Do lots of things, do them very well, and then do something else – such was the life of George Plimpton. About his robust 73 years of life, the highly educated and immensely talented Plimpton referred to himself as the “Prince of Cameos.” This colorful label certainly describes the plethora of brief appearances he made in movies such as Good Will Hunting, We Were Kings, and Reds, but it also fits nicely in memorializing the approach he took to his education and work in general. Growing up with means and successfully navigating the likes of Phillips Exeter Academy, Harvard, and Kings College at Cambridge, it would have been pretty easy to sit back, write a little, and watch the birds. What did he do? He served in the U.S. Army, performed on stage and in film, helped found a major literary review, did stand-up comedy, wrote books, and became a world-renowned journalist. Those were his boring jobs, relatively speaking. He also had brief stints as a backup quarterback for the NFL’s Lions and Baltimore Colts, pitched in Yankee Stadium, boxed against Sugar Ray Robinson and Archie Moore, played golf on tour against Nicklaus and Player, battled Pancho Gonzales on the tennis court, appeared in goal during an NHL preseason game for the Boston Bruins, and performed a high wire act at the circus. Oh yeah, and he was a birdwatcher of note too.
So much for staying in one or two jobs and dedicating yourself to a single profession or skill set for 40 years. There is nothing wrong with a rather singular focus if you can remain fulfilled physically, mentally, and spiritually but it’s not the only path to success.
Many people part “good,” lucrative, prestigious jobs not because they can’t do them, or because their employer wakes up one day and suddenly deems them unfit, but rather, people leave the security of what they have always known because the passion that brought them to that opportunity in the first place begins to wane. Maybe their company wanders from its people-centric mission, or management changes dramatically, or the organization’s entrepreneurial, innovative and creative pulse is replaced with a mind-numbing metrics and laser focus on only risk aversion and “building shareholder value.” Perhaps the language of their rapidly expanding company is so fixated on “P&L’s,” “EPS,” and “FTEs,” that the individual “E” (“Employees”) buried within the FTE acronym gets lost in the shuffle. Companies, almost universally, make an earnest attempt to maintain the culture that initially attracted many of their best employees but rapid corporate expansion and culture change are inevitable bedfellows. True, novel workplace enhancements are being rolled out faster than you can shake a stick, but, more often than not, these feel good changes are a rather desperate attempt to recapture the human, relationship-driven core of an organization — not an altruistic bonus for a job well done. During the most innovative, healthy stages of a company’s growth, the working faithful don’t need to be told when it’s time for a Happy Hour. They just gather and have one! Don’t blame HR if “casual Fridays” and elaborate company picnics do not help you regain the swagger you brought to the very first week on the job. These hard working souls are trying to provide tools but the tsunami of changes simply may have changed your mindset. If this is the case, it may be time to throw yourself into something new, something that may even be radically different.
So back to George Plimpton and skydiving without a parachute, or, in other words, making a major career change either by choice or unexpectedly. When one looks at Plimpton’s life and accomplishments, you sense that he always knew when it was time to take that next major challenge, to reawaken the skills and passion that made him successful in everything that he had done before. He truly saw the big picture perhaps as well as anyone of his generation, and although perhaps unintentionally, he has left future generations with some important clues on how to remain happy and productive in the workplace over a long career. One, don’t be afraid of change and challenge yourself to apply your skills to new pursuits you never dreamed possible. The worst that can happen is you fall short and have to pursue a slightly different path up the mountain. Two, don’t let your resume, past experience, and especially others define you going forward. Those who care about you and your future will always be well meaning but they very well may not know exactly what it is inside that makes you outstanding when it comes to performing in the workplace. Recognizing and applying those inner passions will keep you fresh for a long time to come and make others run to collaborate with you in work settings. Finally, “indulge” in the words of Plimpton “in the cessation of time” that allows you to clearly articulate the next actions that will move your career forward.
Plimpton, a man of many memorable quotes, uses his love of sport to explain what is meant by this type of indulgence. In Paper Lion, he writes:
The pleasure of sport was so often the chance to indulge the cessation of time itself — the pitcher dawdling on the mound, the skier poised at the top of the mountain trail, the basketball player with the rough skin of the ball against his palm preparing for a foul shot, the tennis player at set point over his opponent — all of them savoring a moment before committing themselves to action.
Plimpton is reminding the reader, and metaphorically the job seeker, that some of the best times in life are the quiet times that come after one opportunity ends and immediately before the next big challenge begins. That short time is time well spent and time you can totally claim for yourself. I’m not suggesting you try to jump in goal against Kovalchuk or challenge Tiger to match play but next time you are contemplating that big job change, take 30 minutes, get off the technology grid, get your head out of the android device, and dawdle around the mound or do whatever Plimptonesque technique it is that helps you “indulge the cessation of time.” It may give you the type of clarity and focus necessary for hatching your next plan and course of action. It will certainly help you recall the joy that you experienced when you landed that first big opportunity many years ago. The Paper Lion would certainly be proud.