I want that, too.”
 Fortunately, the end of a career role, though often attended by feelings of loss, is not actually terminal. Human life is organic, ever changing. Our career paths are an integral part of the overall path we follow in our lives, and they too have an organic quality, a life cycle of their own. We may not see the end from the beginning, but we should know from the beginning that the end will come.
Nobel Prize winning biologists Sydney Brenner, John E Sulston and H. Robert Horvitz explore “death genes”–genes that exist to ultimately end the life of a cell. When death genes malfunction, cell overgrowth may occur; they hypothesize that this may be a cancer mechanism. Or, if death genes over-perform, cell death may occur prematurely, as in diseases such as AIDS and Alzheimer’s. The correct balance between life-sustaining genes and death genes is what we want. For many of us, the idea that our own genes contain programs for death, even before birth, is uncomfortable. But it is this conundrum that makes living lively. Stasis is our true enemy.
Sulston and Horvitz write, “Each moment, death is essential to growth, renewal, nourishment, and all the natural processes."  Individual jobs have a lifespan. They have a first day of work and, if we are wise, a last day. The ultimate death of a learning curve is essential for the rebirth of the next: for growth (productivity), renewal (innovation), and nourishment (engagement). Spend too long in one spot, no longer learning or growing, and we become, against our natures, inorganic rocks by the side of the road—or rather, rocks in a cubicle or office, occupying space, but no longer productive in the way we once were, and could be again with a fresh beginning.
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