Ben Tanzer continues his explorations and ruminations on the subject of “failure.” In “What’s Your Why?,” Tanzer looks at the work that we do, whether chosen and not.
The workshop we’ve developed is focused on crafting one’s transformational leadership narrative. It’s the integration of the storytelling work I do with the leadership work that my client The Montana Institute (TMI) has built an impressive and singular body of science around.
One of the questions we ask the participants is: What’s your why?
The subtext being: Why do you do the work you do? What are you passionate about? Why are you here?
I realize that my why is very much this thing I’m working on.
The topic. Our training. Leading it. Engaging the participants. Building self-awareness. Excavating the stories that help people and organizations be the best versions of ourselves.
I already know this however, right?
“Can you stay in my office?”
This request comes from the new boss. This guy sucks. Hard. He has great hair, blow-dried, slick, sandy brown, touches of salt and pepper. He wears good suits, sharply cut and tailored, with no weird bunching or strained buttons. He has an eager bounce to his step. But he doesn’t seem to care about much beyond beta-testing Facebook posts and going to the gym for long stretches of the afternoon. Not that it matters. He doesn’t want to work with me. He never listens to my suggestions. He never acts like I’m really there. And he will fire me. I know that.
“Your position here is redundant,” he says one day, “we need to let you go.”
While the conversation itself is a relief—the anxiety I feel from being around him dissipates from my shoulder blades as he talks—it’s still a shock. A body blow. I’ve been tossed aside. Seventeen years of my life, history and dust.
I can’t quite let go. I wish I could. But I can’t, won’t. I don’t want to go without a fight.
“There’s nothing else I can do here?” I ask. “I have other skills we haven’t discussed. I’m open to re-thinking my role.”
In that moment, I am open to other roles. Some of that is desperation and fear speaking. But I’ve wanted to re-think my role anyway, something I broached with my former boss well before he left and the new boss when he first started.
The new boss didn’t respond then and doesn’t respond now. He looks at his cell phone and starts scrolling, head down and done with me.
“Okay,” I say, “there are things I need to finish up, let’s craft an exit plan.”
“No, I think it’s best if a person leaves immediately. Pick up your things on a Saturday.”
And that’s really that.
We establish ground rules for the workshop, which are based on the Seven Core Principles of the Science of the Positive (SOTP), the work developed by TMI:
- BE POSITIVE: Speak words that encourage.
- BE PRESENT: Be here now. Phones off. Stay engaged.
- BE PERCEPTIVE: See, hear, and experience new things.
- BE PURPOSEFUL: Make meaningful connections.
- BE PERFECTED: Dare to improve. Seek a growth mindset.
- BE PROACTIVE: Imagine new ways of being effective.
- BE PASSIONATE: Enjoy this time and share your inspiration.
Do I live this?
Present, got it.
Perfected, sure, trying.
Passionate, I’d say so.
But am I Proactive, seeking new ways to be effective? Questionable. Said differently, have I made being proactive a regular practice throughout my career? Also questionable.
My relationship to failure is complicated and at times the relationship has been self-serving, furthering a personal narrative I want to tell the world: failure doesn’t bother me, I’m cool, resilient, able to push past and through all that puny mortal nonsense.
Even if that were true, it’s not, the question remains: Have I learned from my failures?
Failure as a tool for learning who we are as workers and humans is valuable.
Another way to ask this question is: If I was more self-aware and more present at work in recent years, and if I could have better recognized the bigger picture and what my why was, would I have also been more proactive, or at least failed better?
Because while a one-off failure can hurt, such failure is somewhat contained and transitory. I’ve suffered through a string of recent career failures, however, and that calls for some kind of reckoning.
One can also be thankful for one’s failures, but with a caveat: It’s hard to be thankful in the moment, and so much of this is about the moment, getting some distance from it, seeing it more clearly, trying to understand it, and then moving forward, calloused and better. Or as stated in the Fast Company (3/12/19) article “Yes, you’ll fail. This is how you’ll actually learn from it:”
“Allowing yourself time to feel the humiliation, embarrassment, anger, or other emotions that come with failing–making a big mistake, receiving a negative performance evaluation, or getting fired, for example–helps you get beyond the failure faster.”
I don’t know about faster, but as the article also encourages one to “map out what went wrong,” I’ve set about engaging in an exercise to deconstruct my personal and recent career failures, precipitated by (though not only related to) being fired from my long-time place of employment in May 2016 and the career decisions that immediately followed.
The framework for SOTP, which is also known as the Cycle of Transformation, is Spirit first … then Science … to lead Action … for desired Returns. The work is focused on understanding, working with, and supporting communities. We use this framework to structure the workshop. I also apply it to the work one needs to do on oneself, myself anyway.
- Spirit – By engaging with spirit and igniting hope, our work is guided by core values that allow us to ask different questions, reach people with more authenticity, and create room for transformation.
- Science – We must next seek an accurate understanding of the world around us. Science is about asking the right questions … It also recognizes that our perceptions … can be inaccurate and that in these misperceptions we can become stuck.
- Action – We may want to see immediate results, but Action must come last. Without clear understanding of our purpose and the community we are working in, we cannot engage in meaningful Action that fosters both change and transformation.
- Return – This is a time of rest, recovery, and renewal before the cycle begins again. Our culture is fixated on action. But the reflection required by Return is hard work. Stillness takes enormous energy.
As I write this piece, I’m tangled up in my own misperceptions about my career before now and how I did, and can, get stuck in those misperceptions. I’ve often skipped the Science and Return phases of this cycle when it came to crafting my career, focused instead on Spirit and Action, I failed to ask the right questions about my journey or exercising patience in terms of the desired returns. Not that I always thought about what those desired Returns were.
We ask participants to bring an object with them that has meaning to their work and at the beginning of the workshop to write a one-hundred-word story about why they do what they do. At the end of the workshop, we ask them to revisit that story and ask themselves how it has been transformed during our time together. We also ask the participants to focus on the power of stories and how sharing them can be transformational as well.
These are my stories.
Failure to leave a situation which was clearly heading toward a certain outcome. This is also a failure to embrace the writing on the wall, which I clearly read and said out loud to myself and others. A new boss was coming into my long-time place of employment. Every time a new boss had come in prior to this, top people were let go. New people want new people, their people. I knew this time I was going to be that person. Maybe there are other reasons I was let go. There were members of the board who preferred the skill set of my second in command. Just months before, the board president had asked whether my second in command could handle a new task that I knew was important to the board president. When I said yes, as opposed to demanding the task be assigned to me, I knew I had left myself vulnerable, ensuring my departure with a new leader coming to the organization. Still, even though I knew this, I felt I had earned the opportunity to plan my next steps and be allowed to exit gracefully. There was no reason to believe that.
Failure to truly search for other, meaningful work. While I knew some kind of end was coming, I failed to fully embrace what the certainty of that required from me. This is also about stasis. Which is to say that even when one knows their days are numbered, it doesn’t mean one will be able to take the appropriate action. Which is also to say, that what was required of me, was an aggressive search for new, meaningful work. I looked, but I didn’t cast a wide net: I didn’t fully utilize LinkedIn, hit networking opportunities, or send emails to everyone I had ever known. I tried to make myself aware of what might be out there, but that doesn’t count. One is either all-in or one is nowhere. I was nowhere and I know that now. This is also about purpose though and misperceptions. At this point I didn’t understand my why and when I was looking for work, it wasn’t the work I was best at. I had been a trailblazer in terms of introducing social media to the organization I worked for and I thought of myself as some kind of digital guru and evangelist. I’m not. I don’t understand analytics or care about the most effective way to schedule Tweets. I’m a connector, coach, strategist, idea maker, and promoter. I didn’t get it.
Failure to keep reinventing myself. I can’t ignore this. I never grew less curious or excited about uncovering innovative concepts, making change, working with creative people and figuring out how to connect with them, then build on, adapt their ideas, and integrate their thinking into the work. But how does one keep growing and creating new opportunities? A piece from Entrepreneur (8/15/17) titled “12 Scientifically Proven Ways to Reinvent Yourself” states exactly how one might do that:
- Learn a new skill.
- Meet new people.
- Buy new clothes.
- Consider a career change.
- Try a new productivity tool.
- Take charge of your health.
- Schedule time to play.
- Stop envying others.
- Identify wasted time.
- Tell others.
Did I meet new people at work? Always. Outside of work too. I supported publishers and authors with their book promotion, attended readings, hosted a podcast. I reinvented myself. More than that, I created a richer life that included writing and marketing that writing in interesting ways, which allowed me to do more interesting things at work and recreate myself there as well. Did I schedule time to play? Yes. But did I explore the rest of the items on this list? No. I didn’t meditate, try a new productivity tool, or identify how I waste time. I never stopped envying others. And while my inability to push myself to learn new skills I didn’t care about—for example, mastering Adobe Illustrator, Google Analytics, or Customer Relationship Management systems—haunts me, what really haunts me is how I didn’t push myself and those I worked with to create opportunities where I had to reinvent myself to survive and keep growing. Something I had otherwise done throughout my professional life.
Failure to eschew the hold that my benefits had on me. Adjacent to much of this, was my relationship to paid vacation time, health insurance, paternity leave, 401(k)s, raises, steady paychecks, telecommuting, sick time, and work travel. These issues all revolve around privilege and access, which I had, and have. But they’re also about finding and crafting a job I liked, earning these benefits, and being scared to lose them if I found another opportunity elsewhere, where the benefits might not be as good or flexible. As a parent, these things took on more weight. But as a writer and as a person with outside interests who did not want to be in an office every day, I didn’t want to let go of the stability and flexibility I had earned. Again, this is about privilege, but I failed to challenge my fear around what it might look like to lose some of that.
There is an idea we discuss in the workshop: State vs. Trait. The Core Principles are states of being. Not traits or labels, but who we are. We ask the participants: What state of being are you in right now? I needed to ask myself the same question. I still do. The answer is always changing.
Failure to embrace, even force, patience. When one loses a job, and one is unemployed for the first time in one’s adult life, it can be hard to embrace patience and search for the right opportunity. It’s a scary time, and I was scared, and once I started my search I wasn’t patient enough to allow the process to play out. Opportunities quickly emerged, but there was one job I badly wanted. It involved libraries, social justice, strategic planning, communications, grassroots organizing, and grant management. It had a national focus. It was all the things I loved in my previous job before deciding I was going to be a digital guru and innovative content creator.
It seems obvious now that this is the only kind of opportunity I should have pursued then, and it might have been if I’d asked myself: What’s my why?
But I didn’t.
Still, this is about patience.
I had to deal with a Human Resources department (HR) for this opportunity, every step took forever, and when another opportunity arose out of nowhere and they showed no hesitation regarding their interest in me, I contacted HR to tell them about this new thing. I didn’t want to force the HR team to move faster, but I needed them to know that someone else was interested in me. I also wanted them to tell me to wait. That something could still happen.
“Great,” HR said, “you’re in the running here, but good luck with the other thing.”
Could I have asked them if I should wait?
But I didn’t.
Could I have just waited?
But I didn’t.
And that was that.
But it also wasn’t that.
The failure to be more patient clashed with a failure to suppress my ego and needs (and accept a lower-paying job). Over the course of my career, I’ve twice passed on jobs I really wanted because of the salary being offered. Yes, there are bills to pay. Yes, an ever-increasing salary is a metric of success. And yes, not everyone has the liberty to take a job one wants to pursue because it might make one happy. But how much does a lower salary translate to on a per month basis anyway, and if one can make other budgetary adjustments as needed, can one not do so? I don’t have those answers, because I failed to ask those questions.
The job that arose as I waited on the position I was excited about felt promising, I didn’t know what was going to happen and I felt forced to make a move. The people at the new thing said they were looking to reinvent their digital marketing and fundraising efforts. It was a job focused on who I was trying to convince myself I was and not who I had been. It also felt like a thing I would do until the next thing, and nothing like the job I was already interviewing for. I couldn’t allow myself to see what would happen if I passed on this new opportunity though. I failed to trust the process and myself and spend time thinking about the things I both do well and prefer to do.
That the job I took failed to work out felt like a surprise, but it should not have been.
“Hey,” I said, calling the HR department at the job I had wanted just two months after taking the other job, “the job I took is not working out. The place is toxic and I hate it.”
It really was and I really did.
“That’s great,” HR said, “the person we hired isn’t working out either. Do you want to skip to the last round of the interview process?”
“I do!” I responded a little too excited.
“Great, but the salary is actually $20,000 less than discussed and we can’t budge on that.”
And I couldn’t, wouldn’t, budge either, and didn’t go in for the interview.
Failure to consider culture and fit. Trust my gut. Or just ask more questions. The interview for the job I accepted went well, but I didn’t like the scene or the people I interviewed with. Both the office and the interviewers were quiet, restrained, and stodgy. I wanted something with spark and youth. It didn’t feel right. I felt that my reaction was at least partially ageist and possibly misogynistic (they were both older women) though, and I was ashamed of that. I was also self-conscious. I hadn’t lost my confidence, yet. I had lost my job though, and who was I to pass judgment on anyone or anything? Plus, I’d interviewed with unappealing people before and I’d always made it work. I failed to accept that I didn’t like how I felt there and should trust that. But I failed on many other counts as well.
I didn’t allow myself to get to know the work culture.
I didn’t spend any time getting to know the energy of the place.
I really didn’t understand the work they did.
I didn’t try to get to know anyone once I was there.
Everyone ate at their desks and worked during lunch. At first, I enjoyed having lunch to myself to read, blog, pursue outside hustles. But it was isolating. Regardless, when I left my desk, I couldn’t bear the vitriol I encountered in the halls, offices, and backrooms. The faculty screamed at me about what a “bitch” my boss was, something no one seemed to care about. Then again, it was the same language the leadership team used as they railed on staff and faculty.
I couldn’t have seen how much anger and toxicity existed there during the interview.
However, could I have asked what it was like to work there?
Failure to not accept opportunities to do things I didn’t want to do, that I don’t enjoy doing, and may not even be good at. All of which is to say, it’s not all about bad cultural fit and problematic people either. It’s also about knowing what one wants, what one doesn’t want, and not ignoring these things. This is especially upsetting to me because I implore my students to not ignore how problematic it can be to take jobs where they’ll have to do things they don’t want to do or enjoy doing. There are times when this is necessary to advance one’s career, support one’s family or pay one’s bills or student loans. But if one doesn’t have to do things one doesn’t want to do, why settle for doing those things?
For me, this was heightened by being asked to focus on subject matter I didn’t know or care enough about, nor was around long enough to learn. And so, there I was in one job, then a second I tried and failed at, which involved managing databases and engaging in design work, while not having design skills, or experience, much less interest, in managing databases. Not that I claimed to have these skills. But there were too many things I didn’t do well and too many questions I failed to ask about whether and how I would be expected to execute my responsibilities. I was scared. I didn’t trust myself. But I also believed if I put my head down, I could push through it, which had always worked before.
During the workshop, we also discuss how the Core Principles are levers and that they go up or down depending on what feels pressing to one at the time. This calls for one to be aware of where they are in relation to the Core Principles. Is one Present or Proactive? Perfected? Depending on where one is at, one might need more energy or prep to do things in a different way, and if one examines what is pressing it can allow one to focus on where their time and energy is best spent. One must also examine themselves to understand what’s pressing.
Failure to understand what my true strengths and interests are (and were). Or asking myself: What’s my why? Ultimately, I failed to remind myself what I feel passionate about. My career arc was mostly unplanned, and over time I got away from the elements of strategic communications I now (re-)realize I do so well and love—creative strategy, facilitation, program planning, designing and executing trainings, hustling, and making connections to promote cool stuff and people—while working on story development, book promotion, coaching, absorbing innovative concepts, pulling stories from people and organization’s heads, idea-making, and making sense of what’s happening out in the world—trends, culture, norms, research—how it all hangs together and what it takes to bend these ideas into narratives that sing.
This then was an ongoing failure to ask: What’s my why?
What excites me?
What do I wake up wanting to spend my time doing?
Why am I here?
There is one final failure that runs parallel to much of this: A failure to leap into the unknown. Even before I lost my job, though especially when I lost it, not to mention when the full-time work I chased after wasn’t working out, I knew I wanted to do my own thing. I didn’t trust though that if I hustled I would find cool freelance and contractual things to do that would keep me busy, inspired, and pay the bills. I don’t know if a leap into the unknown would have worked when I first waded back into the job force and wanted to try and hustle full-time. I was scared and opportunities didn’t pop when I first thought about it. More recently, they have. This has happened because of luck, timing, having people in my life who care about me, and the right opportunities coming my way. But it’s also true that when I finally leaped, I trusted I could figure it out, and here we are.
Today, I have no office or boss (though I have clients I answer to) and I do my own thing, hustling, pitching, making things. I fail in lots of ways big and small to get everything I want and everything done, while also failing to always believe in myself. I’m succeeding as well. Much of which is related to all that failing, but is also a result of seeking opportunities focused on things I want to do and am good at, remembering who I am, finding people and situations where I fit, and doing new things, constantly, and with confidence, something I sometimes fail to remember I’ve always possessed.
I still sometimes fail to ask myself, What’s my why? though, or focus on being perfected or proactive, and, when I do, I try to remind myself that I’m human.
That’s not always easy to do, but I’m working on that too.
Ben Tanzer is the author of several award-winning books, including the science fiction novel Orphans, the essay collection Lost in Space: A Father’s Journey There and Back Again, Be Cool—a memoir (sort of), and Upstate.