We used to be rockstars

Friday, September 12, 2014
by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

I still remember when I got my first invitation to speak.

It was a Scheming Virtuously double bill in Calgary then Edmonton. I took vacation from one department while another paid my travel because it was just easier than getting approvals. I'd never done any public speaking before so I volunteered in the Career Centre at Carleton University where I could demo a presentation I built from scratch that was up until that point just a handbook. I bombed in Calgary but did better in Edmonton. I recorded both deliveries and listened to them on a constant loop for the duration of the flight home, meticulously taking notes on what worked and what didn't so I could deliver better in the future, not knowing whether or not there would actually be an opportunity to do so.

As it happens, there were many.

They came from all over Canada and down into the United States. I eagerly said yes to every one of them and just as eagerly refused any financial compensation that was offered. I believed in the gift economy, and to a certain extent, still believe it. An early friend along the journey once joked that I would have agreed to speak at the opening of a window, and you know what, at the time he was probably right.

Over the next few years I was lucky enough to build a practice off the side of my desk and with the help of the fellow travellers I met along the way I slowly moved that practice from the corner of my desk to the centre of it. I invested heavily, reading, reflecting and writing on a weekly basis. I published, encouraged others to do the same, read their blogs, hung around more on twitter, left comments on their blogs, and engaged them in conversation. I was building, we were building. The energy was palpable, and easy to caught up in.

Surely at times our efforts misdirected, but on balance they were well placed. At the very least they were always dynamic and thus a welcome change from what we perceived as the stifling normalcy of the bureaucracy that others so readily accepted.

At least that was the feel of it.

We found and built our niche on a platform that the status quo didn't seem to anticipate and certainly didn't understand.

This is how we understood ourselves; we were the new movers and shakers.

Plane tickets, hotels, stages, bright lights, and new friends in crowded bars, everyone genuinely interested in you and what you had to say, as long as you could conjure up some evidence and conviction. Never once did we anticipate that the miraculous run would end, not once did we ever talk about what happens when others would cease to be interested in our talents or how we would deal with the eventuality of competition among us when mind share, attention, and opportunities became more scarce.

These were just some of our blind spots; looking at the forest, forgetting all the trees.

Don't get me wrong. I'm speaking of great people, accomplished people, whom I was fortunate enough to forge bonds with, build relationships with.

I have fond memories; we did some great things.

We seized opportunities others didn't see, we conjured up new influence models and delivered our fair share of five star performances. Sure there were casualties along the way but that's just a part of the biz.

We learned our lessons, shared them and moved on, our skin still firmly in the game, even as the game changed.

I reflect on all of this not out of some sense of longing for glory long past but because things are different; at least for me. It's hard to say for certain and while my memory is imperfect I recall more experimentation, more genuine curiosity, and grass-roots enthusiasm then than I feel now. Perhaps I was just closer to it back then. Or perhaps I'm more cynical than I used to be, time eroding my enthusiasm, like others before me. Perhaps it's just simply the evolution of a career path that you only get to walk once unknowingly, without a clear set of directions or the benefit of hindsight.

All of this struck me a few months ago when I was at a meetup on systems change organized in part by Kent and in part by a handful of other familiar and friendly faces. I stood in the back of the room and took it all in, overwhelmed by the tremendous sense of déjà vu as I mingled with new allies and a handful of the usual suspects. The fact of the matter was that I'd been to dozens, if not hundreds, of the same meetups across the country in my career; and while the thematic focus of past meetups were obviously different (e.g. social media) the underlying trend towards levering new insights (e.g. design thinking) to influence positive change was the same.

I get it. Things change. People change.

We're all shifting, moving between different pieces of the puzzle, our networks changing concurrently, forming and reforming around those pieces in the ways that only the omnipresent web makes truly visible and serves up confidently, algorithmically and asymmetrically.

Some of us have since gone on to be doers; happy victims of our own success, implementing that which we were once passionate advocates. Some of us have undoubtedly lost our influence as our markets became saturated, crowded out despite our first mover advantage. Some of us have undoubtedly made the transition to the next thing, having understood that building a career around the higher order questions will always yield better results than building expertise around set of tactics. While still others among us are in the unenviable position of having to attend to more pressing and personal priorities: building, dismantling and/or rebuilding their relationships, families and/or mental health.

I'm not sure whether or not you'll find this reflection valuable; but to be honest it's something that's been weighing on me for some time now. I'm not sure publishing it accomplishes anything other than getting it off my chest. That said, before I queue this up for publication, I wanted to be clear on a couple of things. I'm not saying we don't still share a sense of community, because we do. Nor am I saying that we aren't doing good work or seizing new opportunities, because we are. I'm just saying that things are different now then they were then.

I'm just saying, we used to be rockstars.