Once we get past our teens, our cognitive capacity to handle complexity grows over time in predictable rates. This is similar to psychologist Jean Piaget’s ideas of Theory of Cognitive Development in children. We get set on a trajectory and without some serious intervention (and maybe even in spite of it) our ability to handle amounts of work complexity changes predictably. We get into a growth trajectory and then we stay there.
The problem is that your growth is disjunctive, with different discrete stages.
Every time you migrate to the next stage, you have to transform.
This can be very difficult. Here’s one extremely high trajectory individual describing his experience of going through the transition from one stage to another in adulthood:
When you f**k up one of them, it’s like you get unmoored. You can’t go back but you aren’t going forward either. After you’ve f****d up enough of these, it’s like being in a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific. There may be land somewhere, but you can be pretty sure that it’s a long ways away. You’ve got limited water, the sun is beating down, and you have to come face-to-face with the fact that you can’t get out of this alive by yourself. Even with someone else looking for you, it’s going to take a miracle. You are absolutely f****d. [Butch, a very high trajectory Work Swan, describes what it feels like to have messed up three consecutive transitions.]
Which isn’t a bad way to describe the feeling. Albeit a bit colorful.
When you go through a transition to the next stage, you have to leave behind what had worked and move towards something new. I have talked about it before as the feeling that even though you might have a great job and a great personal life you have to move. You don’t know where you want to go but you know that you can’t stay here.
Sometimes this goes well. Andrew Olivier (of The Working Journey fame) has written about high trajectory people he has met who were in good places during the transition and they didn’t even notice it. You just move seamlessly from one stage to the next.
Sometimes you miss a transition and don’t navigate it properly. Things don’t go smoothly. It feels like everything is falling apart.
It’s like you are living on an island that starts falling apart under you. After frantic attempts to shore it up, it collapses completely and you’re left surrounded by nothing but water, desperately trying to keep from drowning.
You feel completely and utterly abandoned by your friends, your family, your society, even your God.
It is a dark night of the soul.
If you are in a very high growth trajectory, the risk of this is incredibly high simply because you will have to go through more of them per average life expectancy than everyone else.
(Let’s be honest here: most people who are reading this and think that they are a high trajectory Work Swan aren’t, and many of the people who are bewildered about why I’m now looking at them in the audience are. I run into a very large number of unidentified high trajectory people, these Work Swans, and they are rarely want to be. For good reason: people in the higher trajectories have more chances to screw up a transition — they have more of them — and are less likely to get support through them, since almost no one in power is in those steeper trajectories.)
People who miss transitions can often be found at increasingly lower paid positions. Once they cross into Str 5, regardless of navigating the transition well or not, they lose the ability to do lower level thinking work. But if they haven’t had assistance with the previous transitions (almost no one can manage them alone) they will not be capable of doing Str 5 work, either. This leaves low Str 1 work, which can be done by anyone.
And so there you will find them.[Begin technical talk]Mode 6 people are the ones who normally object here. I don’t know why it is mostly Mode 6, because you would think it would be normally distributed. But it’s mostly Mode 6. Somehow, they are threatened by this thought. Maybe because it means that they aren’t really that special. Dunno, really.[End technical talk.]
But perhaps you, gentle reader, are having problems believing that (a) I know what I’m doing and (b) that this could ever happen.
I can tell you stories of two well known transformative leaders who came up from Str 1 jobs to change the world.
How about we look at those over the next few days?