Sooner or Later, You’ll Sing

For us in the military, there’s an expectation that we can call, or sing, cadence.

This was a problem for me.

Okay, it wasn’t actually a problem. My stubbornness to not sing was the problem. We would run in formation, and other people would sing cadence. They’d been assigned as Corpsmen with the Marines and I hadn’t, so it was only natural that they could do it. In my head, the other half of that statement was that it was only natural that I couldn’t. Somehow, that turned from ‘couldn’t’ to ‘wouldn’t’. I’m not really sure how that happened.

This was at a time when everyone knew I wasn’t going anywhere in my career, so when I told them in advance not to call me out, they agreed. Motivators went out and sang, and I wasn’t one of them. As I’ve said earlier, I had no intention of promoting back then. Those were the darker times, when I chose to be negative and focused more on writing than the job paying the bills. As I ran in the middle or back of the pack, I may have sung along, but probably not. I wasn’t going to be one of those motivators, and would never be in a situation where I’d have to learn.

A few years later, I turned my career around with the help of some tough love from mentors, and I promoted. Unfortunately, I’d never learned to sing cadence. The few chances I had were wasted. Luckily, there were about six weeks of relative misery involved in preparing my new closest friends and myself for the promotion. We had plenty of chances to run for miles on end, and a new chance to learn cadence. Another lucky part of that process before the promotion: I wasn’t given a choice. Sooner or later, we were all going to sing. It was only a matter of time. Until I did, well, the misery continued.

It’s uncomfortable when you don’t know how to do something others can. More often than not, our reaction to that feeling isn’t something as easy as, “Hey, I should learn how to do that. Let me ask someone.” And yes, it was embarrassing to be one of the guys who didn’t know any cadences, but I had help from friends and those dedicated to training us, and I’m now comfortable with it, even if I probably don’t sound so great. I’m loud and have fun, and I think that counts.

My point is about expectations, and not your own. There are some unspoken skill sets that other people both above and below expect you to have. Whether it’s a firm grasp of a piece of equipment in front of you, public speaking, or an eye for administration, there are some skills you’re expected to have. Unfortunately, no one has probably told you in so many words what those expectations are.

Singing cadence certainly wasn’t in the job description for a lab tech, but that didn’t change the way my boss looked at me when I wouldn’t lead a formation. We all get the look sometimes that says both “you mean you can’t do that?” and “I’m disappointed” all at the same time.

How do we define the unspoken expectations those people above and below have of us? I know this will sound silly, but ask.

When I start with a new group, I ask what they want and don’t want from me in whatever role I’m in. I obviously can’t do that with a whole organization, but I can do it with a specific audience.

When I was an instructor, I spent the first day of class talking about their expectations of me instead of diving right into the lesson. I could only teach when the students were receptive, and asking about expectations allowed me to build that relationship by listening carefully to what they wanted and didn’t in terms of instructional technique.

Expectation management can only happen when we talk about, dissect, understand, and hopefully agree on what we expect from the people around us. If the expectation is that you’ll learn to sing if you want to promote, then sooner or later, you’ll sing. I can tell you from experience that the sooner you learn those expected skill sets, the sooner you’ll advance. You don’t have to wait for the promotion.

– What expectation did you realize a few minutes too late? Did you get the look?

– Have you asked the people above and below what they expect of you in those things not covered in the job description?

– What skill sets do you secretly envy a bit in others, and are you willing to learn them?

– What skills do you expect of the people above you, and can you start learning them now?

Have a great week out there.

– JT

James Tinker

About James Tinker

James was born and raised in Bangor, and left home at 18 for the Navy. Twenty-five years later, he retired as highest enlisted rank on a warship in San Diego. His popular blog series, The Day Job, shares personal and professional lessons learned through his career.