Just before Father’s Day, I saw a post on one of my social media accounts asking us to reflect on the best advice or insights we received from our father. I immediately remembered that my father once told me “You are the captain of your own ship.” Then I recalled the situation and why that advice was so profound in my life.
My first job was as an 8th-grade math teacher. I loved math as a student and was lucky to find a job in a brand-new school. What I didn’t realize was that, surprise, surprise, very few of the students were as excited about math as I was. Further, I learned that the biggest part of my job was being a disciplinarian, which I was not equipped to carry out as a recent college graduate.
I became disillusioned with teaching and eager to find a new career. The challenge was that I wasn’t quite sure what to do next. My parents were both immigrants to the U.S. and I didn’t have any other adult mentors at the time. On one of my trips home, I remember that I was agonizing and fretting, ruminating, and tying myself up in knots about what to do next. Seeing my anxiety and discomfort, my father looked me straight in the eye and said, “You are the captain of your own ship.” The phrase stopped me, and a seed was planted. Looking back, I recall that although I knew it was important, I was also a long way from steering my own ship, let alone knowing what ship I was on.
I spent the next few years focusing on finding something I loved and could do well. I took classes, joined a professional organization, and went faithfully to their monthly meetings. One summer, I took a course on “new careers for educators” and as I recall, conducted well over 150 informational interviews. I knew I wanted to enter the business world and made it my mission to learn anything I could about business by reading, talking to people, and listening.
Along the way, in one of my most down moments, one of my informational interviews was with a very successful man. He also said something very profound, which I remember to this day. He emphasized the importance of believing in myself and that “cream rises to the top.” I wish I still had his name as his sage advice and compassion for me pulled me out of one of my lowest low points. I took copious notes during our meeting and read them over and over again until his message sunk into my soul.
I put in the work and was fortunate to land a dream job at Shaklee Corporation. My career evolved from there and so did my self-confidence as I took risks and took on new challenges. I became a trainer, consultant, salesperson, manager, leader, executive coach, and then a graduate school professor. I also continued to educate myself by regularly taking personal and professional development classes, earning two Master’s degrees and then a Ph.D. Being a curious and voracious learner was my growth path.
In the last couple of years, I completed several growth edge coaching courses and deepened my understanding of adult development. Most of us are in the “socialized” form of mind or way of thinking. We rely on external cues to validate what we think, feel, and do. The next evolution in one’s development is to move to self-authored. This is characterized by what Jennifer Garvey Berger says is being the Chair of your own Board of Directors. When self-authored, you have your own set of rules and regulations which you rely on to resolve conflicts and make decisions. There is a developmental step beyond self-authored, which is called "self-transforming." This stage is rare and typically occurs well into middle age, if at all. It is characterized by an ability to see multiple perspectives and shades of gray. Evolution from one stage to another occurs when an individual becomes aware that how they are making sense of the world isn't working for them, that they need a broader perspective and new ways to make sense of the increasing demands and complexity in their roles. A coach trained in this methodology can be quite useful.
As I reflected on what my father taught me that day long ago, I realized that he had pointed out a signpost in the evolution of adult development. At the time, it was so far away that I couldn’t grasp fully, if at all, what that really meant. All I know is that it was a beacon of hope that sparked my soul, and I knew that I had to work hard to make it a reality.
In my current role as a graduate school professor teaching leadership courses, I observe that many of my working adult students are still looking for that external validation. And I also see that in some of my executive coaching clients. Being aware of one’s stage of development is the first step in moving from a socialized to a more self-authored state, or what my father long ago said—being the captain of your own ship.
Where are you on this journey? Are you truly the captain of your own ship?