Saturday, September 25, 2010

Life Reorg Continued: Core Competencies

Earlier this week, I posted the results of a timetracking exercise I did as part of a "life reorg" I'm undertaking. I'm using some of the ideas from Laura Vanderkam's book 168 Hours. (Full disclosure: she sent me her book to read for free- but with no strings attached. I certainly didn't promise to do a series of posts on it, because at the time I accepted the book I wasn't yet aware that I was going to be doing a life reorg and all the bellybutton gazing that goes with that.)

My timetracking exercise showed me that I don't spend much time on hobbies. I'm trying to fix that- there has to be a way to get the amount of time I spend on chores down without breaking our budget or causing me too much environmentalist guilt. (For instance, we tried ordering our groceries online and getting them delivered- but the number of plastic bags that we received from that exercise was appalling. We made ourselves feel better by taking a bunch in to day care, to replace the ones that Pumpkin's wet clothes keep coming home in, but still... we're not sure that this is something we can live with as part of our usual routine.)

However, even if I reduce the amount of time I spend on chores, I doubt I'm going to have the time for a truly "big", rewarding hobby anytime soon. I have always considered my work time as part of my "me" time- I usually like what I do, and find it intellectually challenging and rewarding. Therefore, a big part of my reorg needs to be figuring out what has gone wrong with work.

One of the other exercises suggested in the book helped me understand part of the problem. This was an exercise to help you identify your "core competencies", which is a term borrowed from management-speak that just means "the things you do better than anyone else". One of the suggestions for how to identify your core competencies is to think about what you used to do as play as a kid, and think about whether any of those things correspond to things in your work life. This gave me quite an "a ha!" moment. When I was a kid, I would get really, really interested in things- like, for instance,  early Irish history, which soon expanded into the early history of Britain, Scotland, and Wales, too. I read lots of history books, and I took copious notes. If that isn't geeky enough, I then organized my notes into timelines and family trees and things like that.

This story highlights two things: (1) I have always been a bit of a geek, and (2) organizing information is a core competency. Once I realized this, it made perfect sense. I used to study for my exams in college by organizing the information from my lecture notes, textbook, and problem sets into detailed outlines. (By my fourth year, other students were requesting my study outlines to help them study, too, but it never occurred to me until much, much later that I probably could have sold them.) In graduate school, I started work on a protein engineering project, and found myself designing a web-based system to organize my notes on the family of proteins I was studying. I got really interested in databases, and my first job after graduate school involved designing databases to store scientific information. And so on and so on.

I am happiest at work when I get to spend at least some of my time organizing information. I don't spend much time on this at all right now. This is probably contributing to my current unhappiness at work. I think that I can fix this, at least to some extent, but the job as it is currently defined is never going to involve as much of this as I'd really like.

Luckily, I have a second core competency: getting stuff done. I don't have any geeky stories for childhood to support this one (but maybe my parents can dredge something up....) but I think it is still a core competency. Both at work and at home, I like to pick apart a problem and try to figure out how to make it go away so that what ever needs to get done can just get done, already. So at home, I created a chores schedule to try to ensure that both Hubby and I got some downtime. At work, I am known for systematically removing the roadblocks and/or excuses that stand in the way of a project, even if it means that I do some boring scut work myself because no one else will do it. This is great- to a point. I'm human, and I eventually get annoyed with the amount of B.S. I'm wading through just to get stuff done, and then I end up unhappy. This is probably also contributing to my unhappiness at work right now, and unfortunately, I have no idea if I can fix this. I think that in general, I have a pretty high B.S. tolerance and can deal with it as long as I see forward progress on the projects I'm working on. So maybe this problem will resolve itself on its own.

However, even if I can tweak my current job enough to make it more fun, there is a more fundamental issue: in the career path I'm on, I'm rarely, if ever, going to get to spend large amounts of time on organizing information, the core competency that actually makes me happiest at work. So the real question is: do I need to change my career path? I've been thinking a lot about this, in context of some career coaching I did a few years ago and with the next exercise from the book, which is to write a list of 100 dreams. I'll probably write a post about that at some point, too. In the meantime, I'm going to implement some tweaks at my current job, and see what that does to my happiness level.


  1. Being a librarian is a great way to spend a decent chunk of time organizing information - just sayin'. Tech skills are also a big plus in the field, and a background in science could put you in high demand in the right industry. My only experience is with academia, but in industry and/or government my impression is librarians do more assembling bibliographies/writing a precis summing up a topic. (In academia we teach people how to do this themselves.)

    Library degrees are relatively inexpensive (if done at a state school) and can be done part-time while working (I did mine online while working at, admittedly, a less demanding job than yours, when my kids were 4-and-1 to 6-and-3.)

  2. @flea- yeah, I've thought about that path. I think that there's been some serious downsizing in the information sciences/library departments of big pharma, though. And those departments are usually on the East Coast. I'd rather stay out here in San Diego!

    The funny thing is that "scientific informatics" should give me lots of fun info organizing time, too. The problem is that my jobs keep morphing away from that and into more management/operational type things. It would probably be a good idea for me to really analyze why that keeps happening to me.

  3. I think its cool that you are able to analyze and problem solve things in your life the same way you would in your career. Not many people can do that. And as a geeky left-brained person same as you, I totally get how you've come to the conclusions that you have come to. Sorry I called you a geeky person. But hey, it takes one to know one. :)

    Changing career paths can be scary though. To me, anyway. I already know that when I return to work, I will be doing something very different than I've done for the 10 years of my career before I had Annie. I have always been doing Planning (of facilities, not finances), which is highly technical and strategic and also has a large regulatory component. When I return, I am going to try to get some experience in Operations. Totally different. Other end of the spectrum, really. But, while I'm really good at Planning and do really enjoy it, I need a change and I want a big one. I also know that if I want to progress further in my company (the next level for me is VP) I need to round out my experience.

    So yeah, changing career paths is scary, but sometimes we just need to DO IT, you know?

  4. Absolutely fascinating! And there is one of the reasons I'm a geek--I find things like this fascinating!

    This morning, I finally got what I needed in place to start tracking my time. I really want to order that book (have to check if there's an ebook for my Nook), but it has to wait until next month for my budget.

    I've got more to say about all this, but I am going to sit on it and think about it for a little while.

  5. it's really awesome that you're able to carve out time to figure this stuff out - that's the first step. I think so many of us are so busy with the day-to-day that we don't ever sit down to think about how we really want things to be.

    I was going to do that this week while I'm on vacation, but sadly BabyT and I are both sick, so all I'm doing is wiping snot and trying to keep her from screaming so we don't get kicked out of the hotel. Ick.

    Re: online grocery shopping - not sure what service you're using, but here in Seattle, Amazon Fresh has an option to request fewer bags, and you can also give them back all the plastic bags when they come to pick up their boxes.

    Good luck with your exercises!

  6. @Anandi- I don't think Amazon Fresh is in our area. I'll have to check. I used Vons, which is really Safeway. Overall, we were pleased with the service. But they seemed to give us one bag per item.....

    I do most of my deep thinking on this sort of thing during the hour long "nap walks" I take with the girls on the weekends.

  7. I like the idea of using your childhood activities to discover your core competencies. So if I spent a lot of my time building things, that would mean I should do something that involves my hands. I also spent a lot of time reading, so should I spend my time building libraries?

    Hmm..maybe I should spend my time creating blogs..


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