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Bet Your Life

October 22, 2018

Ransom Stephens describes himself as physicist, author and technologist. Add life coach to that list, which he aptly played delivering one of the two keynotes at the Electronic Design Innovation Conference (EDI CON) last week in Santa Clara. Titled “Innovation, Incorporation, and Integrity,” Stephens riffed on why we work and not losing sight of our values and calling.

Despite our financial obligations and need for some source of income, more importantly, we find community and values through our work. As a society, we accomplish more by working together to achieve common goals, and in our capitalist economy, corporations provide the organization, structure and scale for accomplishing many of these goals. Corporations serve society’s material needs while creating wealth for the shareholders and the people who are employed by them.

Many of us choose to work for corporations. As employees, we agree to further the corporation’s goals in exchange for income, community and, hopefully, interesting work, a sense of accomplishment and at least a sense of stability and security.

“At its best, your goals and the corporation’s goals align,” says Stephens.

The worst case is when the corporation’s and individual’s values conflict, forcing the individual to betray her or his values. In this case, Stephens suggests two options: advocate for change within the corporation or leave. Leaving can be as severe as quitting and finding a position at another company or transferring to a different business unit or changing roles (e.g., design to applications engineering, marketing to sales).

However, he cautions against bailing too fast, saying “Don’t underestimate your ability to change the company you work for. Corporation are made of human beings.”

Stephens asks each of us to ponder our responsibility in life. He says responsibilities fall into two categories, those with a small r, like paying bills, mowing the lawn and flossing. The big R responsibility, he argues, is fulfilling your calling. We often make the Faustian bargain of doing something to pay the bills and giving up on our calling.

Sharing his own path, Stephens told the story of his decision to leave Agilent to write books, one of his early life goals. He had been saving money to start a writing career and saw an opportunity when Agilent asked for three volunteers in a cost-reduction move, offering a six-month severance package and vested options. Raising his hand, Stephens formed Ransom’s Notes in 2005, which enabled him to become his own boss to blend writing and consulting.

Consulting, while offering the illusion of freedom (quoting Scott McMorrow from EDI CON 2017), has its own stresses: Foremost is the fear of not earning enough to pay the bills and fund retirement. So the first rule of self employment, Stephens found, is “fear management.” (You can help him manage the fear by buying his four books.) The second rule of self employment is recognizing that “your boss is a jerk who follows you around all the time.”

Whether on your own or working for a company, he says, “You have a responsibility as a highly educated professional to pursue your greatest ambition. Because you’re going to be dead someday, and if you don’t do it now, you probably never will. What a waste.”

We only have a short amount of time to do what we are called to do, 85 years if we are lucky.

“Time is running out. No matter how old you are, you need to get to work.”


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