pratapdsingh + social_shame   1

Deathbed Confessions – Part 2: You are not your job.
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 … [more]
lessons  brandbuilder  career  courage  failure  olivier_blanchard  patience  results  social_shame  success  truth  from google
january 2012 by pratapdsingh

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