Exponential returns: building a life through curiosity, experimentation and reinvention

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Twenty-one months ago, I was pacing outside a small unremarkable classroom, waiting to be let in to talk about innovation and the future of NAIT. I felt unsettled, my nerves ablaze thinking about sharing a confident vision of our future. This unsettled feeling wasn’t about my knowledge of the topic or my ability to tell this story. It was a personal unraveling — a gnawing sense that the person I was at my core and the person I presented to the world were dividing. The previous year, I had started to seriously question my gender identity, first with a reluctant curiosity which, through therapy and the support from my wife and the 2SLGBTQIA+ community, gave way to clear realizations I had denied myself for 20 years.

Back in front of the classroom, the levees were breaking, and the facilitator was telling me they were ready for me.

On my anniversary of my coming out as gender queer (nonbinary) and to celebrate Pride with my 2SLGBTQIA+ community, I wanted to share a bit of my story and what I’ve learned about personal and professional transformation. What I discovered was that we are capable of making big, scary, life-altering changes if we engage our curiosity, embrace experimentation and give ourselves space for reinvention.

I miss being on campus in the spring. There is a sense of new possibility in the hallways. You overhear excited chatter between learners and instructors about what they hope to do. Their ambition takes the form of excitement for a future that feels open. They’ve invested their money, time and mental energy to finish their program or at least their term of study.

From time to time, I present on the topic of organizational transformation and innovation to a group of NAIT learners. Engaging learners in this way is one of my favorite parts of the job. They’re curious, challenging and playful in a way that most audiences are not. I often get learners approaching me after these presentations to hear how I got into this type of organizational innovation work:

  • What did you go to school for?
  • What sort of jobs did you have?
  • What were your other two wishes granted by the genie?

I feel I’ve never given an entirely satisfactory answer. They’re looking for a map, something that they can hold onto and put into practice. What I give them is both too specific to my life (in Harry Potter parlance, the map only illuminates in certain hands) and artificially linear. It makes sense but only when the story is told in reverse with the benefit of hindsight and (thankfully) a spotty memory for personal and professional failings.

I now get a second question from some folks. It’s a question I feel really privileged to respond to.

Since coming out as gender queer and presenting more openly fluid (my eye makeup and dress game is strong), I get one more question that varies in its specific delivery but amounts to: “How did you start dressing like that and why do you seem so comfortable with it?”

These are usually from other queer or questioning folks, or people who are genuinely curious in a sort of scientific way.

What I’ve realized in the last year (it’ll be one year since coming out this June) is that the mechanics of how I ended up in this type of job and how I feel increasingly comfortable being visibly gender queer at work and in all public spaces is the same.

The answer, surprisingly, comes from the world of finance: compounding interest.

Let me explain.

Compounding interest is narrowly understood within the banking world — something your accountant or bank refers to as important for your future financial health. Compounding interest refers to what happens when you reinvest your earnings, which then earn interest as well. It looks a bit like this:

It’s the reason that a 30- year investment of $10,000 with simple interest applied yields $40,000 but with compound interest yields $175,000.

The idea of compounding interest can be extended further into our personal relationships — my guess is that the friendships that were maintained during the pandemic were those which you had invested in and continued to invest in over time. The depth and complexity of those relationships doesn’t grow in a linear way but exponentially with each partner adding value to the account.

The relationship I have with myself, particularly related to my evolving understanding of my gender identity and expression, works the same way. My willingness, after some loving prodding from my wife, to see a psychologist and meet people in the LGBTQ+ community was my first investment. My Fat Cat account was officially opened. It was this initial investment that allowed me to start experimenting with my expression and be open with a select few people in my world. It was the euphoria and clearing of dark clouds, not to mention the supportive response from those I told that allowed me to officially come out as gender queer (nonbinary) and change my pronouns. It was the power I felt from claiming a life for myself and steering my own ship that allowed me to go from presenting fluid or outright femme only on video calls with certain people to being in my local grocery store or presenting in front of large audiences without anxiety overwhelming me.

My career followed a similar arc of discomfort, experimentation and growth then leveraging those experiences to do it all over again. I didn’t know where I wanted to go with my career but I knew, at least implicitly, that my experiences would add up to something.

And in both my career and personal journey, I’m not done yet. Nor will I ever be. For that’s the other great gift I’ve been given this year — the idea that you can change your life through a series of difficult but manageable challenges and through this process, gain access to more meaningful experiences. But it’s not about landing in a specific spot or arriving somewhere. It’s the joy of the process — in building toward something.

That brings me back to the guidance I would offer anyone who is at the beginning of a personal or professional journey:

Invest in what you know or are curious about.

Economic and future work trends are useful guideposts to give us options, but they are meant to augment your internal compass, not lead it. If you don’t know what you want to do or who you want to be, get curious! Join communities, attend events. You will not find a better return than investing in your curiosity.

Don’t obsess over daily returns — play the long game.

“Most news is noise, not news” — Warren Buffet, describing the pitfalls of being overly reactive in the market.

Technology’s dominance in the transformation literature has given us the false impression that you always have to move quickly and decisively, reacting immediately to the most current information you have.

Play a different game. Give yourself time and space to catchup and reflect on how far you’ve come, how you feel in this moment and what you might want to do next.

Self-reflection and patience are competitive advantages in a world that prioritizes speed and responsiveness above all else.

You have to practice being a different version of yourself.

A key part of transformation is getting comfortable being uncomfortable and finding joy in failing forward. Try on different identities and expressions, challenge yourself with ideas that push against your natural instincts, and lean into experiences where fear gives way to excitement and feelings of your world opening up.

In the Sun Also Rises, Hemingway describes the process of going bankrupt as follows:

“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.

“Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually and then suddenly.”

This is informally known as Hemingway’s Law of Motion — it implies that change happens not in a linear way but exponentially. As you slowly gather new professional and personal experiences and perspectives to guide your life, the process of change will feel agonizingly slow at times. We’ve been conditioned, thanks to exponential technology trends (i.e. Moore’s Law), to think that the experience of personal change should be faster. We’re also exposed to social media, which gives the false impression that those we idolize arrived in that moment fully formed, as if they didn’t experience the same slow, stumbling process of discovering themselves.

Personal and professional transformation happens gradually and then suddenly, with each new experimentation and courageous nudge building on the previous. Before you know it, all of the ways you shifted your life in seemingly small ways will yield transformative results.

I feel really fortunate that I get to live and work as my authentic, proudly gender queer self and that I get to work on challenges of personal, professional and organizational transformation. I arrived in this space slowly, after years of personal iterations and discoveries marked by anxiety and uncertainty. And I’m still not done.

Debbie Millman writes that “anything worthwhile takes a long time”. Whether you’re on a personal journey or professional, find the joy in the discovery and experimentation process. One day, you will look back on your growth and development with awe, but your job today is to take a single step forward, to make that investment in your future self.

Happy Pride!

David McDine (they/them)

You can find me on twitter @mcdavyducks where I tweet a mix of silly jokes, joyfully queer fashion selfies and my favorite bits of inspirational writing. I’m a parent of two toddlers and my work with NAIT keeps me busy but i’m always open for a coffee chat. I am also open to presenting and writing opportunities. Please reach out if you want to talk!

David writes about personal & professional transformation using lenses of innovation and creativity, as well as personal reflections as a gender queer person.

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