Sensible Only in Retrospect: Extracting Useful Advice from the Linear Lie

05/15/2015 07:30 pm ET | Updated May 15, 2016

My internship with Sandia National Labs studying pool fire characteristics, along with my Mechanical Engineering degree from Cornell University, landed me a job in computer chip manufacturing at Intel. While there, I transferred four or five times in ten years. I worked first on manufacturing processes, then on supplier technical integration, then on industry infrastructure for needs far in the future, then on development of technical professionals. Along the way, and amidst some less official job changes, I was an individual contributor, a technical expert, a project manager, a program director, and a supervisor, manager, and leader of people, in both sustaining and startup modes. After considerable horizontal and vertical movement, I left to help a nonprofit organization launch in support of at-risk youth. Then, I started my consulting practice.

If you don't know what some of those words mean, don't worry. You can buy me a latte and ask me about my career path. I'll draw a horizontal line across a sheet of paper, add dots representing about a dozen key career moves, and explain how each position prepared me for the next ones. Then, at the end of the hour and the bottom of the cup, I'll wrap up with how all of them combined to create the professional I am today.

But be warned: My autobiographically-focused monologue -- deeply satisfying for me to present, and debatably interesting for you to hear -- is a lie in at least one important regard. It implies that the timeline was equally sensible when viewed from the other end.

It's as if I sat in the halls of Cornell, wrapping up my engineering degree, and plotting the future I've drawn for you retrospectively: "Perfect!" my fictitious past self declared through a satisfied grin. "My stint in the nonprofit arena about ten years from now will round out my expertise in organizational culture. Now to fit in some pool fire experience and make my plan complete."

The reality couldn't be further from the truth. I could no more have foreseen running a home for at-risk youth from engineering school than a 1930s actor could have predicted the iPad from a black-and-white movie shoot. The linkage between pool fires, microchips, pregnant teenagers, and corporate culture is clear and apparent only to me, and only in retrospect. Viewed from the front end, any foreseeable career path could only have included positions like "engineer," "senior engineer," and perhaps "manager" or "director."

But that's not what I'll imply over coffee. And it's not just me making this misrepresentation. Ask any business leader about the history of the businesses, and listen carefully. Visually or verbally, that person will draw you a straight line from "then" to "now," and fill in the points between with key transitions or achievements. In the process, you'll get the subtle impression that the path was linear and clear: "This lead to that, that led to the other, and here we are today, the preeminent supplier of fuchsia colored cotton balls to the birthday party clown industry. We're a case study in growth."

Lies by omission and by accident, to be sure, but lies all the same.

That's not to say there's nothing to learn from career and business trajectories. To the contrary, if you're at the start of a career or in the early stages of a business, few things are more useful than the real histories of those who have gone before. It's just that there's a trick for extracting useful and actionable truth.

Here's how: Start by getting the story straight -- get the timeline drawn, and get all the points in place. Then, point to a specific point in the timeline -- maybe you pick the point where I went from Intel Corporation to the nonprofit space, or the point at which the cotton ball company invented their own dye. Look your would-be historian in the eye, and ask a simple, two-part question:

"Why that? Why then?"

This, in the end, is the key content for you as the listener. You'll never make the same pool-fire-to-microchip transition I did, but you might face a similar choice between employment options in different industries. Your company won't ever have to invent a unique fuchsia cotton tint, but you could easily face an analogous make-or-outsource decision and its ramifications to your product's future. Every dot on the backward-looking line was actually a fork in the forward-looking road, a choice between options accepted and options rejected. Forget the lie of linearity, and focus on the reasons one path was selected over the other.

Focus on the decision-making, because that's where you need to excel. Business and technology are changing quickly, at a rate that will only increase. Honestly, we have no idea what future to expect, what markets we will serve, or how our products today will fare in the environment of tomorrow. All we know is that we need to equip ourselves, and our organizations, to make the best decisions possible - and then, to make new decisions when new information arises. That's the only real formula we've got.

Well, that, and a whole bunch of equations describing what happens when you fill a pool with gasoline and set it on fire. But that's a subject for a whole other latte.