Drink Your Milkshake

New Year’s Eve. And it’s been almost 2 years since I obtained my business degree and took a job in the telecommunications industry. A few rotations and assignments later, I am a little more experienced at spreadsheet modeling, Gantt charts, pro-formas, project planning and team-conflict resolving, but so what?

Friends that graduated with me are facing their own existential aftermath…the sweet liquor of the MBA wearing off. Some have been promoted, switched jobs and/or industry, started new companies, had children, got married, (one of my dear friends even sadly past away) but many are staring into the deep well of their reflection, awaiting some pebble to break the liquid horizon, some tell-tale sign of their calling, which they thought they had when they graduated, when they tossed their cap and tassel into the smiling clouds of their future.

Do I have options? Yes. Am I grateful? Yes. Should anyone feel bad for me? Absolutely not. But choice is meaningless without purpose.

Recently I was on a tech panel educating high school students on STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) careers. A high school student asked me, point-blank, do I love what I do? I could tell she was looking for me to stroke her anxiety about the future with a sunny forecast laced in clichés. But I couldn’t do it. I told her the short answer was yes. I love what I do…My head is a tulip on fire, running through the streets, because I am passionate about what I do in digital, wireless and tech. However, I remember when I was a teenager in high school, a shy polymath who painted and made music. It was a sweet rush and I would skip to class. Days would disappear into each other like an inkblot test. In my sleep I dreamed in the thick green brush strokes of Van Gogh and thought in the muted stanzas of Debussy.

Today in my current role as a Digital futurist, days do not disappear. It is painstaking blood-blistering hard work. In fact it is pain-staking blood blistering hard work to love what you do at any publicly traded company. The pursuit for profit is relentless with little clemency for the weak as Wall Street expects evermore high short term gains. I am exhausted when the weekend comes and the last thing I want to do is dream and count electric sheep. I want to sleep. I want to sleep and I want to sleep…

But then as I said/thought this and I looked into this high school student’s eyes something in me awakened and it tied to why I was speaking on the tech panel in the first place. It tied to my unflappable resolve to get into a strong b-school program and undergo some of the most challenging, grueling coursework of my life. I as everyone in my graduating class do have purpose…it’s just that we may not have the tools to seize it all the time. Many of us unwittingly, confuse our wishes with our higher purpose and end up on the blooper reel of American Idol or some other version thereof.

Harvard Business School innovation professor, Clayton Christensen, wrote a book, “How Will You Measure Your Life?” He said like MBAs, marketers often prioritize the wrong things, leading them to target “phantom needs.” Specifically he consulted a fast food chain trying to increase milkshake sales. At first they polled consumers on whether they wanted their milkshakes sweeter, cheaper, or thicker, which is the traditional approach. It led nowhere. But then he reframed the problem statement around what job does the consumer hire the milkshake to do? With this jobs-to-be done prodding, they learned that the milkshake solved the boring-morning-commute-to-work problem. In turn, the fast food chain began to make thicker shakes which lasted longer for the morning-commute to work and milkshake sales increased. This analysis forced me to question a number of elements of my life, and the job I hire them to do.

What job do I hire my job in telecommunications to do? I thought I hired my job to help me improve the human condition. And that’s partially true. It will help give me the skills, knowledge and expertise to provide broadband access to all and close the digital divide. But then I went deeper. When I was a kid, people would ask “If a pin drops in the forest and no one hears it, did it drop?” I never could reconcile the philosophical ramifications of that question but I always thought if I was that pin, I would want people to hear me drop. And so communication and being heard and having a voice always have been a driving force in my nature.

Therefore if I spend the next decade of my life doing anything authentic it has to be around connectivity and connecting humans. The problem statement has to be tied to my purpose to connect the world. In wireless, that translates to more handsets, smart phones and tablets and machine talking to machines, mobile apps and standing up network infrastructure in emerging markets. Spreadsheet modeling, Gantt charts, pro-formas, project planning and team-conflict resolving are not the end to my journey, they are the how…

And so to my classmates and friends, I say “Drink your milkshake however you like it!” and cheers to rigging the outcome of your destiny by knowing your why. And whatever you do dream big enough to leave footsteps on the moon of mankind.