People often get stuck in the rut of just doing what they think they should be doing. Once we get good at doing something, others will continue to rely on us for that task, which can be great if you absolutely love doing it. But when you are ready to move on, or when you realize that you might not be loving that element of your job anymore, you are your own best advocate to make your aspirations known.
I learned this lesson growing up when my parents signed me up for softball. My sister played and my grandmother had actually been a professional pitcher, so it seemed like an obvious path. And as it turned out, I was pretty good at it. Trouble was, I didn’t like the sport. I was getting all these praises for my talent, but I wasn’t enjoying playing. My parents were big on the idea that you had to finish anything you started. Every season I couldn’t wait until it was over and swore that I wouldn’t sign up the next year, but then I’d find myself going through the motions and ending up back on the team because that’s what was expected. One year I finally went to my mom mid-season and told her I just couldn’t do it anymore. The coach was extra hard on me because he seemed to think those with natural talent should be held to a higher standard. I was done. After much pleading, she said I could quit, but that I had to tell the coach. I knew he would be so disappointed because the team really needed me that year. But I really wanted to spend more time focusing on gymnastics, and I couldn’t do both well. So, I had to sum up the courage and face him with the truth. I will never forget the look on his face when I said, “Dad, I quit.” That was one of the hardest conversations I ever had with my father. In the end, he understood that I wasn’t just asking to sit at home watching cartoons, but that I wanted to spend more time doing something that really interested me. Even though my softball team didn’t make the playoffs that year, I went on to become a state-qualifying gymnast.
When people seem uncertain about how to get to the next level, I suggest that they ask themselves the following two questions: “What do you want to do more of?” and “What do you want to do less of?” Once that becomes clear, you can start to see a path to an outcome. Don’t expect that suddenly one day you can stop doing something critical on which everyone relies. What you can do is work with management on a long-term plan for transitioning some—or all—of a certain responsibility to those who may be aspiring to learn that skill. As you free up more time, you will have the capacity to take on new projects, those that will continue your growth process.