What Happens When You Run Up Against a “Box-Checker”?

I’m going to brag on myself for a moment and say that I am pretty damn good at my day job. Could I be better? Sure, all of us can benefit from improvement. But where I’m at, I do pretty well. Properly managing staff is one of the greatest responsibilities a manager could ever have in the working world. I care about my employees and the people who utilize my services like they are family. I care about my employer’s money like it was my own, and I am very conscientious about image and public perception of those I represent. My attitude, skills and experience have put me in some sort of management position since I was 22-years-old.

But now, let me tell you how that all came crashing down.

Leonardo DaVinci’s ‘Renaissance Man’ sketch

I had a boss tell me one time that she thought I was the textbook definition of a modern renaissance man. She told me because of the wide array of hobbies, skills, interests, knowledge and experience I have from my 36 years on this planet (at that time), she felt like anything I was asked to do would be done well and on-time. That may have been the highest praise I have ever received from anyone, bar none. While I try to be humble, that puffed me up a bit. It made me glad that I was recognized as a go-to employee. I am proud of what I can do and what I bring to the table. So this one time when I worked for the Federal Government, I was put into a civilian mentorship program and I was paired with our highest-ranking civilian leader. I was excited because this guy had it all going on and was a businessman’s businessman. He was smart, educated, friendly and had all the qualities of a good leader. When we finally got to sit down for our first discussion on my future career goals, he dropped a mega-ton atomic question on me that I still feel the fallout of to this day. He looked me right in the eyes and asked:

“What is your degree in?”

On the surface, that’s a benign question for most people and fairly easy to answer. It was not easy for me. Do you know why? Yep, you guessed it: I did not go to college.

I had a relatively poor upbringing. I started working at 15 and rode my beach comber bike all the way through my senior year of high school. We weren’t destitute by any stretch, and many others had it worse than me. But we were poor enough that when high school graduation came, I had already been working part-time for three years to save for a car. College wasn’t something I ever thought I could afford. In that part of my life, the thought of a college degree was hardly even on the radar. No one else in my family had gone to college either. It just wasn’t something I set as a serious goal. Of course I knew how important education was, but I also knew that if I was ever going to get out on my own and be my own person, I was going to have to work and work hard for it. No one I knew was handing out money so if I wanted it, I had to earn it.

To this day, I do not regret my decision to enter the workforce instead of going to school. In reality, the decision was truly made for me. I would not trade the knowledge and experience I have for anything. It would have been cool to go to school, but that wasn’t in my cards.

So, back to the mentoring session— my reply to him was short. I said, “I did not go to college. I don’t have a degree.”

The only part of that answer that made me feel good was the shock on his face. He told me he couldn’t believe someone with my skills and knowledge did not have a college degree. He also said that he applauded how well I had done for myself in the government system with that limitation. Then, he looked me in the eye again and dropped a second atomic knowledge bomb on me. He said:

“Lyle, you have to go get your degree. Make it a priority, because one day, no matter how qualified or talented you may be, you’re going to want a job from a box-checker. And when they can’t check the box that says ‘Has a Degree’, you’re not going to get the job, even if you’re the number one candidate.”

I walked out of his office after that a little bewildered. We had a fantastic discussion on career goals and steps to move around and up within the department we worked for. But there was a nagging, grinding feeling pulling at my soul. At 36, did I really need a degree? I got every job I ever applied for. I had already done so much and come so far without a scrolled piece of parchment hanging on the wall. I was not in a job that required specialized training, so why should I spend four years of my life trying to work, take care of my family and enjoy life while adding the crushing debt and time-consumption of college homework? After all, the School of Hard Knocks had served me well so far. I made it a long way on my experience, so nah. I’ll keep going as I am. Everything will be alright.

And now, at 47 and one career move later, his advice that I ignored came home to roost.

You see, I like to fix businesses. That’s one of my working joys is to walk into a dump and start turning the ship around. I know how to do it, I have done it multiple times, and I am damn good at it. I relish walking into a place that everyone says will never amount to anything and proving them wrong. I suppose it’s somewhat of a mimic of how I see myself. I may not look like much, but I know how to make something from nothing. It’s a skill I had to learn at an early age and continue using to this day.

About a month ago, opportunity came knocking. In my current recreation career field, a Department Director position in a neighboring town started accepting applications. I am not unhappy where I am, but I always look for opportunities to better myself. This particular Director position was a troubled and much-maligned post that was plagued with other’s good intentions but also with their bad execution. I visited the department incognito to see what I would be up against, and boy, did they need serious help. But the idea of taking over a struggling department and making it into something to be proud of again was chicken soup for my weary soul. I salivated at the chance to once again take a pig, scrub off the lipstick someone else tried to put on it, and turn it into gourmet ham sandwiches for all involved. It would have been a serious challenge that I would welcome with open arms. I updated my resume, spoke to my current boss about a recommendation and I applied.

And… crickets. No call for an interview ever came.

I didn’t understand what the problem was here. Had they decided to scrap the position? Were they waiting for more applicants? Because I thought for sure that others would see this pile of mess and run the other way. Did they lose my contact information? Surely there was some nefarious game afoot.

And still, my phone never rang.

I emailed their HR department and their Administrator with more information to make sure they received what I sent. I ensured I had crossed every “I” and dotted every “T” they required. I did get an email back that said, “Yes, Mr. Russell, we have received your application. We’ll be in touch.” Two more weeks went by.

And still, no call.

Two days ago as of this writing, I received a letterhead in the mail that said, “Mr. Russell, thank you for your interest in the position of Department Director. At this time, we have chosen a more qualified applicant and wish you the best success in the future. Sincerely, HR.” They couldn’t write down that check mark. My old mentor was right. It was my Thanks-But-No-Thanks reply. I had finally met my box-checker.

I got some inside information that they found an applicant that, even though they had been out of the industry for a few years, has a Master’s Degree where I don’t even have an Associates. They chose him over me because of that. For the first time in my life, my high school diploma and endless enthusiasm was not enough.

I’m not bitter. I’m sure he was a very qualified candidate. I wish him the best and hope for his and their success. We all succeed by lifting each other up and one day, because we work in the same field, we could be working together on some project or program. I look forward to that. But what sticks in my craw over the whole thing and that they missed out on me, who would have been an awesome director, because of one, little blue check mark that didn’t show up on a piece of paper.

I do not lament any decision I have ever made about my career or experiences. I am rich in many other things besides money, and things happen for a reason. You don’t always know what that reason is. I still do not feel I would be overly successful in a college environment and honestly, I’ve met new college graduates that can’t find their way out of a wet paper bag with a hatchet and a weed eater. I am definitely not that guy, and I have a hard time working with people like that, but it doesn’t mean I won’t. And don’t misunderstand me as slighting the college graduate. If you have your degree and are living life, by all means, live life and know that I am happy for you. All I know is the universe still has plans for me and it does not always care about little blue check marks.

But for the record, I am now registered to start my A.A. in Recreation Management this fall at our local community college. That sage advice finally hit me. In two more years, that box will get checked.

Until next time!

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