“Did I ever tell you you’re like a duck? That’s how James and I think of you.” Matt was a partner at the audacious startup branding firm that I had recently begun working for. We were at a swanky launch party at a very cool “secret” loft in Capital Hill. I must have looked surprised, because Matt grinned at me over his second Negroni and explained, “It’s because you look all calm on the surface but you’re working away underneath.” He spotted someone important across the room and said “I’m going to mingle over there. Have fun.”
I laughed about it at the time. But when I lost the job 6 months later, I imagined the myriad ways in which I could have changed the situation. One of the things that has stood out to me is that I let the things they complimented me on become my measure for success. Did I let my “quiet duck” persona turn me into a meek pushover? This is dangerous. Don’t try this at home (or at work), kids. If you need to write your own job description before you start getting swayed by compliments (like I do), then do that. Whenever someone says “It’s so nice that you always empty the dishwasher. It really makes a difference to have a clean workplace,” you can feel good about it, but if it isn’t in your job description, it doesn’t count as success.
I worked with a great team at that agency. But it seemed like the thanks and affirmations they often gave me focused on my quietness, my team-player perspective, and my transparency about admitting when I didn’t know things. Maybe I should have raised a ruckus more often, voiced my disagreement more vocally.
And those things they affirmed most often were some of the same things they discussed with me when they let me go:
“I wish I could afford to keep you on just to think about things, to do research.”
“You’re not cut out for project management–this role is too chaotic.”
“It’s nothing wrong with your work. We might need a different personality type.”
It’s not the only time this kind of situation has happened. In another job, I had the idea that I could provide some value in a certain area by doing research for some different branches of the company and giving them one-pager summaries on some different topics. Because I received very little affirmation at the time, I felt like it didn’t matter and stopped spending time on it. FIVE YEARS later, I ran into one of my former co-workers, who told me she still used my one-pagers. I wonder, if I had not run after affirmation alone, if I had stuck with my idea just a little longer, where would that program be now?
Affirmation is one indicator of approval and success–but it is only one. You’ll get into trouble if you focus on that alone.
Dear readers, I hope this saves you from the years of heartache I’ve walked through. I hope you never have to think to yourself, as I have, “I’ve done everything you’ve asked of me and more for x years, and now? Now you tell me it was all wrong? Now none of it matters? Now you’re letting me go, or telling me I’m not worth a raise?”
Don’t do just what they ask. Don’t let affirmations be your only barometer.