this is an illustrated transcript on talk I gave as part of the NASA DEVELOP Alumni Series. My goal was to explain my framework for evaluating the role of one’s job in their community and life. The audience is early career professionals who are looking to become established member of the spatial science community across the country. You can view the full slide set here
Thank you all for being here today. My name is Dan Carver a former geoinformatics fellow with the DEVELOP program. I took a little bit a of different look at the suggested theme of how DEVELOP helped me get to where I am. I hope you all find it helpful and will be happy to fill in any specifics at the end of the talk today.
Cumulative and Contingent
I did not want to recount the series of jobs and decisions I have made to get to my current position for two major reasons.
Life is Cumulative and Contingent
Every decision we make is based on our previous experiences and our circumstances at the moment. So you can look at someone else path and find some guidance but you can’t follow it expecting to get to the same point.
What can be said about my professional path is that I’ve had a lot of jobs. This is not because I like switching jobs. It comes from necessity but also my willing to trade stability for the other aspects that work contributes to my life. Being in the job hunt a lot, I often find myself asking, “was finding a job always this hard?”. That sentiment brings my back to a story my Dad has told me a few time.
My Dad has been with the same organization since the early 1980s. This is the story of the first person he hired.
One day during business hours an individual walked into the office and said they wanted to apply for the open position. My Dad greeted him, looked him up and down, and told him “Go cut you hair, come back and then we will talk.” With that he turned and went back to the daily tasks. The next day the individual return with a fresh hair cut and ended up being hired on to the company. What level of resume review, character referencing, or interviewing when on after the hair cut is lost to history.
What I love about this story is how clearly it identifies how much has changed. First off, it would seem that in the 1980s, workplace micro aggression did not exist because being down right aggressive was still a thing.
But more importantly then that, there are approximately 100 million more people in the United States today then there was 40 years ago. Yes, our economy has grown in that time as well but the truth of the matter is there are a lot more fish in the pond.
The Wealth Discrepancy
While the economy has grown the amount of the growth is very unequally distributed among the population. The median income value is about 55,000. So most of us, my self included are all trying to pull from a dwindling pool.
Distribution of Post Undergraduate Degrees
It’s also obvious that competition is not equally distributed spatially. I live in Colorado, it’s a nice place to live. Yet in this state there is a higher percentage of individuals with masters degrees and above then there are individuals who did not graduate high school. This is a great thing overall. Yet when it comes for looking for work, this means once again the competition for jobs in specific fields are that much more challenging.
I bring these ideas up because I want you all to understand that finding work is difficult and it is not just because of you. At the same time, while the parameters for finding a position have changed significantly over time I do believe that there we can still learn something significant from the man who cut his hair. Something that will last through all the changes.
Qualitative and Quantitative Elements
To frame out this concept I split the elements that influence why a person is hired for a position into three sections.
the applicants resume
perception of character of the individual
Both the requirements and you own resume are largely quantitative data. They can be evaluated and assessed with a detached logic. Unfortunately, particularly within large organizations (the government included), it seems that this often stage of the job hunt just becomes a matter of connecting the dots.
However, the third element, the judgment of perceived character is inherently human. It’s an non-linear evaluation based on a variety of poorly constrained parameters. It’s a process we all do without much though every day of our lives.
Venn Diagram one
To visualize these relationships we will look to the Venn Diagram. On the quantitative side of things. The truth is that if your application does not closely match the job description it is unlikely you will be considered for an interview. If your stuck at that stage it becomes a process of identifying the measurable skill sets that are keeping your application from aligning to the requirements and putting in time and effort to build up those skills. There are no real short cuts in this process. The nice thing is that the information is there, it should be clear what attributes are holding you back from the positions your interested in.
Knowing this relationship between the quantitative variables, we can assume that at the interview stage all applicants match the quantitative elements at a similar level. It then comes down to the interviewer’s perceive character assessment to determine how much that third element overlaps. Generally speaking the best match gets the job.
One thing that I struggled with is suppressing the notion of a perfect job. Each job requires specific actions and will support you in different ways. What you want from work will also change over time. Even though the job may not line up perfectly it is still worth the time to find something that matches your wants because work has an often underestimated impact on your life.
Small is Beautiful
A pervasive theme in the Small is Beautiful book I read recently is the significance of work to an individuals life.
Next to the family, it is work and the relationships established by work that are the true foundation of society.
While this concept is elaborated on quite a bit in the text the summary is that the meaning and significances of your work contributes to many of the elements that support your personal well being. The author expresses that jobs that allow you to create and use both you body and mind are often the more supportive. How tangible is your pride in your work?
A good job can provide you
- a sense of Identity
- a social Community
- a feeling of Purpose
- an outlet for Creativity
- a general sense of meaning
- Stability; both financially and personally
Yet no job is perfect. Each employment opportunity will add more to some elements then others. It’s up to you to weight the significance of each contribution. Also a job does not need to provide all these elements if other elements of your life are filling those niches.
While some of these, such as the pay check you will be taking home, are easy to define quantitatively. The reality is that most are qualitative elements are more difficult to compare directly.
Venn Diagram 2
To come back to the diagram, we know that we have to meet the quantitative data for the position rather closely to get to the point where we have an opportunity to express ourself, likely via an interview. That said, what I have seen, is that you can effective shift how much the quantitative elements are considered if your interviewer has some idea of your perceived character before the interview stage.
Building character through community
The best way to do this is by building character through community. I’ll spend the remainder of the talk discussing the framework and tools I use to look at my job in connection to my community and myself.
Just to be clear, these are actions that you can do regardless of the big picture ideas I mentioned at the front of the talk.
In an attempt to summarize I’ve come up with four categories of ideas that allow me to build my character within my community.
Focus on Strengths
Talk about yourself
Think about systems.
That last point is a big one, it’s the framework in which all the other elements sit, so we will start with that.
Systems thinking is a common in field such as ecology, where the interaction between elements is as important as elements themselves. It readily integrates ideas such as flows, feedback loops, dynamic equilibriums, and non linear dynamics. Due to my path I believe that it is the best framework for examining all living systems, including the workplaces, in part because the underlying structure of organization is the network.
All living systems form multilevel structures of systems nesting within other systems and networks define the basic pattern of organization within systems
Tradition workplace structure
A tradition work place structure is very much a hierarchy. There are many reasons for this and I’m not trying to say it does not have a place, it is just important to realize that this pattern of organization does not describe how work is actually done. It also inherently weights people based on their given position within the structure. This tends to result in the undervaluing of those at the bottom and the focusing of attention on those that hold unique positions.
For example if your in a team of three and all contributing to the same work, individuals will speak not of your work but the work of your group. Where as you can ask people how many superbowls Tom Brady has won and they will all answer incorrectly. The individual does not accomplish team goals. We’re more then ready to give an individual credit for a team endeavor because it fits in with our need for sharing narratives. Stories about individuals mean more to us then stories about groups.
I bring this up because in this traditional structure it is very easy to feel like your not important and if you act as such people tend to treat you as such.
If you look at the workplace through a systems perspective or network visualization, you will realize that the real power to influence and effect change is based on the number of ties and the strength or character of those ties. Both these elements generally increase over time, such that those who have been around awhile have more influence. Just like those in management positions inherently have more ties and more influence.
The other element that comes from this shift in perspective is that you can now picture yourself not just within the structure of the workplace but as a member within a larger community. Therefore you can build your place within the larger structure by building the number and strengths of your ties even while being stuck within the predefined hierarchical element of your current job.
System Thinking Summaries
So to recap, systems thinking allows you understand that you are an essential part of the team you are on even if that is not well reflected in your position title.
While we haven’t talked much about emergent properties of systems, I believe that work and productivity are products of the systems not the individual. This can be summarized by the idea that the whole is greater then the sum of the parts.
In my personal opinion the efficiency at with these emergent properties appear is related to how much the organization is allow to function as a network rather then a being forced into a hierarchical structure. You could assess this in your workplaces be seeing how difficult is it to communicate up the hierarchical ladder or how long it take to move paper work around. It’s a qualitative test to be certain, but you will find certain organizations function a lot more smoothly then others.
You current job gives you a potential close nit community within your workspace but the reality is you should care a lot about your place(number and strength of connections) within the larger community. These are the relationships that allow you to take chances, rely on contract type work, and deal with uncertainty in your current workplace because you have a external professional structure to support you as well.
While this may seem a bit abstract, understand that you will always be part of a group and as such you should understand what your good at and make that the focus of what you do.
Focus on Your Strengths
An easy method for evaluating your strengths is through the strengthfinder 2.0 assessment. As with any character assessment tool the value does not come from doing the test or gaining the information, it’s about applying the information to increase your knowledge and understanding. When I took the test, I also spent time evaluating how the strengths effect my workplace character. By creating an interesting display that summarized my interpretation of my strengths I was able to have few meaningful conservations with coworkers. It also became the first post for my personal website.
If you understand your strengths and communicate them you can very efficiently contribute to your team by doing what your good at and avoiding what your not good at. This means that when people within your larger community see your work their seeing what it is your great at. This allows you to contribute to building a positive character within the community.
A common theme across professions is that successful people are often prolific in producing their work. Bob Dylan, has a few songs we all probably know, but he also created 38 studio albums. The reality is that not everything we will do will be great. Most if it will be mediocre and some of it will be bad. But are your far more likely to create something great once you get into the habit of creating a lot.
Because we’re talking about building your perceived character within your community not everything you produce needs to be important to your work, simply take the time to add value to the things that take space in our mind and heart.
If you read a book, write a review of it. If you enjoy a pod cast describe what it that resonates with you. The act of creating helps you understanding yourself, which is essential when attempting to influence others perception of you.
I’ve found that my personal website is the best form of motivation I have for generating content. It also allows me to share the stuff that is good. Realistically I have about 4 draft posts for every one I post publicly. Not everything you create needs to be for others, but having a medium for sharing the content you want others to see is very helpful. I prepared content for this talk so I’ll be taking my speaker notes and developing them to a post for my site. This is just a way of being efficient in producing
Talk about yourself
By knowing your strengths and producing lots and lots material, you will begin to feel confident talking to other about what it is you do. This inevitability leads to opportunities to speak in public. You should never turn down these opportunities. In fact, I would suggest actively seeking them out. Public speaking probably the most effective way of building new ties and strengthening existing ties within the larger community. Once people know what you do they have something to talk to you about.
Your Own Narrative
Last piece of the puzzle that I can fit in to my time frame is to write your own story. What I really mean by this is it is important to present yourself as an individual. I bring this up because people love putting people in boxes. If you mention that you work for NASA DEVELOP, people will place a lot of qualities on you from that notion alone. Most of these are good, but you should need to rely on their assumptions because those change from person to person. Tell people what you do directly. Highlight that your a distinct an significant person.
The line I use is,
I’m a spatial scientist and I’m currently supporting the USDA in understanding how well crop wild relatives are conserved around the world.
True beauty of Systems Thinking
So to end on a happy note, one of the best elements of building you perceived character within your community is that you inevitable get to meet, work with, and help people along the way. By supporting them you strengthen your professional community and in turn that gives you a stronger place within it. So the moral of the story is, if you help others you don’t have to cut your hair to get a job.
With that I like to thank you for the important and significant work you do to strengthen our geospatial community.