My students’ questions sometimes haunt me for days.
My most recent ghost of Christmas Future is the question whether it’s ever an option to let an organization fail.
Not only is it an option, there’s an entire legal specialty devoted to organizational failure – bankruptcy, particularly that branch of bankruptcy that permits institutional reorganization.
But the question more on my mind for the past week has been personal rather than commercial. Is individual failure ever an option?
If it is, that’s good news for all of us who are busy trying to shore up systems that might be failing, relationships that might not be serving us well and careers that are latched onto our necks like Vampires.
I have friends whose jobs have quite literally killed them and they weren’t people working with dangerous machinery.
They were lawyers.
Everyone has an idiosyncratic response to the presumed failure vs. pretense of success dilemma. One former colleague told me no one ever left the AmLaw100 for any reason other than failing to make the grade. Since he’s now counsel at a major motion picture studio, and one of the best lawyers it’s ever been my pleasure to call a colleague, I’m going to assume he’s changed his mind about that, particularly since I follow his happy life on Facebook.
Once, in a class at the Straus Institute composed 50% of boomers getting a late-in-life LL.M degree and 50% of law students, the Professor asked everyone to write down their greatest fear and then to pass it to the person sitting next to us.
My 50% – the elders – all wrote “nothing” even though death must surely occur once in awhile as a certain and dreaded event. The other 50%, the kids who still believe they’ll live forever, all wrote this word.
The boomers had been there at least once and failure was not just someone else’s opinion or a vague premonition that had awoken us at 3 a.m. Failure had occurred. In our marriages or with our children. In our careers or our avocations. We’d been laid off or, worse, terminated for cause. We’d lost our money in one recession or another, many of us in the 80s and others in the 90s. Our young adult dreams failed to manifest themselves in our middle years. We’d achieved less than we believed possible. We’d made mistakes for which there were no “do overs.”
If that sounds horrible, you’re on the other side of 40. Failure, particularly to high achievers, is bracing, tonic, liberating. One survives it. And most thrive in the wake of it.
Things fall apart and plans go awry when they aren’t the best fit for us. The shoes of our occupation may have been pinching our feet for decades and we’ve gone along assuming it’s our fault for not knowing how to lace them up the right way. Or worse, we decide that there’s simply something deeply wrong about us. There is no “right” size shoe for our left foot. We’re meant to suffer or that chronic pain is something everyone has to put up with.
Why do you think they call it work?
Here’s what happens after career “failure.”
Recovery. Resilience. Happiness. Fulfillment. A higher purpose. Mastery of something we’re actually well-suited for. Autonomy. Family. Friends. Comfort. Peace.
Failure turns out not to be an elective in the university of life. It’s a requirement.
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