It's been awhile since I've written anything here, and sometimes I've wondered if I've run out of things to say. While I loved the first half of the 9 years I spent at this company - too much, because it took me this long to leave - it became a place where it was hard for me to be fully myself. I felt myself becoming more risk-averse, watching myself in places like airports and hotels, managing my time too tightly and not being present with loved ones, and yes, not writing anymore because the ideas were less bountiful and I had less time to simmer on them.
And it wasn't the company - this is a company that has done wonderfully by me, has supported me in pursuing all manner of interesting and varied opportunities, and has - at least at the level of culture, if not every individual - a real care for its people. It was a glorious place to build a career, and I've met many lifelong friends there (some of whom were gracious enough to host a couple of itinerant bums on a cross-country-twice roadtrip).
It was that it became hard to be an idiosyncratic individual, a specific human being with passions, to speak the truth about an institution while serving as a leader within that institution, to see the difference between the politics that drive outcomes and the real work that needs to be done. Leadership is political. Innovation is political. Because both operate in environments of uncertainty with other people who have stakes. And deep within the walls of big companies, you're not always exposed to the unforgiving market that could serve as arbiter.
We did good work, we built a new large organization from the ground-up and made sizable investments that are seeing lucrative returns - it was a true honor to be part of an iconic period in the life of a massive old company. But I got tired - it wears on you having to navigate the personalities, egos, evolving identities, alliances, and multitude of strong opinions, and there were whole days where I wondered whether I had accomplished anything of value in pushing more sand uphill. I left because I want to do things and see them take shape in front of me. I wanted to build things just to see if it were possible. I wanted to wear pajamas to the airport and have that be okay.
It's hard because one of the many reasons why I stayed so long (in addition to my awesome colleagues) is that I believe in the power of large institutions, the leverage it offers for a single individual to make an outsized impact, and I believe that the market can be a force for good. I still think this is true but the existing models are creaking in the new world we find ourselves in, and the people who make it into leadership positions are usually the low-risk candidates who aren't inclined to take potentially career-ending leaps. And let's not talk about institutional patterns that result in young people being underutilized, minorities being undervalued, women being under-recognized, hardworking people who don't fit the credential bar being filtered out too early, and generally different-seeming people being under-selected because of culture-fit criteria. And the well-meaning people who populate big companies are too busy responding to emails and building consensus to reflect on the current state, and mostly too risk-averse (because changing institutional patterns can be painfully hard and personally agonizing) to own the necessary change. Time seems to be the enemy, but we forget that the time to reflect on priorities is always an investment that pays.
I include myself among the responsible for the dynamics described above - I know it's not easy. Something inside me got worn down by trying to carve institutional stone with water - I probably should have tried fire rather than water more often than I did. Maybe a better person could have tackled the full measure of what engineers call "technical debt," but I had to leave to pull out a new sheet of paper. Ultimately, despite the abiding loyalty I still have to the firm, it was a company and not a cause.
I don't know what my cause will be but I think it'll be related to people, making them more productive, creative, thoughtful, more empathetic, more human, giving them more of their time back for what and who they love. As Jed Bartlet used to say on a really great show, "What's next?"