by Samuel Path
How to turn constraints into opportunities in your career and life
I’ve had a topic on my mind over the previous days that I can’t shake off. So I knew I had to write an article about it.
The idea is simple: for most of the external constraints on my studies and career, I chose to see the bright side and make the most of them, turning them into opportunities. It’s easy to feel stuck and spend our days complaining about our unlucky state. But it’s almost always possible to turn our seemingly sour lemons into tasty lemon cakes.
The best way for me to show you what I mean is to share four examples from my life, in chronological order.
1. Lack of time led to an increase in focus and productivity
I got married during the summer of my fourth year of university, where I was studying computer science. My wife was a med school student and was working long and hard hours. For our wedding, we wanted to invite the people who mattered most to us and throw a big and memorable party.
Since my wife was too busy, we decided I would organize all the practical aspects of the wedding. For those of you who’ve gone through this, you know this can get pretty heavy. Wedding planning started to take most of my free time, so much so that I struggled to find time to study and work on projects for my degree.
This forced me to take a hard look at what was essential in my studies, what was superfluous, and what could be optimized. I decided to skip most classes where I felt that the teachers didn’t add substantial value over simply studying the manual. And I started to focus on only the essential takeaways for a given project. My goal was not to be valedictorian. It was simply to pass without worry.
This is when I discovered the Pareto principle, also called the 80/20 law. It states that in most areas, 20% of the causes leads to 80% of the outcomes. So once my goals were clearly stated, I started to focus on the minimum that needed to be done to attain my goals.
Feeling time pressure forced me to focus and learn many productivity hacks, which have followed me through the years.
Oh, and by the way, the wedding was a blast and I passed the year without much hassle. I even got better grades than a few friends who had way more time than I had but who were not forced to focus.
2. Lack of mobility led me to join an outstanding company
Upon graduation, I joined the IT services company Atos as a software consultant. As with most services companies, they could send me to work at their client’s locations. These could be anywhere in the region, with commute time going as far as two hours one-way.
I started working on a few crappy Java projects for large government-owned companies where nobody cared about the projects. And nobody around me at Atos seemed to care about writing good software. You know, as long as the apathetic client pays…
I felt stuck. All my graduation enthusiasm started to fade away. Was this what writing software was all about? What if I studied to become a baker instead, at least people would care about my bread…?
And then baby #1 arrived. Since my wife was still in her medical studies program working long hours, it meant that I would be the one preparing our girl in the morning for day-care. I would also be the one picking her up in the evening to then getting everything ready before mummy came home. But with potential two hour commute times, this would be impossible!
This forced me to look for other opportunities, at companies that didn’t send their employees two hours away with little notice. And this led me to find a great job at a company called ESKER, which is an outstanding employer (literally outstanding, boy was I lucky!).
I would not have looked for a better job had I not been forced to by external circumstances. And this has been one of the best decisions in my career so far.
3. Lack of ability to work full-time led me to become a developer
When baby #2 arrived, with my wife starting her medical residency/internship (where she would work even crazier hours!), we realized that we would not be able to both work full-time.
So I decided to work part-time to be able to handle most of the family logistics. At the time, I was working in a management role but was missing writing code. Still, I felt like I didn’t have the time to study in order to prepare for a career transition.
The great thing is that a few months into my switch to part-time, I became increasingly efficient at handling the day-to-day affairs. I started to find a few hours each week to get back into code. That’s when I realized that I loved it and that I wanted to go back to software development.
I decided to dedicate 10h a week to learn web development with freeCodeCamp (I mostly worked with Java, C/C++ and Python before that, but never really touched anything web-related). A few months later, I passed the tests to become a software developer at my company.
Becoming a developer has been the most fulfilling career move I’ve made so far. I can truly say that I love this job and the possibilities it offers.
And this would not have been possible without the family constraints that forced me in the first place to go part-time!
4. Lack of ability to work on-site led me to become a remote freelancer
Then baby #3 arrived, and my wife still a medical resident/intern. Since my eldest daughter needed to be taken care of during lunch breaks, it became increasingly difficult for me to work in an office with traditional work hours (like 9 AM to 6 PM).
I didn’t think it was possible for me to find a remote gig with flexible hours with my current level at the time. So I told my company that I would take a parental leave for two years until my wife finished her residency/internship.
And then the magic happened: they asked me to consider creating my own company so I would be able to work for them from home as a contractor. I could then just bill only the days I worked.
I accepted, and this has again been one of the best decisions in my career. I now work between 15h and 25h per week, depending on my client’s needs and my availability. During school vacations, I don’t have to ask for vacations. I simply tell them I won’t be available as a contractor. And I’m enjoying lunch with my daughter every day.
But this would not have been possible if I hadn’t learned to be productive and focused as a student, so I could work without distraction from home and without supervision.
And it would not have been possible if I hadn’t joined this outstanding company with such outside the box thinking.
And it would not have been possible if I hadn’t been able to learn web development with the time I found while working part time.
And it would not have been possible if I hadn’t decided to take a parental leave to take care of my kids…
You get the point. The biggest opportunities in my career have come when I was trying to make the most of external constraints without fighting against them or complaining about them.
So the next time you feel constrained by your life and career, don’t curse the sour lemons. Look directly at them and tell them straight: I’m going to turn you into the best lemon cake in history!
PS. If you don’t like lemon cake, try lemonade instead ?
Originally published at www.samuelpath.com on February 9, 2018.
Please do not hesitate to share your thoughts on Twitter, I’m at: @smlpth