Introduction 2018, and a story of personal growth

I like having a page on this blog to explicitly introduce myself, even though you can get a sense of who I am from reading the various posts and browsing the archives. I call myself an Unrepentant Generalist, because I am interested in many different areas and decided not to limit myself to just one area when I “grow up”. So far in my “career”, I have been a particle physics student, a software engineer specializing in biotech and data acquisition, a product manager at a tech startup while taking business classes on nights and weekends, a financial analyst doing revenue forecasting and business modeling, a business strategy and operations leader, and a career and life coach. So you can see why I gave up on trying to answer “what do you do?” as being too limiting, and made up the title “Unrepentant Generalist” for myself.

My life has evolved significantly in the ten years (?!) since I wrote my old Introductions page in August 2008, so this is an updated introduction to cover my journey over that time, as it will help to illuminate my current passion of coaching.

At the end of my old Introductions page, I had just accepted a job at Google as a senior financial analyst doing revenue forecasting. Amazingly, I have now been at Google for ten years, after having never stayed more than a couple years at any company before that. I did switch jobs within Google after two years, moving from revenue forecasting to business modeling in 2010, and two years after that in 2012 to become a Chief of Staff, providing the Search Ads team with business strategy and operations support. But I’ve now been in that Chief of Staff role for six years, in part because the role gives me a lot of scope to grow and change what I’m doing year to year so I don’t have to limit myself to one kind of work.

It seems like a happy ending to finally find a job that fits my generalist mindset, so why am I pursuing coaching on the side? Well, to get to this point required a lot of personal development work for me, and I want to help others do such work so they can also find their happy ending. Also, a few friends have asked me how I changed, as I seem more peaceful and at ease than I previously did. So let me rewind to ten years ago.

My first couple years at Google were crazy. I joined the revenue forecasting team for the company in September 2008, just as the world was sliding into the Great Recession. The CFO, Patrick Pichette, and the CEO, Eric Schmidt, were looking to our team for answers on how badly the recession would hit Google’s revenue, and how quickly Google would recover, so that they could decide how quickly to invest in growing the company vs. saving cash to buffer us through the hard times. We didn’t have answers (nobody did in 2009), but the action items and analysis requests came fast and furious from the top leaders of Google, and I wasn’t in a position to say no.

The craziness was exacerbated by the team manager leaving the team in April of 2009, as well as our senior analyst and another analyst (3 people leaving out of a 7-person team), and being replaced with four junior analysts. Six months after joining Google, I was running monthly meetings with the executive leadership team (Eric, Larry, Sergey, Patrick, et al.) to give updates on the revenue situation, while training up the new analysts to replace those that had left. I worked late into the night, I worked some Saturdays and most Sundays, and I worked on every single holiday day in 2009 except Christmas. I worked harder than I ever had in my life, and still wasn’t able to keep up, because I was being given more work to do faster than I could handle the work. This had never happened to me before, so I had never developed the skill to recognize that I was exceeding my capacity, and how to say no to protect myself.

By the fall of 2011, I was burning out badly. By then, I was in my second job at Google, doing business modeling for emerging commerce products at Google, but it was just as stressful – in Q4 of 2011, I was regularly working 70 or 80 hour weeks (8am to midnight was a typical weekday), and even pulled a couple all-nighters to prepare materials for a VP or CFO review. I got to the holiday break, and my body collapsed. I had to skip my family’s Christmas activities because I had a 103 degree fever on Christmas day, and it took me several days to recover.

And that was the breaking point for me. Part of the reason I had been working so hard is that my manager had told me that was what was required to get promoted at Google, and I was desperate to prove my worth by getting that promotion. But lying sick over the holidays made me question why I wanted that promotion so badly. I decided that the promotion wasn’t worth what the work was doing to me – I hadn’t seen my friends in months, my body was breaking down, and if that’s what it took to succeed at Google, then maybe that success wasn’t worth it for me.

So in my first 1:1 in January, I told my manager that I wasn’t going to work that hard any more. She told me that meant my performance rating would be lowered because I couldn’t handle the workload, and so I wouldn’t get promoted. And I said I understood that, and accepted those consequences. So she took half my team away from me and gave it to another person, and she slashed my performance rating in the next quarter.

And that’s when the world changed for me, because my life didn’t end when I failed to live up to expectations. I had always lived with a crippling fear of failure, of not being good enough, because it would prove I wasn’t worthy. And then I finally “failed” in a meaningful way…and it actually felt good. I had made the decision to stand up for myself, and I accepted the consequences. I wasn’t going to get promoted, but I was working only 40-50 hours a week, and actually able to enjoy activities outside of work.

Crucially, the decision also gave me the courage to try new things again. I hadn’t started a new activity in a long time because of my fear of failure, but I tried several new things in 2012:

  • I started snowboarding that spring; it was a poor season for skiing because of the drought, so I was bored, and took an intro to snowboarding class. And by May, I was a solid intermediate snowboarder – my first new sport in over ten years.
  • I didn’t make plans for July 4th that year, but decided I wanted to take the week off at the last minute, and decided to go on a bike tour. I had bought a touring bike in 2011 that I had been using as a road bike, but I went and bought a bunch of touring gear at REI, did an overnight camping trip the weekend before July 4th to test the gear out, and then hit the road. I biked from Mountain View to Santa Barbara over 6 days, camping several nights on the way, and took the train back. It was an amazing experience, and another piece of evidence that I could figure out a new activity, and really enjoy it (and led to me becoming a crazy biker a few years later).
  • I got a new job within Google – I heard from a friend about the Chief of Staff position, and applied for it. I asked what it entailed, and the VP didn’t know; he said “I need help running my business, so come help me!” Part of my job was to define the job responsibilities, and it was intimidating to have a blank slate like that. But I took the job, and have now been in that role for six years.
  • I had been talking with a friend about traveling to India in December, but my friend decided to bail on the trip in November. I had never traveled alone internationally, and was particularly scared of India since it lacked the comfortable infrastructure of Western countries. But in the last week of November, my schedule looked free for December, so I decided to just go for it – I got the visa and vaccinations in a few days, and was on a plane to India ten days later. I had an amazing time, and a renewed appreciation for my ability to handle things as they came up. One example is that when I found myself wearing down a week into the trip, I gave myself permission to just spend a day in the hotel rather than go sight-seeing. Another example is getting trapped in a city with no available bus or train seats out (this was around Christmas), so I hired a driver to get me to where I needed to go. These are basic backpacker skills, but it felt so empowering to realize I was more capable of handling these new situations than I had ever given myself credit for.

On the flight back from India, I wrote in my journal that I apparently had a new superpower, where if I decided to do something (learn to snowboard, go on a bike tour, travel to India), I could do it, so what was my next quest going to be? The flippant answer was dating, as I had been hopelessly single for my whole life. My 2013 Year in Review acknowledged the progress I made in that area in the next year, by committing to going on lots of dates to de-mystify the experience, and learning by trial and error. Over the next few years, I learned more about myself, including a couple years in therapy to figure out why I was failing in relationships repeatedly in the same ways, and am now happily married to a wonderful partner, which is an outcome I could not have imagined for myself a few years ago.

The tremendous strides I made in my personal growth over the past six years started by realizing two things in 2012:

  1. I didn’t have to do what other people expected of me (an assumption I had never tested until saying no to my manager in January of 2012).
  2. I had more power to affect my life than I gave myself credit for. I learned to be more thoughtful in focusing my energy, and to use small experiments to test out new areas before spending more time (snowboarding, bike touring, dating, etc.). When I found something I wanted to spend more time on, I sought out others from whom I could learn to improve further.

My passion for coaching is borne out of this personal growth – I see others suffering in the way I was in 2009-2011, feeling stuck in a bad situation but rationalizing that it’s okay because they can make up a story to justify why it’s worth it. I see people overloaded with too many demands on their time and energy, and not realizing how their split attention means they are not doing their best work on any of their responsibilities. I see leaders stuck in behavior patterns that force their entire orgs to conform to their quirks, because they don’t have the self-awareness to see how they are limiting themselves and their teams.

I want to help people who feel stuck to break out of their habitual patterns and help them navigate to a new way of being. I’m transitioning from being the Unrepentant Generalist to an Evangelist for Personal Growth (new motto under construction, feedback welcome). So I am developing myself as a coach to better help those people who are trying to get unstuck; if you’re interested in learning more, check out my coaching website.

For those interested in more details, here are links to my last few Years in Review:

P.S. Bonus content at the end of this long post! Here’s a video I made last week on the importance of finding fulfilling work. This is a first attempt in a new medium for me, so feedback is welcome.

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