A year ago, I was sitting in a hunting license shop in Altoona, Pennsylvania, notarizing the papers to sell my house for the third time. I was nearing my tenth anniversary of federal service with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Today, I’m at an AirBnb in Asheville, North Carolina, where I’ve been working remotely for the past month and enjoying masked hikes and contactless soul food delivery. I’ve left the government, tasted the freedom of private sector life, and am about to gain even more flexibility as I spend the next month in Boulder, Colorado, exploring the trails and future career opportunities. Clearly, it has been quite a year.
While historians and commentators will have plenty to analyze from 2020, I’d like to share some personal discoveries that I hope will resonate with folks for 2021 and beyond.
- Share your goals. Would you believe that a sticky note changed my life? In early 2020, I wrote, “I am a thought leader” on a light blue sticky note and put it on my computer monitor at work as a reminder to myself to be bold and share my thoughts and expertise with others. (I put a similar note declaring “I am an überbiker” next to my bike trainer.) Both sticky notes were intended as personal reminders to be my best self. What I didn’t expect is for ODNI’s new Multimedia Director to see my thought leader note and offer to help make that a reality. She advised me on updating my LinkedIn profile, encouraged me to blog more frequently and speak on podcasts, and even took my new headshots. As a result, 2020 has been the year I have done a lot more public speaking, publishing, and–dare I say–thought leadership. So don’t hide your dreams. You’ll never know who might be able to help you achieve them.
- The only way to is through. I’ve used this mantra to power through many a tough workout, but this year, I found it immensely useful at work as well. Thanks to a speaker’s advice at the 2019 NatSecGirlSquad conference, if I had a work task that I really didn’t want to do, I tried to do it as quickly as possible (with adequate quality, of course). It’s amazing how much easier things can be when not paired with a side of dread! I used this technique to lean into conversations that I had often postponed for fear of getting told “no”–talking to the ODNI lawyers or security officers, getting approved to speak publicly, submitting talking points for publication approval. Once I understood the gatekeeping process and removed the emotion from it, the experience wasn’t so bad and I was able to get a lot more done rather than let the fear of bureaucracy keep me boxed in.
- Progress is awkward. Like many Americans, I spent a lot of time this year thinking and learning about racism, both at the individual and systemic levels. It was tough to realize how much I have been benefiting from advantages that have been denied to others, and that I need to use my privilege to try to fix that. But how to start? I was so worried about saying or doing the wrong thing, it was tempting to just quietly make a donation to the ACLU and call it a day. But then I realized that as an innovator (and, according to my sticky note, a thought leader!), I was used to wading into uncertainty and seeing awkwardness as a sign of trying something no one has tried before, and hopefully solving something that had previously been unattainable. Does this mean I have fixed systemic racism, or have transformed into the perfect ally? Absolutely not. But it does mean I’m not afraid to speak up when I see discrimination happen, question the status quo, or apologize when I inevitably make a mistake.
- Jobs are fungible; values endure: This summer, when I decided to explore leaving the government, I was worried that joining the private sector would feel like selling out. Did I really want to spend my days trying to make people rich? Would my skills even translate? After all, I hadn’t followed a traditional career path within the government, nor was there a private sector equivalent. I thought back to the advice I often give my mentees: think about the types of problems you want to solve. In my case, I’m driven by helping people perform at their highest potential and creatively breaking down barriers to do that. Well, that can happen in a lot of ways, no matter what’s on my business card. I was fortunate to find a design innovation firm that focused on projects with a clear mission–helping analysts track the spread of covid, ensuring artificial intelligence tools are easy for humans to understand, and advocating for human-centered design in digital public services.
- Everything is figureoutable. When people asked me about my new job, I often joked it was exposure therapy for imposter syndrome. In the government, there was a subject matter expert for every topic, so if you were presented with a question in a new domain, the proper response was to identify the proper expert and defer to them. Not so in startup land! I had to quickly get up to speed on everything from Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants to veteran disability benefits to mineral conflicts in the Arctic. Eventually, I learned to quiet the voice in my head saying, “I have no idea what I’m doing!” and just go for it. And while I have no misconceptions about now being an expert on any of the aforementioned topics, it’s an incredibly empowering feeling to know that whatever comes my way, I can probably figure it out.
- Time is not linear. In my whole career in government, I consistently worked 40 hour weeks. There were a few busier days here and there, but by and large, I had very good work-life balance. Rather than patting myself on the back for good time management, of course I worried that the moment I left the safety bubble of bureaucracy, I’d quickly be overwhelmed by work and never see my bike (or my husband) again. Adding to this uncertainty, my new job was based on the west coast, and my calendar quickly filled with meetings at 5, 6, and even 7 PM. However, I quickly learned that while each day has 24 hours, they weren’t all the same. Mornings could be relaxed and slow, since most of my colleagues were still asleep. I could do my workouts, relax on the couch with a mug of tea, and read a book. Afternoons and evenings were busy, sometimes extremely so–I once stayed up past 1 AM finishing a proposal–but the crunch times were balanced by some slower days, in which I was able to finish my work early and go for a midday walk without guilt. Tasks that would have taken weeks in the government could now be accomplished within days or even hours, since I had modern tools at my disposal and colleagues and clients who gave feedback quickly. As a result, I was still able to maintain my training schedule and relationship with my husband (it helps that he cooks dinner most nights), and also gain the confidence that I am indeed capable of working long hours as needed.
- Companies may not last, but networks do. As I hinted in the opening paragraph of this blog, I will soon have more time for outdoor pursuits. After six wonderful years, the design firm’s founders decided to pursue new adventures, which means I will as well. While my time with the company was short, I packed a lot of learning and growth into those months, and have zero regrets. Plus, thanks to my professional network, I will be starting the new year with some amazing opportunities. Stay tuned for more.
In summary, it has been a year. Is it cookie o’clock yet?