My Brilliant Career, Part 3

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First, a quick review of my career progress at this point in the story:

1. Worked my way through school as a flunky on the graveyard shift. Got a useless degree in English.

2. Was promoted to a job for which I was not qualified.

3. Was promoted to a job for which I was not qualified.

4. Went to another company and was hired into a job for which I was not qualified.

It had now been four years since I’d found the employee relations job and everything seemed okay. The primary reason things seemed okay is that I had no idea what was going on at the very top. At this point, I wasn’t part of the management structure, so I could easily slip back into my lower-middle-class upbringing and bitch a blue streak about that bunch of dimwits in the executive suite who didn’t give a crap about the rest of us. I’d had very little contact with any of the executives except my boss, who, like all the other executives, believed that information was power and shared very little inside information with his direct reports.

That wasn’t why he got fired. He got fired because he screwed up the sales compensation plan and caused a million dollar shortfall in the budget.

My colleagues and I speculated about a replacement. I thought for sure it would go to a person we’ll call Andrea. She had the most knowledge and experience and had worked closely with several executives on key initiatives. The Compensation Manager might have had a shot due to her Ivy League affiliations, but she was part of the sales compensation fiasco and the CEO had publicly humiliated her for her incompetence, an incident that was the talk of the town for several weeks. There was also some speculation that, this being a French company, they would bring in one of their own from Paris and fire the rest of us. Given my relative lack of experience and the fact that I’d only supervised manufacturing people several years before, no one thought I had a shot, self included. I didn’t want the frigging job anyway. I had no desire to be a golf-playing country-clubbing bonus-padding loser Mercedes owner. I still had dreams of escaping the world of business and somehow making it in a more artistic field and living a more bohemian existence. The last thing I wanted was to be a Vice President.

It had to happen.

One day Andrea walked in and said she and her hubby were headed for Honolulu to pursue their shared music careers in the soft jazz market. Later that afternoon, the CFO came to my office and told me to follow him. We headed for the CEO’s office, which was appropriately and significantly hidden from public view down a long hallway where all the human noise of the company was shut out as effectively as if he had been working in a sound isolation booth.

The CEO asked me a question. “What’s your ancestry?” I supposed the question was still legal in France, so I answered, “My father’s side is Portuguese.”

He said, “Portuguese! Good! That means you’re hard-working.” He then told me I was in charge of HR and that he wanted me to fix the turnover problem in the sales force and keep him out of jail. I was then dismissed.

So, here I was, a newly-minted executive who had no qualifications for the job and no desire to do the job. They gave me a modest increase and I later learned that what made me the top candidate was that they knew I’d come cheap. Having Portuguese ancestry somehow confirmed the wisdom of their decision.

To say I was stunned would I have been an understatement, but the people in HR were all very excited for me. The head of sales came down and gave me a bear hug and said, “Welcome to the executive suite.” I wanted to throw up, but I mustered up a pathetic smile.

It was all put into perspective that evening around the family dinner table. By then I was married with two sons, aged eight and five. Once we all sat down, I took a deep breath and said, “Well, guys, I’m a Vice President.”

There was a moment of silence, then my youngest said, “You mean like Dan Quayle?”

Oh God, I thought. I am a loser.

—to be continued—

Guidepost © Stiven | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos

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The Comfort Trap

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At one time or another in the course of a life, many people become aware of “the thing they want to do,” a vision of a life where they are spending their days doing the thing would nourish the soul and engage their capabilities to the fullest. This may happen at any time, and the emergence of this thing presents different challenges at different stages. For the younger set, it’s often an issue of resources and connections; for a senior, it’s the omnipresence of age-related prejudice telling them they’re too old to go back to school or launch a post-punk touring band.

For those in the middle years, the presence of this thing is often a major inconvenience. The middle years are the years in which we are busy implementing a life-plan, and the appearance of a new or old passion threatens to turn everything helter-skelter. These are the years in which the vast majority are trying to “settle down,” leave behind the extreme behavior of youth and attempt to gain security and stability.

For most people, this means getting a job. Even in a recession (or whatever we’re in right now), a job is the most direct path to the alleviation of financial insecurity that bedevils most people living in our land of plenty.

The problem with a job is that once we get comfortable with a certain lifestyle, it becomes difficult to give it up for “the thing we’ve always wanted to do.” This is in part because jobs establish routines: fixed patterns of time and space that give us a sense of security. Once we’ve passed that point when we are no longer worried about survival, we have a strong yearning to relax and rest up from the anxiety we’ve experienced. Any dreams that we might have had are placed securely in the back of the mind, where they are filed as “impractical” or turned into hobbies we never seem to find the time for. We compensate for the loss of the dream by turning to the numerous mind-numbing experiences offered in our culture, from bad television to sporting rituals to alcohol. We are safe and secure, we have a place . . . and we get comfortable.

This comfort comes at a price. Giving into the status needs engendered by American marketing experts, we often choose to get that new car instead of saving money to start the non-profit organization we dreamed about, or to take time off from the daily grind to develop that idea for the novel we always wanted to write. We enter into financial obligations driven by a questionable need to have things, only to regret it later when an opportunity that awakens those true desires happens to arise and we are financially unable to move on it. Taking a full-time job, then, often becomes a sticky web with strands that stretch out to infinity, trapping us in piles of bills and other financial obligations. Instead of feeling content, we feel restless and stressed out as we realize that we are indeed stuck.

This is not an argument against capitalism or having cool stuff. Nor is it a judgment against people who wish to accumulate possessions. There is nothing wrong with acquiring something that gives us pleasure or is useful to us in some way. There is nothing morally deficient about wanting your kitchen to look nice or having a computer that performs to your demands. The problem with entering into financial obligations is simply that they limit our ability to make choices. Our drive to accumulate often forces us to choose between a limited range of undesirable options, particularly as far as employment is concerned. With a mortgage and car payment, we become less willing to take risks, even when staying in an unpleasant job or in a crappy organization is draining the spirit and ruining our health.

Some people respond to the pressure created by financial obligations by digging themselves deeper. They work for a promotion, ask for raises or threaten to quit if their demands go unmet. Not only do these strategies rarely work, but even if they do work, they will not solve the problem of financial pressure. Anyone who has received a promotion will tell you that more money means more obligations; we raise our living standard to suit our income level. It is the rare human being who puts the extra cash aside to invest in their dreams. What happens is that once we get a little breathing room, we buy better stuff, go to more expensive restaurants, buy the new iPad and wind up even more trapped.

Even when financial obligations seem to have us chained to a particular job or career path, a little creative thinking combined with a financial restructuring package might be able to buy us more freedom. I knew a guy who was doing very well in a conventional sense until he got sick and tired of worrying about how he was going to keep up. He sold nearly everything he owned, bought an old VW van and lived in it for a couple of years while saving money to embark on a year-long cross-country journey. His diet consisted of peanut butter sandwiches, apples and water, a culinary sacrifice he deemed necessary to achieving his goal. After two years, he started up the microbus and headed off into the sunset.

Of course, his personal circumstances had a lot to do with his ability to follow his dream. He was without marriage and without children, two situations that can create even more conflicting obligations, depending on the quality of the marital relationship. Even so, he managed to survive two years of low-status life (he didn’t entertain much during that period) and resisted every pressure to accumulate things in order to realize his goal. Getting past cultural expectations and pressures is never easy, no matter what your circumstances.

But the real reason he was able to follow in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark was that he had a strong sense of self. He not only wanted something but he decided he deserved to have it and then had the courage to see it to completion. These are qualities often drained from people who work for a living.

Many people get jobs and join organizations because they are not really sure of what they want. Getting a job is the default choice for people who are uncertain about their goals, whether that uncertainty is due to having generalist tendencies in a specialist culture or simply not having found something that really grabs them. Life in an organization, with its distorted communication and constant frustration, is hardly the best place to go to seek clarity, but hey, it’s a job. The comfort trap then kicks in, leaving us both confused and stuck at the same time.

It is almost impossible for a confused, stuck person to have much self-confidence. Without self-confidence, it is difficult to make any significant changes in one’s life, for confidence gives us the courage to take risks. More painfully, the lack of self-confidence causes us to brood and beat ourselves up for having been so stupid in the first place. We start blaming ourselves for past choices, adding to our stress levels and leaving us feeling more and more stuck.

Organizations support this cycle by validating the use of blame and guilt as legitimate methods to induce people to display desired behavior. This reflects the norm in our culture, where we are far more willing to search for culprits than show compassion for human beings who make mistakes. After experiencing the constant finger-pointing that goes on in most organizations, any confidence we had dissolves into a series of defense strategies designed to ensure survival. People in survival mode do not create new opportunities for themselves. Their primary concern is protecting what they have and after doing battle week in and week out, they are tired, drained and unable to generate possibilities.

Burdened by blame, guilt and obligation, the average person starts to wonder about his or her unhappy circumstances. Most tragically, they start to wonder, “Is it me?” They think that if they try harder solve this particular problem or please this particular person, that some sense of self-worth will be restored. These are only temporary solutions leading to relief without achievement, and relief is not the best tonic for strengthening sagging self-esteem. So, the average person counts their blessings, tells themselves they’re lucky just to have this job and forgets about any possibility of life beyond the workplace. They “crawl up their assholes and die,” in Vonnegutese. They are trapped in the pattern of modern life.

It does not have to be so. The primary voice telling you that you can’t is your own. Yes, our social norms and institutional prejudices create serious challenges. The commitments we have made to others appear to be huge obstacles. But using those excuses to prevent you from following your dream makes no sense because an unhappy, paralyzed person isn’t likely to contribute much to the workplace or to a relationship. Sacrificing your dreams and becoming a martyr to obligations and the expectations of others is psychological suicide. You can’t contribute to anything or help anyone if you’re practically dead.

You have choices. You could do the Wakefield bit: disappear and gain some space. You could carefully plot your escape by coming up with a plan, like my friend with the microbus. Most importantly, you can share your feelings with your mate or your friends. This will get your ideas and feelings out of your head and into the light of day where you can see them more clearly. Doing so may trigger fears in others that you are (heaven forbid!) changing in ways they aren’t going to like or that you’re going to leave them stranded. Prepare yourself for resistance and get ready to say to them, “I need to do this . . . and I’d really like your help. I don’t want you to get hurt in the process, so I’m asking you to help me figure out how we can move in that direction that works for both of us.”

They may resist. Be patient. It may turn out that they don’t want to help you, which means you have another set of choices.

But you always have choices. That’s a lot more than you thought you had.

Poetry: Unsentimental Journey

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Spa music drones in surround, covering

The drone of the engine like a cocoon

For a dying moth that will never dance

Orgasmically before the white light.

The other drone, in semi-consciousness,

Awakens to the stench and scream of brakes,

Finds his hands already clenched tight from dread

Of the thing that waits at the road’s dead end.

Changing lanes, choosing to avoid quick death

For the tamer option of wasting life

In a sea of trivia, in a world

Without significance, free from all hope.

Having chosen, he turns into the lot,

Parks the car, sighs, and enters the workplace.

 

Photo Credit: © Dawn Allynn | Dreamstime.com Commute

When It’s Time to Leave Your Lousy Job

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A recent Mercer workplace survey claims that about a third of the American workforce is seriously considering leaving their current places of employment.

I’m surprised the number is so low, even with the unemployment rate and the dreariness of a job search. Executives everywhere are leading from fear and uncertainty, and Maslow 101 will tell you that when someone is in fear, they think of their own survival first, and to hell with the rest of the staff.

My sense is that many employees are unhappy with the state of things today. They’re not making any more money, they’re paying higher premiums for reduced benefits and most of their managers are self-seeking jerks who are as just as grumpy as they are. They bitch and moan and pray for deliverance, but in the end, fall victim to the classic rationalization: “It’s probably not much better anywhere else.”

At this moment in time, the rationalization is closer to the truth than not. Still, sitting around complaining about your lousy company, your lousy manager and your dysfunctional colleagues can’t possibly do you much good.

Consider this piece of transcendent wisdom:

You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em,

Know when to fold ‘em,

Know when to walk away,

Know when to run.

When you have nothing left to give to your employer, or when your level of frustration exceeds your desire to contribute, leave. If you find yourself blaming everyone around you and sidestepping responsibilities, move on. If you find yourself consistently depressed on Sundays after you’ve realized that the lottery didn’t come through and you have to go back to that dump, get going.

Too many people stay too long in untenable situations out of a lack of self-confidence, fear of interviews or even a misguided belief that they can somehow turn things around. The problem with staying and bitching is its corrosive effect on the soul. It leaves you a victim, wasting away in psychological paralysis. Taking action in the form of a job search is a healthier alternative.

You may find a great job with a better commute, but other possibilities are just as likely. You may not find a job, but you may find out that things aren’t so bad where you are. You may have been nursing an old wound that you need to let go, or you may have lost your sense of purpose. Either way, taking action gets you out of the doldrums and in charge of your life again.

“Thinking of leaving” is an endless purgatory. Go or stay, but make it a conscious choice.