The other day I caught myself saying, “when I left my job” instead of “when I was laid off”. This week marks the one year anniversary of that event, and it’s remarkable how much my narrative about it has changed.
For a long time shame held me back from candidly talking about my unemployment; a shame born out of a fear that I had somehow failed. After all of those long hours, sleepless nights, heart and soul conversations about money and change and potential and better worlds, why was I let go? It must have been because I was too critical. I didn’t deliver. I wasn’t good enough. For a long time I waded through neck deep amounts of internalized failure shit, and I thought awful things about what it meant to be laid off (but really what it meant to be a person).
In January I started working on a conference about failure, in particular how to build a productive relationship with failure. I took on the social media role and spent near every day reading other people’s 140 character insights on what it meant to fail forward, scoured blogs for content, and tried to sell people on why they should attend a day long event on failure. While I in no way planned for this to help me out of my internal failure funk, it did, because there is something powerful in surrounding yourself in the thing you want to avoid the most.
I found myself in the midst of a community of admitted failures who were brave enough to move beyond their emotional response to failure (shame, and all of the baggage that it brings) to pinpoint what went wrong, and how they were involved. A decisive resolve to own your failure helps to shed some of the negative hangers on of it – like assuming the whole thing is your fault, or taking it personally when it’s not intended to be.
At the same time a coworker noted how few things seemed to ruffle my feathers and I joked that being laid off helped me find my zen place, but really I had begun to differentiate between small f and big F failure, or as I think of them, oops and oh shit moments. An oops is forgetting a sign at the office on your way to an event, or not putting the toilet seat down in the communal bathroom. They are mistakes that maybe it would be best not make again. An oh shit is sending out an e-mail from your boss’ personal account to the VIP mailing list without clearing it with her first. Here there’s an opportunity for a revised external communications process, with room for a certain someone (me) to ask better clarifying questions about work tasks. My zen developed from being able to shrug off the oops’, and try to learn from the oh shits (though at the time, nothing else hurt more than the layoff, so to some extent I was still shrugging off the oh shits).
Two weeks ago we hosted the failure conference and I was blown away by how excited the participants were to talk about failure. Personal, professional, it didn’t matter – they dove in to conversations about failure like they had found an oasis in the desert. They wanted to take on the challenge of learning both about and from failure. They wanted to move forward, fully recognizing what had gone wrong, with the intention to do it differently the next time. They inspired me.
One year out from my layoff and I’ve had 5 contracts, planned, or helped to plan, 14 events for 20 to 700 people, but the failure conference has by far been the most rewarding. Today if you were to ask me about failure I would proudly share all the things I’ve learned from that work. Today I say “when I left” because it doesn’t matter now that I was laid off. That’s not what defines who I am, or the work I do. Losing that job remains one of the more painful things that has happened to me, but like any other failure (either mine or someone else’s) what matters most is how I learn from it.