I had an email from a reader who wrote: “Nice article. But you have always been successful Adam. How do you remain positive and intact if your career has fallen apart?”
The truth is I’ve had my own measure of failure, and I’ve had to cope with missed opportunities and disappointment.
I’ve also learnt a huge amount over a long career working with people who themselves have experienced significant highs and lows.
So here are some things I’ve learnt about what to do when life takes an unexpected turn for the worse.
1 Luck and Shame
Like a lot of people, I’ve had a good measure of plain good luck over the course of my career. I’ve sometimes been in the right place and time for my particular abilities to shine.
There’s been some design to this — I made some good choices about who to work for and where.
But given these choices, I’ve still had some lucky breaks. I could have been doing the same quality of work in the same way in a different environment and come unstuck.
That’s why it’s best to stay humble about success. You never know what’s around the corner.
When things go wrong, the same is true. Very often it’s because you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. It may not have much to do with you either. If you’re being let go because your organisation is shedding posts, it’s usually not about your personal performance or value. It’s just a process which you’re unlucky enough to be caught up in.
So if something’s gone wrong ask yourself if you have just been unlucky. If it’s a chance event, it makes no sense to feel shame about it.
Shame can disable you if you let it. Your often misplaced fear about what people will say about you might stop you from doing the very things which are necessary to get your life back on course.
Even if your new situation tracks back to you, a mistake you made, for example, there is little to be gained in feeding your personal sense of shame. Own what’s happened and take the next step.
2 Controlling the Narrative
I’ve had to let some people go in the past. When this happens I try to provide an opportunity for the individual to develop their own narrative. They can present the situation in a way of their choosing to the organization (within reason) and so control the way their departure is perceived.
If you’re in this situation, take the offer and tell your story the way you want to tell it.
It is just as important to control your internal narrative. The best advice I can give here is to try not to think ‘victim’. When you do that you are empowering everyone but yourself.
Ask whether there are any upsides. There are usually some. Focus on them and build your internal story around these elements.
3 The Ostrich
If there’s been a sudden change in your situation, the full implications might not be immediately clear.
It’s crucial that you work through all of the potential impacts. You could write a list using the following as headings:
It is better to face up to the likely consequences so that you can develop a plan to manage them.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed. The point of this list is to help you spot anything which if left unattended could make your situation even more problematic.
4 Generating Options or ‘The Insurmountable Opportunity’
Silver linings are available to those who look. They might be small, but they will be there.
It won’t feel like that straight away. What you have lost will loom largest. Sooner or later, however, your mind will turn to the future and what you can do next. Here are three pointers to take into that next piece of thinking.
- Your experience is not wasted — everything you’ve learnt up to and including the moment when things changed is still available.
- Before your changed situation, there were things you disliked about the way things were. What were they and what does that tell you about what you should do next?
- What have you always wanted to do, but never quite managed to start doing? Now you have a big chance to move in a new direction.
5 Montaigne’s Advice
One should always have one’s boots on and be ready to leave.
In other words, be prepared. Here are two ways you can prepare for an unforeseen and unwanted future.
Have an Alternative Vision
When I became a CEO for the first time, a mentor advised me to consider two things very carefully. First, what was my personal bottom line? What she meant was when — for my own ethical reasons or personal well-being— would I walk away from the job?
The second was that as a CEO it is only a matter of time before a potential scandal, system failure, political situation or a multitude of other unforeseen possibilities will put your job on the line. Her advice was, be at ease with this by developing a backup plan. This is your 'if everything else fails I could do this…plan'.
Why not take the time, while things are going well to consider what you would do if suddenly there was a big and unwelcome change? If you know what you would do, at least in outline, it will make managing the situation if it ever happens easier to do.
The Value of Small Things
I recently had sinus surgery after many years of persistent and chronic sinus infections. Being able to breathe through my nose is a sudden, revelatory experience. I can now taste food properly and I’m appreciating the flavours in my food in a way that I can’t remember doing before. I can smell the tang of the sea when we are out walking, and opening the kitchen cupboard which holds the spices is a minor ecstasy each time it happens
These things are making me happy, which I think is worth pausing on for a moment. This post is about dealing with failure and disappointment. When that happens it’s easy to lose sight of everything else. Cultivating a sense of gratitude for all the things you currently enjoy and appreciate is a practice which might be your equivalent of an emotional buoyancy aid in the event of any future shipwreck.
It’s a paradox that the value of such things increases with their absence. Why not enjoy and appreciate them now, before they have gone?
Ask yourself, what am I currently taking for granted? How would I feel if one or more of these sources of happiness was taken away from me?
Every situation is different and there is a risk that in dealing with a topic like this, the ground I’m covering might not touch on what matters to you. I do think it’s an important area however, and it would be good to start a conversation about what we can all do to prepare ourselves for what might happen next.
Why not leave a comment below or drop me a note if you have any advice you’d like to share?
I’ll close with one final piece of advice. It is hard to see what’s in front of you when you are standing in a hole. When you’re in difficulty see if you can park your troubles just for a moment and try to gain some higher ground and some perspective.
It’s possible if you do this you might spot something that could be useful to you, which might change everything.