Just What Are You Afraid Of?

I was at an IT project management conference in the States a few months back when, much to my surprise, a “motivational speaker” asked the collected crowd a couple of questions that have doggedly, irritatingly, repeatedly come back to bug me ever since.

Maybe it’s the first indication of an impending mid-life crisis, maybe it’s a distaste for the industry adoration of instant dot-com millionaires (doesn’t feel well and truly earned does it, even if you did put in two straight years of 80 hour weeks?).

Maybe it’s just general discontent with the age we live in. I had to agree with the well-read and sometimes-sarcastic editor of this very publication, who suggested to me last week that Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and Survivor are certainly the first two Horsemen of the Apocalypse. “Joke of the Week” Web sites and “Meet-your-mate” chat rooms have to be three and four.

But I digress. Motivational speakers make me uncomfortable – I’ve seen too many of them with seemingly permanent tans, unnaturally large smiles, way too much jewellery and bullet proof helmets of hair that wouldn’t move in a hurricane.

So when this earnest motivational speaker fellow (a Canadian ex-ski racer, as I remember) took to the stage, I prepared to exit “stage right, even” as Snagglepuss used to say. Extra points to those of you old enough to remember Snagglepuss (How about Magilla Gorilla? Quick Draw McGraw? Augie Doggie and Doggie Daddie?).

I’ll be damned, I thought, if I’m going to let this guy guilt me into standing up and doing some goofy stretching exercise, sharing my “thoughts and feelings” with a stranger, or God forbid, hugging someone I don’t know.

So I figured I’d give him five minutes of my addled attention before I headed to the hotel bar for a stiff drink, even if it was only 11 a.m.

He got to talking about the fear that people have about significant change in their lives, specifically career change, more specifically career change within and even out of the IT business.

He got me thinking, damn him – in my rather unsettled state of mind, his two simple questions took up residence, and they haven’t left since:

Question 1: What would you be doing for a living today if you weren’t afraid?

Question 2: Just what are you afraid of?

I guess his point was that whatever you’re afraid of just might not be worth fearing. And that the thing to really fear might be the lost opportunity that comes with doing what you’ve always done ’cause you’re afraid to try something else.

If you love what you do, if you love the IT business – you’re golden; no need to read further.

If you don’t love what you do, maybe you’ve become attached to a lifestyle that that’s supported by your high-paying, in demand IT skill set. In the interests of full disclosure, I’ll confess that I’m only partly kidding when I say that my idea of roughing it is a hotel where I can’t get my shoes polished overnight and a copy of the Wall Street Journal with breakfast the next morning. (There’s a corollary here – if God had meant man to go camping, he wouldn’t have invented the Westin Hotel).

If you don’t love what you do, you’re probably looking at people who do work that doesn’t pay nearly as much as yours does (that would be most of the working population) and wondering:

1. Do they do it because the can’t do anything else, or

2. Do they do it because they’re doing what they really love to do?

As you suspected, the answer is number 2.

If you’re in high-demand IT, there’s nothing worse than getting to be the best at what you do, building a lifestyle around it, and then getting stuck. Especially if what you got into wasn’t really what you wanted to do in the first place.

Market demand for IT folk be damned, do what you do because it’s what you love to do, and because it makes a difference to people. If you’re doing it just ’cause it pays well, do yourself a favour: find something more important to do with your time and talent.

Hanley is an IS professional in Calgary. He can be reached at isguerrilla@hotmail.com.