In my last post, I wrote about Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace by Gordon MacKenzie, a sort of spiritual guide to creative individuals who want to survive and thrive in bureaucratic organizations.
In that post I provided a brief overview of the book and shared a few thoughts about the initial difficulty of entering orbit. Large organizations have structural incentives to fear launching their employees into the distant unknown, so aspiring innovators have to build up a reservoir of trust by demonstrating their loyalty and competency.
Once a creative individual finally achieves orbit, he or she discovers that new challenges await. How does one manage a career that roams so far from the heart of the institution? How does one stay credible and relevant? How does one ensure that his or her creative work finds its way back into the organization?
The short answer is that these questions have no easy answers. Part of the journey into orbit around the giant Hairball is learning to live daily with the questions themselves, and discovering your own personal answers through experimentation, experience, and a lot of luck.
A multitude of orbits
MacKenzie offers a metaphor, not a roadmap. There is no right or wrong way to orbit the giant hairball, and there is no “one size fits all” solution. Although I have forgotten most of what I learned as an Astronautical Engineering major, I can tell you that there are many different orbits for different purposes.
- Suborbital Flight. If you want to rise in the Corporation, you probably need to spend the majority of your time in the Hairball. That needn’t stop you from brief forays into the stars. When the space tourism industry kicks off, passengers will likely not reach orbit at all (at least at first) but may still taste brief periods of weightlessness above the stratosphere before sailing back to earth. Many Corporations offer this kind of experience to their all-stars. In the military, for example, top performers can still progress through the ranks while intermittently taking time to learn foreign languages, study in civilian academic institutions, or embed in the private sector. You can return to the Hairball with unconventional new perspectives, and work within the system to nudge change along.
- Low Earth Orbit. Satellites in Low Earth Orbit circle close to the planet, where they can map every nook and cranny of the surface below. A career spent in LEO might mean staying close to the Hairball, but in slightly elevated places that allow both unconventional exploration and opportunities to drive change. Many leaders, for example, maintain personal staffs or brain trusts that help design and implement innovation efforts. In the military, this might mean working in a Commander’s Action Group, internal think tanks, on a commander’s innovation initiative. Such assignments are not necessarily a fast track to promotion, but they give you room to exercise your imagination while staying close to centers of Corporate power. You can move from role to role, developing broad knowledge of the organization and mastering the ability to work within it.
- Geostationary Orbit. Geostationary orbits are cold, remote, and distant, allowing a satellite to hover over a single point of earth almost indefinitely, beaming services like communications links and satellite TV into particular communities. A career in GEO might mean developing extraordinary depth in a particular subject, until you become your Corporation’s “go-to” person for that subject. These individuals likely spend a considerable amount of time far from the Hairball, in quiet places where they can think deeply, write, and create. Getting to GEO is hard work, and the connection to the Hairball can be tenuous. This can make advancement difficult, especially in an organization like the military that requires frequent job rotation. Individuals in GEO need to work hard to maintain relationships that will allow them to penetrate the Hairball and actually create change, but if they are passionate, talented, and have healthy relationships, they can often stay close to the work they love. Many eventually find and settle into long-term roles that protect their ability to stay with their subject.
- Elliptical Orbit. A satellite in elliptical orbit spends leisurely periods far from the earth, then swoops in with ever-increasing speed for a quick whip past the earth before sailing back into deep space. This is almost the opposite of suborbital flight; a career spent in elliptical orbit means brief, periodic forays down into the Hairball, then long seasons of creativity and autonomy in deep space. My own career has followed this trajectory. On the positive side, you spend enough time in the Hairball to stay fresh, current, and credible; on the negative side, you confuse everybody. It would almost be easier if the Corporation could cut you loose, but you keep showing up and nobody knows what to do with you. This is not a recipe for promotion, but it is an adventurous lifestyle that offers rich, unconventional opportunities.
- Stargazing. I have been very, very lucky in my career. I know many exemplary people who dream of the stars but never found a way to get there. If you are in this category, you should not stop looking up. In whatever role you find yourself, you are still the captain of a rich, imaginative, inner world. You still have dreams, still possess and can cultivate creativity, and are still free to reach out and explore the world, its people, and their ideas. Yes, you have organizational constraints, but your life is still your own, and nobody can stop from you slipping outside at night and looking up at the sky. With some initiative and an open mind and heart, you can reframe and redefine your role. The reality is that, as much as we might dream of a life in orbit, much of the hardest and most important creative work is done in the heart of the Hairball. That is where we need change the most, and you are in the heart of that knotted lair. You can fight your own battles there, and you can also serve as a kind of mission control or ground station, teaming with those in orbit to pull in their exploratory work. And who knows? Maybe, one day, your fortunes will change.
The reality is that, as much as we might dream about perfect jobs that allow us to fulfill our spacefaring ambitions, Orbiting the Giant Hairball is primarily a state of mind. Creative freedom comes through an inner journey of continuous reflection and vigilance. An employee can work to cultivate this freedom from deep within the belly of the beast; on the other hand, those rare, creative career opportunities might prove unfulfilling if we do not cultivate the right mindset to receive them. Some of my most grueling battles with Hairballs came when I was in creative, autonomous assignments—indeed, because I was in those in those assignments. Those were the times when I needed to work hardest to maintain a proper mental and emotional framing of my journey.
Remember: each of us is on our own path. Wherever you might are today—whether hurtling through deep space, or looking up from terra firm at the night sky, or somewhere in between—you have choices and opportunities, which can take you towards or away from creative freedom. There is no fixed answer. Part of your journey is learning to chart your own path, whatever that might look like.
Image courtesy of The Swedish Space Corporation