If you've only ever come across stepping stones like those across the River Dove – engineered blocks, solid, square, designed to take you from one river bank to the other – the question 'where do stepping stones lead?' might feel a little redundant. It's like the chicken road-crossing joke…the answer is obviously 'the other side'.
Only, it isn't obvious and it so often isn't the other side…or at least the other side isn't what you might have been expecting it to be when you get there.
The walkers amongst you will know a bit more about stepping stones. For a start you will know that they are not solid, engineered, square blocks designed to get you from A to B. You will know that they are natural formations that have ended up in the river or the bog by accident of nature. You will know that they are rounded and rough and never offer a flat platform to stand upon. You will know that they are wet and slippery with moss and lichen and spray. You will know that there is a good chance that when you put your weight upon them they will rock, throwing your balance, testing your nerve.
You will, in other words, know that a stepping stone is not to be stood upon. It is a mere pivot point. It is there to keep you from drowning, but only if you know how to use it. Never try to balance on a stepping stone, step on, swing through, step off. Not with speed, but definitely with momentum.
Life is full of such stepping stones. Life's steppings are even trickier than those in the glacial mountain torrent…not least because we often cannot see them for what they are. We feel the rocking, we slip-slide, we sometimes fall and feel like we're freezing or drowning or, maybe, we just feel like a fool. (Walkers: who hasn't at least once found themselves sat on their butt in the river? Ah, maybe that's just me.) We don't realise that it isn't the earth shifting beneath our feet. We don't know that all we need is a little momentum to carry us through.
And we really do not know where they will lead.
I am shortly leaving the firm I've worked with for over 30 years. It is a time of reflection. Obviously there has been massive change in that time, in the firm, in the sector, in the world at large. There has also been massive change in me. I am reflecting on all of the people who have helped me along the way from the two who appointed me in the first place on the strength of my naïve honesty in interview, through numerous colleagues and clients and contractors and consultants and residents and trainers and teachers and fellow students, to my current soon-to-be-ex-boss who is about the head off on his own new adventure.
I am also reflecting on events, experiences, challenges…looking back and trying to pick out the path I've taken, trying to identify what was just rocky road, what was green meadow, and what were the all-important stepping stones. Where were the places that I could have fallen but didn't, or could have fallen and did, sometimes hard, but managed to pick myself up again?
From this angle most of them are obvious, and they look so benign. Promotions. Demotions. Successes. Frustrations. Friendships made. And lost. Qualifications gained. Experience sometimes hard-won. All of them subtly shifting my perception and my direction.
For the first 20 of those 30 years, I was adamant that I did not have and did not want a career. It was just a job. It's a family mantra that no matter how hard it is "it's only work" and work is not life and it should not matter so much. Work was what I did to fund the other stuff, the fun stuff.
That's not to say I didn't enjoy it – I did. I have worked in a couple of totally awesome teams and have been unusually blessed in my line managers. We worked shockingly stupidly hard…but we laughed a lot more than many might realise…and we were proud of the outcomes. Even the ones we didn't all necessarily agree with at the time, we came to understand and appreciate the good that was being done.
I did not see the stepping stones. I did not see that I was gathering the strength – not exactly to believe in myself, but to know that I could stand up for what I believed despite how I felt. I did not see that I was getting the experience I needed to be able to forge the career that I have started to create in the last ten years.
I took a complete change of direction 10 years ago and followed the tried and trusted route to somewhere near the top…
…where I was not happy. I could not do what needed to be done. Whether the fault of that lies in me or in others or in circumstances doesn't matter, the fact of it meant that further change was needed.
I was given the worst kind of stepping stones. Two of the people who matter most to me were seriously ill in very quick succession. Both came through their ordeals, but the shock to my system gave me the momentum to hit the first next step cleanly.
In the two years since then, stepping stones have continued to be placed in my path. They have appeared and been cleared: some with more elegance and grace than others, I freely admit. There have been times when I could see them for what they were and stood on the shore, too frightened to step out until someone (thanks Boss) gave me a not so gentle shove. There were times when I had no idea they were there until I was stepping off them, simply confident that the path was leading where I wanted to go.
Even if I don't, still not yet, know exactly where that is. It's going to be exciting finding out.
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