Sunday, July 31, 2016

Quittin' Time

(Note: I know that this is not an easy topic to discuss, but I wouldn't be much help to people if I only wrote about happy topics.  Should Hemingway have avoided writing For Whom the Bell Tolls because it was about war?

And now you're thinking, "Did he just compare himself to Ernest Hemingway?" No, I didn't.  Well, maybe a little.  Anyway, if Hemingway wrote about quitting, he would probably say:
Quitting is bad.  Don't quit.  Unless you should.
I'm going to use a few more words than that, but that's the gist of this article. Thanks, Ernie.)

(Note 2: this is not a “Quit your job to found a startup and live a more fulfilling life” article. If you’re looking for confirmation of that decision, move along)

Every parent with a child in sports has lived through this scene: a player makes a bad play or the ump makes a bad call and the coach completely loses his mind.  His screeching voice echoes in the uncomfortable silence as parents, players, and officials stop to watch an adult have a complete meltdown over a children's athletic event.  As the ranting continues people start to wonder if they should step in or if that would just make things worse.  Eventually, the coach winds down and stalks back to his spot on the bench.  That's when the whispering begins: "I think it's time for him to quit!"

Quitting is bad.  No one wants to be a quitter.  We prize perseverance and make heroes of those who overcome adversity and keep plugging along.  Quitting is for the weak, those who can't take the heat and have to get out of the kitchen.  It's for kids who can't make the team and adults who can't make a difference.

But what happens when perseverance turns poisonous?  How do you know when staying the course is worse than choosing a new path?  Is there ever a right time to quit?

Unequivocally, yes.

When your job, whether it's the one that pays you or the one you do for the love of it (or both, if you're one of those mythical people who "never works a day in your life") starts turning you into someone you don't recognize anymore, that's when it's time to move on.  When you hear words coming out of your mouth and feel the urge to look behind you and see who said that horrible/stupid/cruel thing, you need to spend some quality time away from that job and decide if you should ever go back.  And sometimes, even when you're still enjoying yourself, the looks in your coworkers' eyes will tell you that they're wondering why you're still hanging around.  Then it's time to hang up the metaphorical cleats and look for a new career.

In other words, when your presence is doing more harm than good, you need to leave.  Here are three signs that it's quittin' time.  Do any of them apply to you?

You've gone from hero to villain

Are you the person who always bails everyone else out?  When the work has to be done by morning, are you the one who always lets out a loud sigh and says, "Fine, I'll do it... again!"  This is fine if it happens occasionally, but as I've written before, no one can stay in Here Mode forever.  Eventually you get tired of saving everyone every... damn... time, and you start to turn dark.  You'll probably still put in the extra work for a while, but it goes from something you do because it needs to be done to something you do because you're surrounded by nincompoops and slackers.  The grumbling gets louder, the praise you receive feels more hollow, and you start fantasizing about how great it would be to just walk out one day at lunch and never come back.  

Won't they be sorry then!  They'll see how much you did for this place once you stop doing it!  What a gaping hole you'll leave when you walk out that door.  No, not a gaping hole, a smoking chasm!  They won't even be able to function, especially when you take that critical knowledge that only you hold and no one else can even find.  Then they'll appreciate you!

Congratulations: you've gone from everyone's hero to the Toxic Avenger.  It's time to take your talents elsewhere before you decide to hatch your evil plan and ruin everyone else's day (not to mention your own career).  But don't feel too bad about leaving: you've probably been ruining everyone's day for quite a while without even realizing it.

Here are some signs you're becoming toxic:
  • You can't find anything good about your company, including the people sitting right next to you.
  • You refer to your office as "this place."
  • You don't trust anyone else to complete even simple tasks correctly, so you either double-check their work or badmouth it when it's done.
  • You don't trust your company's leaders to make intelligent, ethical decisions.
  • Everyone around you knows exactly how you feel, because even when you try to hold it in (which may not be very often) it comes out in outbursts whenever you're frustrated (which is pretty much all the time).
Whether these things are true or not is beside the point, because at this stage the objective reality of your situation is irrelevant.  The environment you've created in your head is unbearable.  It's quittin' time, little hero.  Pack up your tools, but leave the poisons behind if you can.

You just can't even

Sometimes your body knows that it's time to quit long before you do.  Stress, even unrecognized stress, takes a toll over the long term and can manifest in a lack of energy, drive, or creativity.  When you look at that next assignment and you can't even muster the energy to look at it, much less start working, it might be time to look for a new challenge.

I'm not talking about a down day here.  We all have those occasionally, whether it's because it's raining or our kid was up all night throwing up or because we stayed up too late playing Call of Duty.  This isn't something that can be explained by sleep deprivation or seasonal affective disorder; this is a long-term fatigue that comes from your life expectations not matching your reality for months at a time.  If you're stubborn, maybe years.  It may be the deep exhaustion that comes from compromising your principles on a daily basis, saying "yes" when your heart is screaming, "NOOO!!!"  It might be something as simple as a creeping lethargy that seeps into your soul from constant, profound boredom.

Whatever the reason, it's turned you from a cheetah into a sloth and your colleagues know it.  They've watched you go from soundly beating every deadline to enjoying the whooshing sound they make as they fly past.  They've tried offering you coffee, cigarettes, maybe even considered slipping a little amphetamine into your water bottle when a big project is due.  They've gone from counting on you to working around you.  You think they haven't noticed, but they have.  They know you're done and they're waiting for you to catch on.  

So if your down days are stringing together into slow weeks, the weeks into semi-depressed months, maybe it's time to look at where you're spending most of your waking hours.  Nothing like a spot of change to put the gas back in your carburetor.

You used to lead.  Now you're just in the way.

This is probably the toughest case to diagnose, because the patient still feels fine.  He has all his skills, he has big plans for his team, and he wakes up eager to get to work every morning.  The problem is, the job has passed him by.  Whether it's because he lacks the experience to play at this level or because he doesn't have the tools to match a new reality, he's no longer the leader the company needs, and someone needs to tell him.  Someone brave.  And probably big.  And not afraid of a little verbal abuse.

I see this situation the most with growing startups.  The original leadership team is inspired, the company is expanding every day, and their market is blowing up.  But at a certain point, the people who created the company aren't able to keep it on the right trajectory.  They're still valuable, but the value that they bring seems to shrink proportionally to the size of the company.  They need help but they're too proud to admit it.

If you feel like your job has outgrown you, congratulations!  You've done well to bring it this far, but you need to recognize when it's time to step aside and make room for people with the skills and experience that are required today.  Like the football hero whose body can't keep up with his ambition any longer, you have two choices: become a legend or become a joke.  

Don't be a Favre Founder. Take a serious look at the value that you're bringing to your team every day.  Is it as much as it used to be?  Is it still enough, or are you hanging on past your usefulness?  Know when to stand aside and encourage the next generation to take it from here, even if the "new kid" is older than you, as long as she has what the company needs now.  In the name of this thing that you built, be willing to fade into the background before you're shoved aside.  Your employees will thank you.

Quitting is hard.  You wonder what others will think, what you'll think of yourself, how you'll move on and figure out what to do next.  Even thinking about quitting a job, a hobby, or a volunteer position that means a lot to you can make you feel like you're giving up a piece of your identity.  What could be worse than that?  

Not quitting when you should have.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Egoless, but Full of Pride

When we were children, the adults asked us, "What do you want to be when you grow up?"  We gave answers like, "A fireman!" "An astronaut!" or "A professional baseball player!"  No one said, "I want to be compassionate!" or "I want to be a good member of my community!" Well, there was that one kid who was already planning to be the youngest senator in the history of the United States, but even he was already defining himself in terms of his occupation.

As we grew older, we went to college and tried to find a major that would lead to a career, or at least to a good graduate school that delayed that career for a few more years.  In our sophomore years, we questioned whether we really wanted to spend our lives in advertising, or chemistry, or teaching history, and our parents said we were having an identity crisis.  Apparently, we weren't just questioning our field of study, but our very identity itself.  We learned in that moment that we aren't what we eat after all, but where we work.

Now we're settled in our offices, spending our days in meetings, jockeying for resources, establishing agendas, and generally trying to "get ahead," wherever that is.  The innocent party question, "What do you do?" resonates with echoes of "Who are you?" and the answer had better be good.  We pin our worth to our work, measuring our value by the titles we accrue, the speed with which we accrue them, and the number of people who sit beneath us on the company org chart.  We are what we do.

Where does this leave us?  Unsettled, for one thing.  If my self-image is bound up in my position, then what do I do when someone threatens it, when they don’t show me the proper respect?  I lash out, undermining them in turn and looking for opportunities to assert my dominance and restore my self-esteem.  I forget about the problem at hand and look at the situation instead, seeking ways to turn it to my advantage.  I measure my interactions in terms of influence rather than outcome.  I stop learning and I start leveraging, and somewhere along the way I stop producing.  My work, which we assume was meant to provide some benefit to the world, instead becomes a byproduct of my ever-growing ego.

What if there were a better way?  What if I could take pride in the fruit of my labors instead of my position in the pecking order?  What if I could let go of my ego and lose myself in the creative process?  What if, instead of building my own little kingdom, I focused on producing something of value?

There’s a place for pride in the workplace, but it requires a different focus to be beneficial. When we focus on ourselves, we quickly lose sight of the outcomes we were supposed to produce and turn our eyes to all of the people who are standing in our way.  When we focus instead on our work and its outcomes, we can lose ourselves in the effort, submerging our identities into the team and joining together to create something that’s bigger than ourselves.  We lose the ego and replace it with the humble pride of a craftsman admiring his handiwork.

This is why companies write mission statements: they want to inspire their employees to see their daily work as something more than a struggle for position or an opportunity to log time toward the next paycheck.  They want to create something lasting and valuable, something to which their employees can attach themselves.  Unfortunately, in trying to cover all of the things that they think they do, most companies water down their mission statements to an unintelligible list of platitudes (“Hooli: making the world a better place through minimal message-oriented transport layers”).  It’s a valiant effort, but if you find a company whose mission statement inspires you to get out of bed every morning, never leave.

So where can we find inspiration that overrides our egos and drives us from positional maneuvering to productive work?  It has to happen locally: at the team and individual level, what do you do that makes the world a better place?  What are you creating every day you can be proud of?  What problems are you solving, which lives are you improving, what work are you doing that would make you proud to say, “Yeah, I did that.”  Better yet, what are you creating that could make someone else say, “Wow, I wish I’d done that”?

My father is a realtor, and one day I asked him why he enjoyed selling houses, because, frankly, I didn’t see the appeal in spending a perfectly good Sunday sitting in someone else’s empty house instead of spending it in my own house watching football.  

He told me, “I’m helping people find a home: a place to start a life together, to raise their kids, and to grow old together.  I’m an integral part of their life story and I want to give them the best I have to offer.”

Now that’s a mission statement.

So what’s yours?  What are you doing to make the world better every day?  What’s your real job: not your title or position on the org chart, but the thing you’re supposed to do every day at the building where they pay you to show up?  Maybe it’s revolutionizing the way people communicate, or solving really complex problems that no one else can solve.  Maybe it’s helping young couples start a life together or helping large companies make better decisions about how they treat their employees.  Maybe it’s taking care of a whole department of people and giving them the tools they need to be successful with their own missions.

Whatever it is, find it.  Focus on it like Michelangelo chipping away at a block of marble that will eventually be David.  Forget about positions, authority, and social status, and just work.  Find that place of humble pride as you go about your daily mission.  

Be egoless, but full of pride.