A few years ago I was awakened early one morning by a woodpecker that was furiously trying to drill a hole in the concrete stucco outside my bedroom window. I could tell by the speed and force of his blows that he meant business. I tried to scare him away by pounding on the wall, but he was undeterred. I later stepped outside to check on his progress and, as expected, he had barely marred the concrete. I stood and watched him for a while, admiring his skill and earnestness. And that’s when it struck me.
This guy definitely had the right skills for the job; it was obvious from just a few moments of observation that he knew how to go about the task at hand. And he must have had a clear vision of the mission, because he steadily focused his beak in a very small area. He certainly had a positive attitude, as evidenced by his perseverance despite the hardness of the concrete. And his focus and dedication were outstanding; despite my attempts to send him on his way, he remained diligently on task, and was seemingly not discouraged by his lack of progress.
In short, he modeled the behavior that every employer wants in an employee—vision, focus, dedication, perseverance, positive attitude, and character. But there was just one problem . . . . . HE WAS IN THE WRONG ENVIRONMENT . . . BUT DIDN’T KNOW IT! Had he attached himself to one of the many pine trees in the area, instead of my stucco wall, he would likely have performed quite well. Application of his considerable skills, diligence, and perseverance would have resulted in a nice hole for a nest. But in the wrong environment, no amount of hard work or right attitudes was going to produce the desired outcome. If he had been working in a corporate environment, it is quite likely that he would have received less-than-satisfactory performance ratings, despite doing all the right things.
The lesson here is that your environment matters . . . a lot! You can have all the right skills, attitude, and character, be focused on the mission, and work really, really hard, but still not be successful if you are in the wrong environment.
So how do you know if you are in the wrong environment? Let’s think about my friend, Woody. The very same skills that would have made him a rock star in a “tree” environment were almost completely worthless when applied in a “concrete” environment. So think about whether your skills are truly needed and valued by your employer. Do people with your skills get promoted? Are your skills unique or the same as your colleagues? The answers to these types of questions may provide some insights into whether you are indispensable to your employer . . . or expendable.
Woody was also unaware of the futility of his efforts . . . . perhaps because he was flying solo. No matter how smart you are, it’s easy to lose perspective. Getting a third party’s unbiased view of a situation can often bring clarity to issues we don’t see (or choose to ignore). It would be almost impossible to overstate the value of an objective advisor. If you don’t have a person like that in your life, someone who can analyze a situation and is willing to give you honest feedback (whether you want to hear it or not), then find one . . . . soon.
And while I admired Woody’s tenacity, at some point he should have stopped to take stock of his progress (or lack thereof). A wise person builds into his routine regular times to take a step back and assess whether he is making progress toward his goals. If you do that, and discover that you’ve been spinning your wheels, don’t be too hard on yourself. First, figure out why you’re not moving forward. If your obstacles are: corporate culture, bureaucracy, politics, a bad (and unfixable) relationship with the boss, lack of resources, budget constraints, industry problems, economic doldrums, or similar factors, then just realize that those are not likely to change any time soon, and may suggest that it’s time to consider “flying the coop”.
So, the next time you feel like you are running into a “concrete wall” of unappreciated skills, lack of perspective, or institutional factors beyond your control, take a step back and consider your environment. You may discover that the only thing holding you back from real success is finding your “tree” — an environment where your talents are appreciated and can thrive.