When the caged bird takes flight

Finding the right work environment for gifted adults, aka rebels with a cause

Fit in.

Slow down.

Follow the rules.

Stay inside your box.

I’m not following you.

No, that idea won’t fly here.

That’s not how we do things.

Sound familiar? If so, we’ve got a lot in common.

Being forced to slow down is worse than sticking a pencil in my eye. It’s the story of my childhood: bored and waiting for the rest of the class to catch up. I must have grown accustomed to this state of affairs, because I never consciously questioned it through most of my adult years. I assumed it was simply the way it was and always would be.

What I never stopped questioning is why things are done certain ways. My mom said that “why” was the second word I learned as a baby, the first being whazzat while pointing at something. Apparently I drove her crazy with my relentless whazzat? why? whazzat? why?  interrogations about everything under the sun.

I avoided boredom at work by taking on too much. In my 20s, I was fired for incessantly breaking rules, which was the only way I could move 80 projects simultaneously towards completion. I found out later that they replaced me with four people. A lot of employers take advantage of fast workers, loading us to the breaking point. And we take it, because we can. Because we’re not good at saying no. And hey, it’s better than being bored.

But just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.

Just because we can see clearly how to solve complex problems that are keeping our companies or clients or societies stuck, doesn’t always mean it’s our problem to fix. Not when our ideas aren’t acknowledged, or we’re dismissed as impractical, or people’s eyes glaze over when we explain the possibilities we see, or budgets aren’t aligned to solve the right problem. I’ll address the question of which battles to fight in a separate post. In this one, I want to focus on something else:

 The tension between security and freedom.

I’m not writing for those who prefer comfort and predictability, who curl up in the crate like the family dog, snug and safe. I’m writing for the caged bird who often doesn’t realize its nature is to fly. Or perhaps it does know – far too well – but is afraid to stretch its wings and step off into space. The cage is the only home it has known; the cage, the bird’s been told, is the only source of safety.

But safety to a bird is in the air. Safety is what land-dwellers call crazy.

I tried to step out of the cage several times throughout my career. I’d start a freelance consulting business, fail, and retreat back to the safety of a full-time job. Rinse and repeat. I convinced myself that I was both unemployable and incapable of running my own show. Unemployable because I couldn’t play the game, incapable because my wings seemed defective.

What I didn’t realize until recently is that I was missing the third way. My coachees hear this favorite question of mine whenever they’re trapped in a binary choice: “What’s the third way here?”

There’s always another way

I was failing whenever I tried to force-fit myself into the wrong place, doing the wrong thing… failing when I relied on my head instead of my heart. For decades, I didn’t know how to listen to the still, small voice within me that I’ve now grown to trust… the voice that has recently helped me step off the cliff with confidence, knowing that my wings will catch me.

I’d convinced myself that the only way I could make it on my own was as a consultant; that it was the only way I could make enough money. The only alternative is starting over at the bottom, right? But working as a consultant meant working in the cage, stubbornly trying to fix what no one else wanted (or felt empowered) to fix. But I kept at it because it was all I’d known; even as a freelancer, I was still playing it safe.

And playing it safe according to other people’s rules is the most unsafe thing we rebels can do.

Trust your instincts

Safety, for a rebel, is acting in accordance with our true nature. It’s being in our element, doing what lights us up, working with people who may not fully understand us, but at least we’re appreciated. We embrace our strengths and weaknesses, and align our work accordingly.  And this only happens when we check our overactive brains at the door and learn how to trust our instincts… the same instincts that have been criticized and ignored and beaten down by the rest of the world.  

We’re neurologically (and sometimes genetically) wired to be different. Wired to explore, to challenge, to envision, to reinvent, to advocate. Which doesn’t mean we have to go it alone: there are plenty of others just like us. We simply need to find our tribe. That may mean finding an innovative company to work in, or it can mean starting your own show.

Life’s too short for a cage, whether it’s a career, a relationship, or a place that simply feels wrong. Trust your instincts. Fly.

Liberation of an Andean Condor. Have you been here? Perched on the side of a cliff, yearning to take flight… stuck out of fear and uncertainty… and then finally stretching your wings? This video gets me every time I watch it.

If you’re ready to figure out your next step but are lost in too many possibilities, that’s my sweet spot; let’s talk.

If you’re called to be a catalyst within your existing company, and/or you need to bring others along in creating change together, that’s not my sweet spot; I recommend Catalyst Constellations to find your tribe.

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