To create exceptional careers, we make ourselves into exceptions.
Writing for HBR, disruptive investor and Dare-Dream-Do author Whitney Johnson helps us to see why: Since innovations occur at the intersections of fields, we can fashion ourselves as innovators by occupying occupational overlap–though that insight comes at a price.
Johnson writes of Dave Blakely, who started his career at Ideo an an engineer–and whose trajectory shows the design thinking consultancy’s cultivation of open, innovative minds. Johnson traces his path:
He could have worked his way up to manage technical staff, but instead he volunteered to become a project manager. As Dave made the decision to move to the margin, many of his peers dismissed this as an escape route from the rigor and detail of engineering. But by learning to associate himself with two different disciplines, Blakely broadened his skills, so that today he is the head of technology strategy at Ideo–a firm which by the way, has an ethos of managing on the margin.
Blakely’s story shows that while we champion things like “cross-boundary collaboration,” the living through such experiences is difficult. When you make yourself different from your peers, as Blakely did, you move yourself from being part of the in-group to a part of the out-group–thus the “escape route” that his colleagues turned their noses up at.
It’s a funny sort of parallelism: Brands are continually looking to differentiate themselves, and people trying to manage their careers do the same. But to be a person is different than being a company: Can a brand feel social anxiety?
Probably not, but we humans can. So let us add this to the practices of unstoppability: learning to live the questions of unconventional career paths, to paraphrase a poet, so that we might live into unconventional answers.
“… it’s this willingness to live in the unknown for a while that opens a space for truly new ideas,” she writes. “As you are attempting to collaborate, if it feels foreign and outside of your comfort zone, you just might be on the right track.”