Surviving bad work, underwork, and work that has gone stale does many things to us. One of the most troubling is how these difficult, often negative circumstances can distort our view of ourselves and our abilities.
Everyone has stories worth telling about their professional (and personal) greatness. This belief is core to the work I do with students, clients and even my friends and family.
Sometimes these stories get lost in our search for perfection, the next credential or milestone, or they get stolen by that pesky thief of joy, comparison to others. Other times they get lost because we’re so busy keeping ourselves solvent in tough times that we can’t shine light on our own successes.
Years ago, a job I loved for many years had slowly turned sour. This situation was the result of bad leadership, over-complicated bureaucracy, misalignment on priorities and unclear values. Overall, a mess.
There had been so many signs, some of which I’d ignored longer than was good for me, some of which I’d noticed but tolerated, telling myself I was overreacting (a piece on that another time).
I talked myself in and out of making it work, sticking it out, being a more patient person, a more flexible person, someone who didn’t quit when the going got tough…I internalized it all.
Eventually though, enough was enough and I was ready to get out into a new job. Trouble was, in all the mental exhaustion of managing through a chaotic and troubling work environment full of disappointments and setbacks, I lost sight of what I was doing right.
I felt blind to what had made me a valuable professional and leader in the first place. I was too tired to adequately celebrate and learn from our team’s successes, and saw any small win as proof of mere survival, not thriving. I saw nothing but the ways in which I was stuck and unable to thrive in my bad work situation.
It was an isolating and demoralizing time. I’d sit in front of my resume, or flip through job postings and fail to see a compelling path forward. When the few people who knew what was going on would ask what came next, I found myself repeating the refrain: “I don’t know what’s next, I don’t even know what I’m good at or like to do anymore”.
What a terrible thought to have about myself.
Over the years, I’d been recognized for my contributions to the field through multiple awards for my work, been promoted and given additional responsibilities, had an office full of thank-you cards and mementos from grateful students and colleagues, and had a wonderful network who had supported and cared for me. I had created innovative programs that had been written up in white papers, spoken on panels and at conferences as an expert, I’d hired and mentored too many amazing people to list, and still I couldn’t think of what I was good at?
Two things really helped me during this time.
First, I dug deep into the experiences of people who had survived what I was going through. Fortunately for me during this time, I was collecting data for the research project that would inform my dissertation, exploring the stories of people who had lost their jobs and were forced – without a job to anchor their thinking on – to uncover, own and share the story of their achievements, talents and value so they could get back into the job market. From them, I learned that regardless of how demoralized and fatigued I was by bad work, I had to take responsibility for understanding my contributions to the world of work if I wanted a chance at something else.
Secondly, I asked someone I trusted to help me understand my confusion. She was a longtime colleague, not a close friend at the time, but I trusted and valued what she brought to the table. I suspected she shared some of my frustrations, and hoped she could offer a voice of reason to balance the voice of doubt in my mind. I knocked on her door and asked for a confidential conversation.
“I feel,” I said, “like Brooks in Shawshank Redemption. I’ve been here so long that I can’t imagine myself anywhere else. I have forgotten how to talk about what I’m good at. I know there are things I can offer the next job, I just feel blind to them. I’m hoping you can help me think this through.”
Kelley was flattered, a little surprised, and grateful that I would ask for her help in this way. Because we’d worked together for so long, she was able to share with me her observations of my strengths and times she’d admired my work. Over several conversations, she helped me piece together my narrative about my current greatness, and the places I wanted to grow.
My narrative of how I add value, contribute, create and offer the world my unique gifts is a dynamic work in progress. I invest in curating and developing that narrative as I continue to build my skills and experiences. I practice talking about it so I can share my story with the world.
Have you forgotten how to tell the story of the things you’re proud of? Having a tough time tapping into your moments of pride? Try this:
Look at the artifacts of your work history. One of the first places I ask all clients to look whenever they are doing discovery work on their career desires and plans is their own work history. In this case, I’m suggesting that you look at the artifacts that help denote your wins.
These artifacts could include awards, public presentations, invitations to speak at events, evidence of your career milestones. They could also include thank you notes from clients or partners, emails and other forms of congratulations, photos from signature events, even your social schedule – who are the present and former colleagues that you’ve been through something substantial with that you see for coffee or a walk ? These materials can point you in the direction of times when you shined… keep looking.
Ask the people who know you. One of the best things I did was ask that trusted colleague for help. Yes, at first it felt awkward to admit I couldn’t do it alone. But she wasn’t locked in my emotional turmoil of the current experience - she had enough distance to see clearly. There were things she valued I didn’t know about. And she was so happy to help. And our conversations unlocked information that helped both of us claim our strengths and success stories. As the best bonus, our relationship has changed radically as a result of that conversation into one of deep mutual respect and friendship.
Go ahead, consult the assessments, and do the work to back them up. By now, most of us have a few assessments under our belts, like an MBTI, Hogan or Strengths-finder administered by our colleges or grad schools, or our employers to help us with career and leadership direction. There’s a lot of mixed science and feelings about the value of these tools - also a topic for another day -but in a period of confusion, they can offer a beam of light. You still have work to do though. If an assessment suggests that you’re a “connector” or that you use your interpersonal strengths to get things done, use that information as a platform to dig deeper into your work history. Where have you seen it play out? What were the results? Does it feel honest, repeatable, like something colleagues can truly count on you for?
You are awesome, and you owe yourself (and all of us) the chance to share your greatness. Download a copy of the Highlight Reel worksheet to practice capturing your wins.