Saturday, August 18, 2007

Preserving the Trees of Elul

Today’s Shabbat services at Chabad focused on a certain passage from the Parshah (Devarim 20:19-20):
When you besiege a city for many days to wage war against it to seize it, do not destroy its trees by swinging an axe against them, for from it you will eat, and you shall not cut it down; is the tree of the field a man that it should enter the siege before you? Only a tree that you know is not a food tree, it you may destroy and cut down, and build a bulwark against the city that makes war with you, until it is conquered.
Our discussion question, basically, was how is a tree like a man. I realize I am not providing some useful context here about how the question was presented, but the important part is that this was the question we were supposed to ponder individually.

The actual discussion brought up things such as “man, like a tree, creates ‘fruit,’” which is so in issuing children or disciples, performing mitzvot, studying Torah, performing acts of teshuvah, praying to HaShem, and so on. Discussion also focused on the way man develops his Jewish roots in childhood, grows them strong and wide later in life, and yields fruit – see above – through work, study and service. These were nice, meaningful discussions.

I was struck with the context of the passage. What interested me was that the passage concerned the conduct of war. I thought it was important that in a time of war there would be this constraint not to destroy a fruit-bearing tree.

It made me think that we are commanded to keep our aggression in check, to remember that war, though violent by definition, should not descend into all-out brutality, cruelty and destruction. Yes, there is a practical reason not to destroy a fruit-bearing tree: we may feed off of it. And yes, there is a logical reason to preserve such a tree: after all, it won’t suddenly become a warrior fighting against you like a man.

I also thought there were two key spiritual imperatives involved in protecting the fruit-bearing tree. One was the imperative to maintain one’s judgment, particularly one’s ability to distinguish things with real value. The other was the imperative to preserve one’s own stores of energy: if you swing an axe against every tree, you may tire yourself out for an actual opponent!

To me these two imperatives have a special purpose in the month of Elul. As we reflect on the year that’s closing, and on our character development and interactions with fellows, we wage a kind of war against ourselves in which virtually everything about us appears wrong. Why did I act so impulsively, so selfishly? How could I be so insensitive to so-and-so? Why couldn’t I have been more disciplined, more diligent, or more responsible? In this war, we could really become very aggressive against ourselves.

However, even in this war, we can remember to withhold some of our wrath, for we have some fruit-bearing trees that can be preserved. When we reflect on the same year, we can remember our acts of service, kindnesses and lessons learned. And we can let these be as they are, without seeking out their minute imperfections. Criticizing and fretting over every detail of every behavior eventually becomes a waste of energy and a confusion of the true direction one’s teshuvah should take – which is toward HaShem, rather than toward oneself.

So I did not exactly think about how man is like a tree, or a tree like a man. Rather, I thought about how men have, and how they plant, many kinds of tree in a year. It occurred to me that Elul is not about wiping out the past entirely, but creating an environment for its best trees to grow and to develop its yield of fruit.

The principle applies as well to approaching others. For example, maybe one has a dislike of a co-worker. One could realize that even this co-worker has a fruit-bearing tree – a skill, a common interest, a word or deed – that can be found and appreciated. Who knows? By seeing this tree and letting it stand, perhaps a wonderful friendship could result.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Working in Five

My early menopause continues as I try to figure out what to do with my life. I think about what I want to be doing for work in 5 years. That will be 2012. I have a hard time imagining that far ahead, and imagining myself in that world.

If I am happy in 2012 with my work and my life, what is it that gives me joy and satisfaction? Well, I know there’s money. However, I am not thinking about money to be greedy. I just want a steady stream of income that is substantial enough to allow me to save. So, where’s the money coming from? Of course I’ll have a job, but what will I be doing that makes me happy?

As I imagine it, I envision a cause, a goal of some sort. For example, I get pretty charged up at being able to pursue the street betterment cause. I like being an advocate for a cause. And there are several causes that interest me. I see myself doing a combination of desk work and field work. Now I am totally desk-docked, and I don’t like it. I want to go out and visit people, talk to them and get things done.

So, there’s money, social responsibility and interactivity. This is a start, right? I can continue to press this thinking forward and hopefully develop a clearer sense of my occupation, my real occupation.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Robert Johnson, Hire Me! (Re-Released)

I seem to be at another career crossroads. I have talked to the folks at BAE Systems and may be in line for a job as Senior Proposal Manager.

On the up side, I would get a “senior” in my title and there would be an immediate bump in pay – not much, but a bump nonetheless. I would work with some great people on important projects, and my office would be oh-so-much closer to home.

On the downside, I would be under the thumb of another Neal, and I’ll have to start at the bottom of the company totem pole yet again – not desirable! Plus, I would pretty much seal my fate as a proposal guy. That is, unless I eventually go for my own gig, I would be a proposal guy probably for the rest of my career. Of course, if I am going to be a proposal weenie, having the kind of government experience afforded by BAE would invaluable. They do hard-core DOD proposals, which would put me in good proposal stead anywhere.

On the other hand, what if I stay where I am? I expect a bump in pay in the next 6 months or so, bringing me to between 96K and 98K. I could also lobby for a bonus and maybe reel in an additional $500 or $1000. I work in a fun environment in a company that is going public within the next year or so, which presents many financial and perhaps also career opportunities, or so I am told.

The downside is that I see myself getting ever more pigeon-holed as a support guy rather than a leader, as administration rather than management. The commute is so-so: I have had worse, and it may even be better than SimplexGrinnell. I worry that I will never get a chance to move up and be a real corporate leader here. My lack of business experience and knowledge really sticks out here, as does my introverted temperament.

Yet, the longer I stay, the better chance I have of doing some great things, so long as I push for it. If I am silent, MBAs will come in and take the roles I want (whatever they are – I don’t even know!).

So, my choice boils down to: (a) stay and fight for more – a gamble – or (b) leave and resign myself to what I have. If I remain where I am, I have the chance to forge my own path and get the kind of cutting-edge business experience that may be very helpful later on. If I move to BAE, I have the chance to gain some useful experience and position myself as a real proposal manager, which is a position of strength.

The real issue is whether I am on a path to doing the work I want to do – the work that has the money, prestige and excitement I crave – or a path of repeated frustration in my career. Am I giving in to “grass is greener” syndrome and being foolish, or making a smart decision? This is what I cannot seem to resolve within myself. I am always and constantly dissatisfied with where I am, what my title is, how much money I make, what kind of authority I have. It’s a destructive mode of thinking. But let’s look at this objectively:
  1. Strength against strength: Senior-level and real government versus advancement potential and general business exposure. Advantage: Leave.
  2. Weakness against weakness: No autonomy and steady-state versus little authority and significant risk. Advantage: Stay.
  3. Strength against weakness: Senior-level and real government versus no autonomy and steady-state. Advantage: Stay.
  4. Wildcards: A $105K paycheck, more autonomy than I imagine, better benefits, a sense of future leadership.
Conclusion: I should move forward with an interview, full-speed, and get a better sense of the opportunity and the company. If it’s not right, I’ll stay where I am. But I should also start talking with Bob and getting more active in fashioning the role I want to play in the future.

You Don't Know Me

I know how you got here, and who you think I am, but it's someone else.