It must have been in high school where I first heard the famous Thoreau quote:
“The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation.”
At fifteen or sixteen, I’m sure I had no clue what Thoreau was getting at. For one, I was not a man, and, for me, “desperation” meant calling that cute boy from third period and hanging up in a fluster the moment he answered the phone.
Today, although I am still not a man, I have a better sense of Thoreau’s sentiment.
And I see it quite often in people who come to me for coaching. They will tell me that things are stuck, or stale. That they can’t seem to make progress, can’t get a break, can’t overcome the forces aligned against them.
So, they stay where they are, hung up and quietly (or not so quietly) desperate.
When you think about the last hundred years in the developed world, there’s been such a seismic shift in the way most of us live our lives. Then, so many of us were union members who worked in factories at the mercy of time clocks and management bullies. The average worker learned to report, do his or her job and keep out of the cross hairs of the suits with their time-wasting “improvements”.
Today, with the shift to a more service-based economy, fewer and fewer people are making their living using their muscles and brawn. Jobs today are about knowledge, customer service and adaptability.
Yet, if you grew up the child or grandchild of a working person, you might just hold onto some of the working people vs. suits sentiment.
What’s harder today is that you’re probably more like “them” than your grandparents ever were.
But the us vs. them dynamic lingers. So often I see people who still wait for permission from “them” to come up with a new idea. Who won’t dare act without approval. Who need to have a supervisor to blame when they’re stuck.
These are the truly desperate people.
And they don’t have to be.
Now, more than ever, you have to be the architect of your own career. Those who wait for an authority figure to step forward and bestow blessings and permissions will miss opportunities.
This, my friends, is guaranteed.
The other day I heard a story about a young woman who’s in her first job right out of college. She’s utterly entry-level, yet heard about a new project the brass was excited about. She did some thinking and came up with an idea, based on what she could gather about it. She wrote it up and sent it to the big boss. Who kindly wrote back to say, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
So, she thought some more. Brought in a friend who was also lower level and together they brainstormed another approach.
She submitted again.
And her concept is the one the very large, innovative organization is going to implement.
I told this story to someone recently who said, rather bitterly, “Millennials! They don’t know their place!”
But that’s not it at all.
No, that 23-year old woman knows that she’s not going to live a life of quiet desperation. Not her.
She’s in charge of her career, not anyone else. And to get where she knows she wants to go – she’s going to get herself there.
It’s an important lesson whether you’re twenty and just starting out, or sixty and feeling very stuck.
And the lesson is this: quiet desperation is a choice you can certainly make. But you can also choose something else.
You can choose to stop waiting for permission and start creating opportunities.
Because you don’t need anyone’s else’s permission to do that.