When you say, “consulting,” many people immediately think STRESS – long hours, aggressive clients, impossible deadlines. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
When I hear, “consulting,” I think of two of my favorite things: learning new problem domains & helping friends achieve their goals. Consulting can be a sustainable, life-sustaining career.
Let me back up a minute and start this story at the very beginning (a very good place to start).
I was catching up with an old friend recently, in the middle of a career transition, figuring out what he wants to do next. Naturally, we were talking about the jobs I’ve had, and at one point he remarked, off-hand, “I’m surprised you enjoy consulting.”
Part of me was taken aback, but also, I get it. He knows me well, knows I hate “multitasking”, knows that I love working hard but work comes a distant second to my family.
Every year in consulting is like three years in the corporate world because you have multiple clients, multiple issues – you grow so much.
Consulting as a profession often requires fractured attention and juggling too many priorities, practicing too many skills to feel a true sense of mastery. Consultancies as employers often ask you to put your clients’ needs above everything else in your life, urgent meetings on nights and weekends, travel on short notice.
When I think about that type of job, I too recoil just as much as my friend. Yet most days, I do still really enjoy consulting – even after doing it for most of my career at this point.
How is that possible?
There are some aspects of Simple Thread that make us a little special, but even stripping away that context, I think consulting as a career can give you – has given me – a unique opportunity to be of service and to satisfy my natural curiosity about the world.
The Joy of Service
I think of myself as fairly empathetic. So I am embarrassed how long it took me to grok a fundamental truth of human nature: everyone wants to feel useful.
I slept and dreamt that life was joy.
I awoke and saw that life was service.
I acted and behold, service was joy.
Everyone needs to feel their work matters, to feel that their brief time on this Earth meant something. I still have a lot of growth to do as a leader, but one of the most profound lessons I’ve learned is the outsized impact a leader can have by simply acknowledging a coworker’s effort.
I see your hard work, and I appreciate it. This project would not be possible without you.
Every job involves acts of service. Consulting is not unique in this, but with consulting – at least in our type of product-focused agency – there is a certain clarity and transparency in the relationship. Clients work with us, because they need us. They need a team with our expertise to achieve their goals.
We’ve also had the good fortune to be selective about the clients we work with. We take on projects that really matter to our clients. These are often projects they’ve tried and failed to deliver with internal teams or other partners. They’ve gone to considerable lengths to find us and vet us as a partner they can trust. They are ready to listen to us.
So right off the bat, there’s a relationship of mutual respect and appreciation – a feeling that we are useful.
To put it another way, I’ve had some good bosses over the years, but I’ve never had a boss who made me feel as effusively appreciated as literally every client I work with.
A Holy Curiosity
Einstein once offered the following advice to young scientists:
The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality… never lose a holy curiosity.
I can’t think thoughts as big as Einstein, but I have that same feeling of wonder as I contemplate the everyday mundanities of modern life. How did all of this happen? Who designed these things? What problems were they solving? Why did any of it matter to them?
So unsurprisingly, this recent tweet resonated with me:
As you become an adult, you realize that things around you weren't just always there; people made them happen. But only recently have I started to internalize how much tenacity *everything* requires. That hotel, that park, that railway. The world is a museum of passion projects.
— John Collison (@collision) May 25, 2022
Maybe it’s my undiagnosed ADHD, or maybe it’s my engineer’s curiosity. Whatever the reason, as I navigate the world, I am flooded with questions wherever I let my attention linger.
Walking through my neighborhood…
That tree sure has some pretty flowers. I wonder what type of tree it is. Why is it blooming in late summer? Why not the spring? Are there categories of trees that bloom at certain times of the year or is it by species? Is this a native species? Are certain pollinators hatching now? And so on…
Oh weird, this one square of the sidewalk has way more cracks than the others. I wonder why that is. Could it be roots? Is this the same concrete formula they use in buildings? When was concrete invented? Wait, what’s really the difference between concrete and cement? And so on…
I’m exaggerating but not that much. It’s noisy in here. 🙂
I obviously can’t indulge many of those thoughts, or I wouldn’t have time to feed myself, much less hold down a job or have a family. So I have to shut down that voice most of the time. But I also think it’s vital to give it free rein at times. The minute you stop being curious about the world is the minute you stop growing.
You’re either growing or you’re dying. There ain’t no third direction.
Big Tom Callahan
To the curious mind, any topic can be interesting. But how do you choose which topics to focus on? Out of all the topics in the whole wide world (and beyond), how do you decide what is worth your time?
In the last few years, I’ve gotten quick courses in:
- How our electrical grid actually works (the complexity is kinda mind-blowing 🤯)
- How critical infrastructure is protected by federal cybersecurity regulations
- How digital archivists protect irreplaceable assets from bit rot and other sci-fi-sounding but totally real concerns
- How dynamic renewable energy production is upending long-standing generation planning
- Many other business domains that might sound boring at first but are utterly fascinating once you dig into them.
Consulting gives me an excuse to learn about our clients’ businesses, a reason to unbridle my curiosity for a while and let it loose on some sliver of reality.
That is awesome! I have access to brilliant industry experts, and my job is to understand their problems enough to build tools to solve them. And I get paid for it?!?
I get time to study a large problem space on my own and then time to ask experts whatever ignorant questions I come up with. It’s like taking a college course, but the professor is paying me to attend class.
If you are someone with insatiable curiosity or a strong novelty-drive, consulting provides a never-ending source of things to learn – and also a finite scope, which is equally important. You don’t need to actually become a world-class expert in something; you just need to know enough to communicate with those experts, speak their jargon and contextualize their challenges.
The Middle Way
All of that said, I get how people can get tired of consulting. Even at a great company, it can feel a bit like a treadmill, always needing one eye on what comes next while trying to focus on the current work. It can be hard to feel fully present.
But in my opinion, that split-brain pressure is always there. It just usually hides under the surface. Every team and every product, every mission critical initiative will someday come to an end – for everything there is a season. This is true whether we acknowledge it or not.
I think consulting just makes that reality more visible, brings it to the surface, and lets us have more honest conversations with clearer expectations we can plan our lives around.
How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.
For me, consulting has proven an ideal middle way. I get to feel valuable on a consistent basis by working with new people who can benefit from my experience. At the same time, I get the stability and satisfaction of long-term coworkers I can trust and build deep relationships with. I get exposure to new sets of problems, new domains of knowledge to learn, but I get to leverage skills I’ve spent decades honing. I’m not growing so fast that I feel burnt out, but I’m also not stagnating.
To be honest, I’m also surprised that I enjoy consulting. I never would have predicted it when I first started developing software professionally. I thought I wanted to be a specialist with a deep technical focus, something where I got to do advanced data modeling and think about distributed system architectures all day.
But when I look back over my career, it’s not the technical accomplishments that stand out. It’s the people. The parts I’ve enjoyed the most are when I get to learn new things and apply that knowledge to help others achieve their goals.
I stumbled backwards into this career of consulting, and it’s become an ideal way to build a life focused on providing service and satisfying my curiosity. I count myself very fortunate that I get to spend my days learning and helping.
I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.
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