When interests and abilities diverge

When I was growing up, I thought that sitting at a desk working with numbers was about the most boring job I could think of. I had very little idea what an actuary like my father actually did (I still have only hazy notions of how his workday was spent), but I knew it involved lots of numbers.

It’s not that I was bad at math. On the contrary, it came easily to me (except for one unit in third grade when we had to learn base 8), and I found it very boring. As a senior in high school I did my calculus homework to relax from more challenging subjects like literary analysis and chemistry. I enjoyed competing in Math League, but I had no interest in studying advanced math topics on my own in order to do better at the meets.

What I liked was writing. I had always been good at it, at least according to my teachers. (My mother also thought I wrote well, but I discounted her opinion as lacking objectivity.) I had always loved to read, and I longed to be able to write stories that other people would enjoy reading.

I also was drawn by the idea of being able to communicate important ideas. I enjoyed studying literature, history, and philosophy because they were about ideas, about the things that really mattered in life. How could anyone want to sit at a desk adding up columns of numbers when there were opportunities to shape people’s views on important issues?

I’ve written in a previous post some of the reasons I did not become a writer, or a missionary, or last very long as a high school teacher. When I worked as a programmer/analyst I took pride in my ability to learn new computer languages, to interact with users and understand their needs, and to solve puzzles (getting programs to work the way you want is a big logic puzzle). I knew that part of being good at it was being detail-oriented, but I never thought of that as one of my primary abilities.

I don’t know exactly which of my abilities got me the job I’ve had for the past seven years, but it certainly has given me a reputation in my department for being very detail-oriented and very good at catching mistakes. (I wish, sometimes, though, that some people’s first reaction when I approach was not to ask “What did I do wrong?”)

Now that the software change management process is being integrated with infrastructure change management, that part of my job is going away. I’ve accumulated a variety of other duties over the years, due to my ability to get things done very efficiently and my willingness to take on new responsibilities unrelated to what I was already doing. But my supervisor felt it was necessary to find me a new place in the department now that my “primary” responsibility (primary in importance, but pretty low these days in the amount of time it takes) is going away.

We had discussed having me join the PC setup group, and I was looking forward to getting my technical skills back up to date. I wondered what would happen to some of the other work I do now, but I thought that configuring new computers and troubleshooting and repairing older ones would make good use of my abilities and perhaps develop some new ones.

I was quite unprepared for the news I got Thursday afternoon, however. My supervisor came to my desk, clearly excited by the result of his meeting with his manager. He had found a place for me, he told me, and his manager was excited about it also. It’s not with the PC setup group, though – it’s in telecomm.

Telecomm? As in phones? I know very little about phones except that I don’t like using them. I’m sure I could learn the technical stuff, but I just don’t like talking to someone without being able to see facial expressions and other body language. Why would I want to become an expert in devices that I dislike on general principles?

It turns out they’re not interested in my technical skills, however. They want my attention to details, to process the mammoth phone bill that currently takes someone about ten hours a week (and takes her away from dealing with technical issues). My previous supervisor assured my current supervisor that I would be very good at this.

I suppose I will be. I’ve always told employers that one of my strengths is learning new information and procedures quickly. The telecomm supervisor said it will probably take me months to learn this, but I hope to master it more quickly than that. He tells me that I should feel free to modify the process to improve it, which I hope to do.

I can’t help wondering, though, how it is that I end up with a job working with numbers. I love words and ideas and helping people see things in new ways. Why is it that what I’m really good at is efficiently processing information that is of no inherent interest? I know it needs to be done, and if I can streamline the process it will be an accomplishment I can point out to prospective employers.

But phones, and numbers? That just wasn’t how life was supposed to work out.

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