I’ve had a thought on my mind the previous days that I couldn’t shake off. So I knew I had to write an article about it.
The idea is simple: For most of the external constraints on my studies and career, I chose to see the bright side and make the most of them, to turn them into opportunities. It’s easy to feel stuck and spend our days complaining about our unlucky state. But it’s almost always possible to turn our seemingly sour lemons into tasty lemon cakes.
The best way for me to show you what I mean is to share 4 examples from my life, in chronological order.
1. Lack of time leading to an increase in focus and productivity
I got married during the summer of my 4th year of university, where I was studying computer science. My wife was a med-school student and was working long and hard hours. For our wedding, we wanted to invite most people who mattered to us and throw a big and memorable party. Since my wife was too busy, we decided I would organize all the practical aspects of the wedding. For those of you who’ve gone through this, you know this can get pretty heavy. Wedding planning started to take most of my free time, so much so that I struggled to find time to study and work on projects for my degree.
This forced me to take a hard look at what was essential in my studies, what was superfluous and what could be optimized. I decided to skip most classes where I felt that the teachers didn’t add substantial value over simply studying the manual. And I started to focus on only the essential takeaways for a given project. My goal was not to be valedictorian. It was simply to pass without worry.
This is when I discovered the Pareto principle, also called 80/20 law. It states that in most areas of human existence, 20% of the causes lead to 80% of the outcomes. So once my goals were clearly stated, I started to focus on the minimum to be done to attain my goals.
Feeling time pressure forced me to focus and learn many productivity hacks, which have followed me through the years.
Oh, and by the way, the wedding was a blast and I passed the year without much hassle, getting better grades than a few friends who had way more time than I had but were not forced to focus.
2. Lack of mobility leading to join an outstanding company
Upon graduation, I joined the IT services company Atos as a software consultant. As with most services company, they could send me to work at their client’s locations, which could be anywhere in the region, with commute time going as far as 2h one-way. I started working on a few crappy Java projects for large government-owned companies where nobody cared about the projects. And nobody around me at Atos seemed to care about writing good software. You know, as long as the apathic client pays…
I felt stuck. All my graduation enthusiasm started to fade away. Is this what writing software is all about? What if I studied to become a baker instead, at least people would care about my bread…?
And then baby #1 arrived. Since my wife was still in her medical studies working long hours, it meant that I would be the one preparing our girl in the morning for day-care and the one getting her in the evening to then get everything ready before mummy would come home. But with potentially 2h commute-time, this would be impossible!
This forced me to look for other opportunites, at companies that don’t send their employees 2h away at random notice. And this led me to find a great job at a company called ESKER, which is an outstanding employer (literally outstanding, boy was I lucky!).
I would not have looked for a better job had I not been forced to by external circumstances. And this has been one of the best decisions in my career so far.
3. Lack of possibility to work full-time leading to become a developer
When baby #2 arrived, with my wife starting her medical residency/internship (where she would work even crazier hours!), we realized that we would not be able to both work full-time. So I decided to work part-time to be able to handle most of the family logistics. At the time, I was working in a management role) but was missing writing code. But I felt like I didn’t have the time to study in order to prepare for a career transition…
The great thing is that a few months into my part-time, I became increasingly efficient in handling the day-to-day affairs, and started to find a few hours each week to get back into code. That’s when I realized that I loved it and that I wanted to go back to software development. I decided to dedicate 10h a week to learn web development with Free Code Camp (I mostly worked with Java, C/C++ and Python before that but never really touched anything web-related), and a few months later, passed the tests to become a software developer at my company.
Becoming a developer has been the most fulfilling career move I’ve done so far. I can truly say that I love this job and the possibilities it offers.
And this would not have been possible without the family constraints that forced me in the first place to go part-time…
4. Lack of possibility to work on-site leading to become a remote freelancer
When baby #3 arrived, with my wife still a medical resident/intern, and with my eldest daughter needing to be taken care of during lunch breaks, it became increasingly difficult for me to work in an office with traditional work hours (i.e. from 9 AM to 6 PM).
I didn’t think it was possible for me to find a remote gig with flexible hours with my current level at the time, so I told my company I would take a parental leave for 2 years until my wife would finish her residency/internship.
And then the magic happened: they asked me to consider creating my own company so I would be able to work for them from home as a contractor, and I would then be able to bill only the days I worked.
I accepted, and this has again been one of the best decisions in my career. I now work between 15h and 25h per week, depending on my client’s needs and my availability. During the school vacations, I don’t have to ask for vacations. I simply tell them I won’t be available as a contractor. And I’m enjoying lunch with my daughter every day.
But this would not have been possible had I not learnt to be productive and focused as a student, so as to be able to work without distraction from home and without supervision. And it would not have been possible had I not joined this outstanding company with such outside the box thinking. And it would not have been possible had I not been able to learn web development with the time I found while working part time. And it would not have been possible had I not decided to take a parental leave to take care of my kids…
You get the point. The biggest opportunites in my career have come as the results of me trying to make the most of external constraints, not fight against them or complain about them.
So the next time you feel constrained in your life and career, don’t curse the sour lemons. Look directly at them and tell them straight: I’m going to turn you into the best lemon cake in history!
PS. If you don’t like lemon cake, try lemonade instead 😋