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Deathbed Confessions – Part 2: You Are Not Your Job

January 13, 2014 by Olivier Blanchard - No Comments

Part 2: Fear, career potholes and the weight of social shame.

“I’m afraid to tell people that I am closing my business because I’m afraid of what they’ll think,” was one admission from a panelist.

“My identity was so tied to my job/title that now that I am on my own, I’m not sure how to handle that,” was another.

One acquaintance in the audience seemed a little hesitant when he told me that he had jumped back into the corporate world – as if I might think that was a bad thing because… I might see it as a failure on his part, somehow. (Why would I? People change jobs all the time. people open and close businesses too. It’s a natural cycle.)

Weird how all these different situations had one thing in common: Fear. There was far more angst in that room than I had anticipated. Lots of private thoughts along the lines of “what will people think?” and uneasiness about the stigma that comes from having perhaps failed at something. Lots of people not quite comfortable with lying about it but not quite comfortable admitting it either.

Why? The term social shame comes to mind. Almost everyone in the room seemed traumatized by having been fired, laid off or having failed at building a successful business.

More than a few people in that room worried about what admitting to having failed (or being fired or downsized) might do to their personal brand too. That’s a hell of a burden to carry around, and an unnecessary one at that.

And you know what? I get it. Most of us have been there or are there or will be there at some point. Case in point: In almost 20 years of being an adult, I’ve been fired twice. Not laid off: Fired. For a long time, I was ashamed to admit it. I thought people would hold it against me, that they would assume I sucked at my job or had done something horrible to lose my job. I assumed it would be a double black mark on my employment record. Then one day I realized that was ridiculous. The failures were not my own.

The first time I was fired was a simple case of a CEO being a bully. Dignity and self-respect won. The job lost. As much as I enjoyed the steady paycheck and the job itself, it was an easy choice to make. The loser in that short conflict was the company, not me. (I went on to better and greater things. They didn’t.)

The second time was because my boss wanted me to sign off on fraudulent invoices and bonus manipulation, among other things. I refused to take part in it. The choice was again simple for me: I didn’t need a paycheck that badly. (I’m not going to federal prison for any employer. Not my idea of a good career move.) I was fired within days of refusing to join the scheme. Again, guess who was the loser in that instance? For the second time in my career, I went on to better and greater thing. They didn’t.

As it turns out, getting fired was a great move for me: None of the jobs I had until I went off on my own involved flying to Sydney or Amsterdam or Dubai for business. None of them gave me the opportunity to speak in front of big crowds or meet so many interesting professionals from all over the world. None of those jobs ever gave me the flexibility to spend 2 months in France in the summer with my wife and kids (and dogs) and work from there if I wanted to. None of them would have allowed my life-long dream of publishing a book (and now there are more on the way). I don’t have to work with assholes or shady people if I don’t want to. I don’t have to kiss anyone’s ass to get a promotion. I don’t have to deal with back-stabbers or mean, jealous petty people anymore. Nobody micromanages me. I don’t have to lie to anyone. I have the freedom to succeed or fail on my own terms. There’s also the risk of failure. I have to live with that, but it’s worth it. I love what I do. I love my freedom, however short-lived it may be.

None of these things would have happened if I hadn’t been fired. Getting fired was the best thing that ever happened to my professional career. I was lucky that it’s happened to me not once but twice. The fact that I only get fired once per decade tells me I’m still playing it way too safe. Imagine if I had been fired more often: I would have gotten to this point in my career a lot sooner. What I wouldn’t give for that. (This might be a good place to point out that both of these jobs were in South Carolina – a “right to work state” – where anyone can be fired for pretty much anything at any time for any reason with complete impunity.)

The folks at IDEO are right: Fail early and often. The faster you fail, the faster you work out the bugs. It’s a process. If there’s anything I wish I knew how to do better, it’s this: Quitting. If I knew how to quit, how to walk away, I would save myself the trouble of getting fired at all. (I’m still working on that.)

The thing is, I know this will fail too. What I am doing now won’t last forever. I’ll eventually fire myself or fail outright. Maybe I’ll take a job with an agency or with a company on the client side. Or maybe I’ll just decide to go open up an adventure-racing school in South Africa or a photo studio in Antibes. Why not? Life is an adventure. Don’t fight it. Roll with the punches. Go with the flow. See where the currents take you.

So here I was in this room, surrounded by people who felt pretty bad about having been fired or having (at least in their minds) failed in some way. Some were visibly ashamed. Others were mostly just confused about whether or not they should share what happened to them. Many were scared to some extent about what it meant, about what people might think, about how it would hurt their image or their chances of landing another good job in the future. I’ve been there too, and it’s not a great place to be in your life. No matter how clear your conscience may be, you still feel small, vulnerable and dejected.

For many of us, it goes far beyond fear and shame. There’s anger too: You feel betrayed by the people you served. You gave so much of yourself and made so many sacrifices for them – missing your kids’ soccer games, working late, often dealing with abuse or harassment, enduring ever-shrinking benefits and the annual insult commonly referred to as the annual “raise” because it was the right thing to do, because your believed it would eventually be worth it. You thought that if you could endure it long enough and jump through enough hoops, you would eventually see the light at the end of the tunnel, maybe even make a real difference. Well, that didn’t happen. Someone pulled out the rug from under you. All of the time, energy, love and hope you invested in that company, in your job, it all just evaporated. It’s an awful feeling. It’s traumatic. There’s no way to walk away from that unscathed. I guess the first thing to realize is that even though it’s happening to you, it isn’t just happening to you. It happens to pretty much everybody. It’s a lot easier to handle that kind of trauma and disappointment when you realize it happens to almost everyone. In fact, it happens to the best of us.

I wanted to make a point so I asked everyone in the room to raise their hands if they had ever been fired or laid off from a job. Almost everyone (including the panel) raised their hand. It was fascinating to see the looks of surprise on some people’s faces at the sight of all of those hands in the air. You could literally see the stress melt from a few of them just from knowing they weren’t alone. It helped, I think. At least I’d like to think so. You have to start somewhere.

Now… People in transition (moving back into the corporate world or moving out of it) could focus on personal branding and Klout score optimization. They could focus their energy on trying to become gurus and experts and ninjas, on raising their professional profiles by speaking at events and writing e-books… But none of that will really free them from the fear that will always hold them, their careers and their lives hostage. They’ll just be trading one prison for another, one dysfunctional professional path for another. And because that fear of social shame will be 1000x greater now that their career is “public” than when it was behind the corporate firewall, every potential failure along the way will carry with it a much greater burden. If you think that’s smart, go for it. If that sounds not so smart, you’re right. There’s more important inner work that needs to be done before launching into campaigns of self-promotion. Ask any political candidates whose campaign imploded about that. Ask any rock star or actor in rehab about it too. Ask any banker or accountant in federal prison the same question: How did you get here? Why did this happen? If they’ve given it any thought, they’ll all have the same answer. We’ll probably talk about that in Part 3.

What I want to focus on today though is fear: The fear of not only failing but admitting that you did. Now that I see how much damage and pain that kind of fear causes, I feel like sharing a few insights that our panel touched on with the rest of you. Some may apply to you. Others may not. You may disagree and that’s fine. I just hope that they will help somebody. Anybody.

So if you’re feeling bad about closing up shop or leaving a job, don’t. And if you know someone who’s having a really hard time with this right now, feel free to share this with them.

Here are a few takeaways from our panel on career transitions:

1. If you haven’t been fired at least once or twice in your career, you might not be doing it right. And if you haven’t failed once or twice at making a business successful, you probably aren’t thinking big enough. Go for failure #3 as soon as you can. Look, unless you’re insanely lucky, failure is part of the success equation. If you haven’t known any yet, chances are that you’re coloring inside the lines maybe a little too well. You might have even stopped moving forward and testing the limits of what you could do. If you’re 100% happy with that, great. If not, getting fired from a job that wasn’t right for you or not biting off more than you could chew with a big idea might not be the worst thing that’s ever happened to you. Sometimes, life has a weird and painful way of doing you favors. Try, fail, repeat. Try, succeed, repeat. Don’t ever stop. No matter what.

You might have heard it a thousand times already, but here’s the name I always think about when people wonder if they (or their spouse) can take one more failure: Thomas Edison. The guy tried and tried and tried to make his light bulb idea work until it did. Imagine if he had quit after 3 tries? 10 tries? 100? here’s what he had to say about when asked about his successive failures:

Young man, why would I feel like a failure? And why would I ever give up? I now know definitively over 9,000 ways that an electric light bulb will not work. Success is almost in my grasp.

Try again. It doesn’t matter how many attempts it takes. Don’t quit just because it’s hard or people look at you funny. What have they ever done? You’ll never regret having tried and failed. I guarantee though that you willregret having quit or given up on a dream. There’s no question about it. Failure is necessary. Failure is good. It teaches you everything you didn’t think to ask.

It’s okay.

2. If you’ve been fired or downsized, if your business has ever failed or run its course, you aren’t alone. It isn’t just happening to you. People get fired and laid off all the time. Companies fail or just get stuck. It happens. Every job ends. Companies close their doors. Departments lose their funding. Assholes who hate you get promoted and fire you just out of spite or fear or jealousy. Learn whatever you can from each experience and move on. As painful and embarrassing as failure of any kind it may be, it is never truly a failure if you’ve derived a valuable insight from it and try again. Dust yourself off and try again. Every pioneer went through the same thing. What put them in the history books is this: Where others would have given up, they didn’t.  If you’re going to fail (and you will), you’re just like everyone else. If you want to get better results than everyone else, make every failure count.

3. Failures in your career hurt as much as failures in love. But pain is just pain. It wears off. Get a head start on the healing. Getting fired is like getting dumped by your boyfriend or girlfriend. It stings. It makes you feel like an asshole. It puts your self-worth in question. We’re just wired that way. If you feel bad about getting canned or laid off, welcome to being human. It’s healthy. Mourn, take a week off. Then get going again. Don’t take any of it personally. See #2.

4. This one is important as it relates to social shame: Nobody holds it against you that you’ve “failed” at anything. Seriously. Nobody is going to talk about you behind your back and peg you a failure. (Okay… perhaps your enemies will, but who cares what they think? They’re assholes anyway.) People in your community will never hold it against you if you’ve lost your job or if your startup failed. No one will ever peg you a loser or damaged goods or a liability as long as you learn from the experience and move on.

Think about it: Do you sit around and make fun of people who’ve been laid off? When Apple fired Steve Jobs back in the day, did we all have secret parties to make fun of him? No. If we even cared, we wondered what he was going to build next. It was exciting. And you know what, if he hadn’t been fired from Apple when he was, Apple might not have become what it is today. Worst case scenario: People are indifferent to your successes or failures. They’re just too busy with their own lives to notice or care about yours as much as you think they do. The rest of us want the best for everyone around us. We want people to succeed and be happy. So… if you’re feeling bad about where you are, chin up: A lot of us are rooting for you.

This whole notion of social shame in regards to failure is an illusion. Don’t fall for it. Your bakery or web design company failed after 14 months? That’s too bad. You’re still everyone’s hero for trying. People will miss that bakery or web design firm, sure, but they’ll only care about one thing: Now what? If you took a job at XYZ Manufacturing, people will be glad you did. If you’re launching a startup in the spring with a few investors, they’ll be thrilled too. Everyone wants you to do well. No one will ever hold it against you if you tried and fail as long as you keep trying. Chin up, kid. You don’t have to apologize. You don’t need to spin it or put on airs. Everybody runs into hurdles. Nothing to be ashamed of. Ever. Don’t do that to yourself. It’s a waste of energy anyway.

5. To quote Tyler Durden, “you are not your job.” You can say that you are your profession, sure, but you are not your job.

For starters, being a brand manager isn’t the same as being VP of Brand Communications at SCB Telecom*. If some douchebag at SCB Telecom gave you the pink slip because you didn’t support his horrible program three years ago and now he can get even with you, go be a brand manager somewhere else. (Hopefully somewhere that will value your contributions a little more than SCB Telecom did.) Being a designer is more important than just being the lead glove designer at Gucci or Chanel. You’re a designer no matter who you work for or what you design. If your company fails, if your label gets sold off, if your boss chases half your team away, it doesn’t change what or who you are.

Whenever a job ends, your profession doesn’t. Hop to another island. It may take six months to find one. It may take ten years of island-hopping to find the right one. You might not ever be happy until you discover your very own island. It doesn’t matter. What island you live on doesn’t change what you are. A job is just a job, no matter how cool it is.

* (Made-up company.)

More than that, you are more than just your profession. You’re also a lot of other things: A parent, a brother or sister, someone’s child, friend and neighbor, a sports fan, a foodie, an artist, a runner, a kite surfer, an equestrian… whatever your interests are. You aren’t just your job. You’re also your interests, your hobbies, your passions, your relationships, your life experiences and more still. Chances are that who you are is far more rooted in all of these things than to your job. So does your value as a human being.

Remember those 5 most common regrets people talk about on their deathbeds? That.

6. Don’t take failure so seriously. In fact, don’t take yourself so seriously either. Relax so you can learn. Learn so you can solve. Solve so you can adapt. Adapt so you can overcome.

Fear is the enemy of innovation. It’s the enemy of design, the enemy of progress. Fear of embarrassment, fear of failure, fear of rejection: They’re all working against you. Whenever fear tells you to back off from an idea or a goal, that’s when you know you’re onto something.

One way to kill fear of failure dead is to not worry so much about the shame and embarrassment that you’ve attached to that fear. Laugh more. Have more fun with what you’re doing. Don’t let stress get in the way. Whether you’re winning or losing, have fun. Ever listened to an 80-year old tell an embarrassing story from their youth? As mortified as they may have been then, they can look back on it now and laugh. That doesn’t suck.

If you’re going to crash and burn, do it with style. Don’t slink away. Crash, burn, get up, take a bow, then go laugh it off. If you can ever learn to laugh at failure and carry on, no one and nothing will ever be able to break your will. Ever.

Look around. Almost everyone around you has failed at something. They may hide it well, but they have.

7. Put it all in perspective: Nobody is shooting at you. You aren’t being targeted by enemy artillery. You didn’t just lose a leg or an arm in a roadside I.E.D. attack. You don’t have cancer. There’s no giant tidal wave about to crush and drown you, no nuclear power plant a mile away about to melt down. That shit is bad. Losing your job or closing down your company isn’t. Get over the fear and embarrassment. They’re a waste of energy. You’re going to be fine. Okay? This is small stuff.

8. Every job has a beginning and an end. Period. One way or another, the job you have today will end someday. Could be tomorrow. Could be next week. Could be in twenty years. How it ends or why might not even matter. What matters is that the inevitable is… well, inevitable.

If you’ve never seen The Kingdom, there’s a great scene in which FBI Director James Grace (played by the always brilliant Richard Jenkins) is being pressured to act against his conscience by the Attorney General (his boss). It’s clear in the scene that the AG won’t take no for an answer. James Grace knows if he doesn’t play nice, his career at the FBI is over. Instead of caving to pressure just to save his own ass, he shares with the AG what he learned long ago about the nature of jobs. After a brief pause, this is his answer to the threat:

You know, Westmoreland made all of us officers write our own obituaries during Tet, when we thought The Cong were gonna end it all right there. And, once we clued into the fact that life is finite, the thought of losing it didn’t scare us anymore. The end comes no matter what, the only thing that matters is how do you wanna go out: On your feet or on your knees.

I bring that lesson to this job. I act, knowing that someday this job will end, no matter what. You should do the same. 

There’s a lot of wisdom in that answer. A lot of courage too, but a lot of wisdom. Heed it.

Every company runs its course. Every job ends. When you remember that you are far more than your job, that life is about more than the title on a business card, the necessary failures you’ll encounter along the way won’t seem so big anymore.

Do the best you can. If you trip and fall or life punches you in the face, get back up. Lean on your family and friends. Banish embarrassment to the curb. Don’t bear the burden of fear, shame or sadness alone. Do whatever you have to do to get back on your feet as fast as possible and just start putting one foot in front of the other again.

Someday, when you’re on your deathbed too, you will regret every minute you wasted feeling sorry for yourself. You’ll wish you had a way to erase every day that you “waited” to try again and do them all over again.

I’ve rambled long enough. Stay tuned for Part 3. We’ll be talking about the danger and ultimate price of bullshit. In the meantime, put your own work aside and go help someone kick ass today. You’ll be amazed how rewarding that feels.

Cheers,

Olivier

 

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