Ressler’s Rule # 8: You can’t always get what you want but if you try real hard you’ll get what you need (a nod to the “Rolling Stones”)

Life tends to be a rocky and twisting road for most of us unless we were born “a fortunate son”. We don’t get the date with the fantasy girl (or boy) from our Sophomore History class and we are far more likely to be driving a Chevy then the Mercedes Benz we covet. However if we use our talents, apply some logic, and work our rear ends off, things do have a way of working themselves out.

When I graduated from college my draft board decided it was time for me to see parts of Southeast Asia rather then attend law school (most of you are too young to remember the draft or the concept that everyone, at least male, should serve their country-with the possible exception of the children of the wealthy or former CIA Directors). While I was less then pleased with their decision, in retrospect, it made me mature (rapidly) and helped me recognize that there was far more to life then the confines of the small Oregon town where I grew up. Without this experience it is highly unlikely that I would have pursued a Federal career or been given the opportunities that molded me into the person I’ve become.

My first position (subtle but very important difference between position and job) after the army was as a white-collar field investigator for a large Federal Agency. I loved everything about the position and after 2 ½ years felt I was ready to manage a group of like individuals. Higher management decided I need “seasoning” and laterally reassigned me to a first line manager position leading a staff of clerical and semi technical positions. I felt very much out of my element, my employees were 20-30 years older and composed entirely of Afro-American women. My first two weeks in the position, I spent be-moaning my fate and trying to figure out how to graciously exit. What I finally figured out was:

  1. I had a natural curiosity to understand the processes and nature of the work
  2. People are people and no matter how different our backgrounds, we have far more in common then what divides us
  3. Everyone loves to be a teacher so if you honestly want to learn, people want to help you understand the work they perform
  4. Managing an organization which performs work different then your field of expertise is more challenging but ultimately a far better learning experience if you aspire to a career in management

After 18 months in this position I was selected to my “dream position” and relocated to Southern California. After a little over a year I realized that I was bored-my “dream position” was not all that challenging once you had the “lay-of-the land”. I also realized that moving to the next layer (mid-level management position) in my current organization would take years given the age and experience of everyone around me. One day I was approached by top management and asked to take ownership of the work plan/work schedule process covering approximately 400 positions. This effort required about a week of my time, an understanding of managements’ priorities, basic math skills, and willingness to meticulous crunch a series of mind numbing calculations. Three people had been approached and politely declined this opportunity before Management approached me. One person actually begged off saying there had been a rabid dog sighting in his neighborhood which struck me as an update of the classic “dog ate my homework” rationale. I accepted and executed the assignment not because I wanted to or was uninformed as to the nature of the work, but mostly because I thought I might learn something and maybe upper management would note/ recognize a “thankless job well done”. Several months later I applied for a position on the East Coast in an organization whose work I had no understanding or knowledge. I was told that my lack of lack of experience in this type of organization would prevent any consideration but I applied anyway and did receive an invitation to be interviewed. During the course of the interview I was asked about my experience creating the aforementioned work plan/work schedule. The panel seemed fairly impressed by this experience (actually far more then I was) and I was able to expand the discussion to show my ability to adapt to unfamiliar surroundings (e.g. my first management position). I was selected for the position (mid-level) and a decade later I was an executive.

I share these experiences with you as they reinforce several basic truths which you should consider in your career:

  1. Be willing to consider assignments no one else wants. This may be your opportunity (possibly only opportunity) to demonstrate your capabilities. Also, you may well create a debt in management’s mind (we owe this person for helping us out) and possibly provide a unique learning experience.
  2. Look outside your “comfort zone” for opportunities. If you only consider “safe” assignments then your experiences will probably exactly parallel those of the people you will be competing against for “dream” positions.
  3. Embrace differences (Cultural Diversity) rather than allowing it to impede your career decisions. The workforce is becoming more diverse each day (thankfully) and you need to effectively interact with the full spectrum of people.
  4. Constantly aspire to be a “student”. Bosses, peers, and subordinates possess a wealth of knowledge and experience you can tap into and all it requires is a genuine willingness to listen and learn.
  5. “Dream” jobs often turn out to be less rewarding then you imagined.
  6. Unless you are within 5 years or retirement, your current position should be viewed as a stop along the way not the ultimate destination.
  7. Concentrate far more on what your career needs then what you want because “you can’t always get what you want babe…”

Rule #7 – Common Sense and Common Courtesy are Uncommon

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Jenyfer Johnson

I like your blog and agree with most of it but balk a little at #6. Some people, and maybe I’m speaking for myself only, are very happy in their jobs and don’t really want to relocate or move up into management.

I’ve been a Program Manager for the past 17 years at the same installation. I know my job and like my job; I do it well and have gotten kudos from HQ. I don’t want to move up to management and be responsible for overseeing people…I’m happy where I am, despite being topped out in my GS-level. I don’t want to relocate because my husband works at the same installation, our friends are here, my son grew up here, and so on. I’m happy in my job and really the bottom line is…I would be content to retire from this job (hopefully).

While I’m not saying that I don’t stay open to learning experiences…I don’t think you should say that everyone should view their current position as a “stop along the way”. Some of us are content in our jobs and very good at them…and the federal government does need consistency sometimes.