How to fail without being a failure

Let’s get personal for a moment.

My sojourn into personal productivity happened kind of by accident and mostly because of mental health issues related to anxiety.  To understand the journey I’ll have to go back, way back, to my childhood.

You see, I was raised as an army brat and the youngest of three children.  I tended to spend a lot of time alone with myself (and the occasional dinky car or comic book) and used humour and jokes to get attention (still do).  My father was a confident, action-oriented, ambitious military man who got things done.  He’s pushing 80 and still manages to command a room when he walks into it.  I inherited his ability to hold a conversation with anyone, but somehow missed out on the confidence. 

Maybe it was the bullies at school or the fact that my primary hobby was playing Dungeons and Dragons with my friends (still is) but I just never felt comfortable in my own skin.  All that role playing made me a pretty good actor, however, and I found myself a new mantra.

Fake it until you make it.

So I did.  I used my insatiable curiosity to study and learn about nearly every topic I could think of, both in school and out.  I actually used to sit down with the Funk and Wagnall’s Encyclopedia, pick a letter, and just start reading…

Yet, if you looked at my grades, I was no A student.  You see, like many teenage boys, I had a teeny-tiny bit of a lazy streak.  The one sentence that drove my parent’s crazy was “some assignments were not passed in”.   In hind sight, I realized that my ambition was to work exactly as hard as necessary to get what I wanted AND NO HARDER.

My goal was to go to a local university so I only really needed B’s in school.  Since I was smart and a very quick learner, I could get B’s by crushing the midterms and final exams.  I didn’t need to do all the assignments to achieve my goal so I just didn’t do them. 

So, from university to my Certified Management Accountant (CMA) designation I got everything I strived for with as little effort as possible.  To the outside world I was succeeding, or in the immortal words of Charlie Sheen “WINNING”, but I was starting to get my first taste of the Imposter Syndrome. 

The way I described myself to others was “smart, quick thinking, efficient, and creative” but the way I thought of myself was “lazy, scared, socially inept, and scatter-brained”.  The weird part was that, at different times, I was all of the above and, as life threw me various curveballs, I would switch between the two points of view and hate myself for it.

So, how does this link to productivity? 

Well, I got into the workplace and pretty quickly became established as a middle manager.  That is the standard career path for an accountant.  Usually in charge of teams of 2-6 workers, I’d be part of the management team for a business unit and be responsible for the numbers.  If that role wasn’t big enough I’d also be responsible for IT, Admin and HR.  All the “support” departments.

This is where things started to derail.

This might come as a surprise to some of you but accounting isn’t ALWAYS terribly exciting…there I said it…  While I LOVE problem solving and digging into the numbers in order to creatively solve real world business issues, I found a lot of days started rolling together into endless report generation and copy/pasting compliance reports.  There was always too much ‘work’ to do and too many deadlines to meet in order for me to do the part of the job I actually liked.

Yes, yes, I know it’s just work and I still haven’t explained the productivity part yet. 

Remember that I am a voracious learner.  And I also inherited my father’s ambition.  Being a Controller was never my end goal so I spent my spare time learning how be a better leader.  How to be a visionary.  How to create amazing teams.  I even studied personal productivity so I could be a more effective leader and coach others.  (See how I threw that in there?)

But I didn’t really believe in myself.  You see, my internal dialogue of “lazy, scared, socially inept, and scatter-brained” meant that I didn’t see myself as a powerful and confident executive.  Somehow, when I’d talk to important people I suddenly choked up or said something wishy-washy or non-committal.  I didn’t volunteer for the hard assignments and I didn’t explain to anyone why I was anything more than the quiet bean-counter in the back room.

This did not help my career path

Every year, it seemed, my job became busier.  I worked in manufacturing primarily and we went through a lot of consolidations where everyone was expected to do more with less.  Opportunities to grow or be promoted dried up and the only way to get a substantial pay raise beyond 1% was to jump ship to another company who paid more.

So, now I found myself constantly being the ‘new guy’ which hampered my chances of promotion since I didn’t have extensive knowledge of my new industry.  Not only that, I was a specialist on the Finance side which didn’t always have a reputation for leadership.  (The CPA association would vehemently disagree as they should…some of the finest leaders are CPA’s but the perception persists)

To make matters worse, I stopped being able to see how putting long hours (working until 11pm or on weekends) translated into business success.  There was even a year where I was punished for making some mistake while putting in such heroic efforts. 

Remember way back to my childhood?  How I would only work as hard as necessary to achieve my goals and NO HARDER?  Well, once my brain decided that working my ass off for a company wouldn’t get me my promotion I stopped working that hard.  And I felt weirdly lost and stressed about it.  There was some part of me that felt that being over-worked was some kind of badge of honour and honestly some of my peers felt that way too. 

Surprisingly I became MORE anxious after this revelation.  Now I started to see myself as a failure and, as I became more stressed about my career it manifested itself as procrastination.  So, I went from being the heroic over-worker, to just barely getting my job done.  You can guess how quickly I found promotions after that.  Sarcasm intended.

I had hit an unhealthy cycle.  I needed help.

Enter my psychologist. 

That will be another blog post for sure but the quick version is that I needed to reduce my anxiety so that I could start focusing on new goals.  And it worked.  I started to turn myself around and build my confidence.  For example, last year I took a swing for a leadership position in my company.  I didn’t get the role but, honestly, I would have picked the guy they did so I can’t feel bad about it.  The downside was that, after a quick restructuring, I was made redundant and let go. 

Faced with a choice of starting my career again as the ‘new guy’ (which is still an option for a dynamic growing company, hint, hint) or trying something new, I opted to start my own business so I can focus on the things that I am passionate about.  I wanted to share everything I learned over the last ten years so that I could help other professionals who were facing the same issues I did. 

I’ve learned a lot over the last few months of trying to build a business and I’m sure I will learn more as I go forward.  I do miss playing with the numbers though and so I’m going to see about adding some accounting and business advisory services to my consultancy this week.  Why waste all that hard work I put in for the last 20 years?  That wouldn’t be very productive.

So, I guess the moral of the story (if there is one) is that personal productivity training did more for me than just give me extra time in my life.  It broke the cycle of anxiety and procrastination as well and I just wish everyone could feel the same.

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