Little Hinges Part One: Essential A-Ha’s That Can Swing Your Second Phase Career Wide Open

There are a few sentences, movie lines, and aphorisms that ring my bell. When, for instance, Liam Neeson says, “I have a very particular set of skills, skills that I have acquired over a very long career,” that just sings to the career geek in me. He could be talking about cleaning out the gutters, for all I care. I just love how he calmly inventories himself and what he can bring to the situation. We know as the story unfolds that his adversaries will regret underestimating his resolve to get the job done. Heh.

Another line, another movie, has an entirely different effect. Dennis Quaid sweeps Ellen Barkin into his arms in The Big Easy and says, “Your luck is about to change, chere.” Well. That just makes me want to slide off my seat like one of Salvador Dali’s melty clocks. That is the most swoonable line in movie history, if you ask me.

Ooh la la!

The third sentence isn’t a movie line (at least I don’t think so). It’s an aphorism that just sparkles and bristles with embedded possibility:

“Little hinges swing big doors.”

The older we get, the more acutely aware we are that time is running out for acquiring new particular skill sets that require a very long career to refine. We know better than to seek out quick fixes, but at the same time, time’s a-wastin’. So the wise approach is to make fresh use of our already established sets of resources. One of those resources happens to be our life-acquired wisdom – assuming we’ve managed to accumulate any over time.

Wisdom is our most precious little hinge. Little a-ha’s, insights, distinctions we’ve gathered that might have seemed so inconsequential at the moment they come to us that we shrug and move on with our day. But if we stop and take note of them as they occur to us, they can change everything for us down the road.

In other words:  Don’t live harder, live smarter.

Here are a few little hinges that I’ve picked up along the way. Thought I’d pass them on to you (the list is long, so this is Part One):

1. You’re not the person you decided you were 30 years ago.

People – usually our parents — start telling us who we are before we can even tie our shoes. (George Clooney recently called his infant son a little thug. Who does that?)

Our earliest self-definitions come through the lens of our parents’ own self-esteem. Lucky is the kid whose parents like themselves and each other. Then we eventually take on the job of self-definer, carrying the ball farther down life’s field. Regardless of the start we had, things tend to change in 30 years or more. We change. Hopefully for the better. It would be a good idea to sit down and inventory your beliefs about yourself and your place in the world. You might find that somewhere along the line you’ve changed your mind. And you’re liking yourself – and the world – even better, now that you’ve been around a while, forming your own opinions.

2. Sooner or later you’re going to have to start graduating yourself.

Beyond the official, formal phases of life and rites of passage (school graduation, “flying up” if you’re in Girl Scouts, marriage, kids, etc.) there are mini passages that you have to usher yourself through. Learning that standing up for yourself doesn’t necessarily mean you’re making the other guy the bad guy. Learning how to negotiate. Learning that it’s actually okay to talk to strangers – some of them at least. Learning that there was no such thing as “your permanent record” that you were threatened with as a kid (but there probably is one now). Learning that “because I want to,” is a good enough reason. Learning that most times you owe an explanation to no one.

3. If an adversary doesn’t fight fair, drop your end of the struggle. 

One of the very few benefits that have emerged from this divisive season where it seems that every American is involved in the political argument is that more of us have become acquainted with Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals. These are 13 rules of engagement designed to give combatants the upper hand in winning any argument or influencing a social movement. When you know the 13 rules, trying to have a reasonable conversation with an ideologue is like playing Bingo with one of those big markers.  Yup, there’s Rule 5 in play. And now we have Rule 12. Check. Oh!  There’s Rule 8!  Bingo!

It’s a passive aggressive, infuriating, mind — uhm — game. The only long-term benefit of these kinds of encounters is that you quickly realize that this is someone to cross off your list of friends.

Sometimes the best way to have the last word is to simply walk away. Choose the arguments to pursue and which ones to drop. Is your counterpart speaking with you respectfully and in good faith? Or is that person putting you in a defensive, unstable, no-win, even shame-based, position? When you start to feel that way, you’ve got yourself an Alinsky-ite in action. (They may never have even heard of Saul Alinsky. Doesn’t matter. They’ve picked up that approach to arguing somewhere in their lives. And you know when you spot it, they’re not about achieving mutual understanding. They’re about dominating you through discourse.)

Just walk away. You’ve won just for being the better human being.

4. It’s unseemly to compete with the younger generations.

One Sunday afternoon after one of those Northern California brunches, while driving around Oakland with a much younger colleague, she suddenly blurted out from nowhere: “Things would open up for us much more if you guys would just retire.” Well, that was weird. We aren’t even in the same profession. So, frankly, it felt a little hostile. It was my first hint that in her eyes, Baby Boomers and Gen Xers have become like party guests who just won’t go home, no matter how obvious the yawns of the Gen Yers and the industrious clearing of the plates and straightening the furniture.

That’s not true, of course. But perception does count for something.  In the meantime, older job seekers are complaining that they can’t compete with the Millennials for the opportunities out there. Well, maybe we shouldn’t. Some employers just want skill sets and will happily forfeit experience for the sake of their compensation budget. They still need your wisdom though. Figure out how to market that. (Hint: Consulting. If you say, “Oh but I can’t sell, I hate selling,” see Number 1 above. Yes, you can. Learn to love it. It’s actually deeply rewarding when you realize it’s about service.)

5. You know more about buying your services than your prospects do.

They need your help here too. Twice this past year I was approached by wonderful would-be clients who thought they wanted a particular thing from me to help them achieve a goal. But it turned out that once I found out what solutions they were going after, I was able to consult them into wanting something else from me instead. The fact that the financial value of the changed project profile was substantially increased is just a happy coincidence.

This is what separates us from being mere order takers: The awareness that our prospective clients think they have the solution, and they just want someone to make it happen. The first thing we can do for our clients is find out what it is they’re going after ultimately. And consult them into seeing a better path toward a much better outcome. This is how you can monetize your wisdom.

6. You can (and should) still learn new tricks.

Books are a wonderful thing. I like books. They are my favorite. I’ve mentioned the book, How to Pitch Anything, in this blog before. I read it less than two months ago. Because of one distinction I picked up in that book, I turned a conversation about freelance blog writing (which I don’t do anyway) into a six-figure engagement based on a transformed vision. And the client gets what she wanted all along.

Blend new skills with the deep resonance of your time-acquired wisdom and new self-respect for your stature as the wise guide. Suddenly things just look different.

And your luck will change.

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