Set Up to Fail
I saw an article from the Harvard Business Review. My god, this should be put up on a wall. For one or two years, that was the story of my life. It was a blur, but things were rather bleak for me back then. The first two years of my working life, I don’t think I have been fairly appraised, and to be fair, from the third year onwards, there was an improvement every year and eventually I did feel that I was getting somewhere. During the bad times, there was nonsense like “could you please cross this particular paragraph out of your performance evaluation?” There were a few times when one or two of my ideas got rebuffed, and somebody else brought up that idea and it was given its due consideration. It was utterly frustrating to work during those years.
That department had career opportunities that were so bleak that a lot of the people went out the door very quickly. There were a few things that kept me there: I liked the work, I was bonded there for a certain number of years, and probably that was the reason why I did not get let go in a retrenchment exercise. And while there were a few people I did not get along with at the beginning of my previous job, eventually they left and for some reason I got on better with the ones who did stay. I hate to say this, but for the first few years I was sorda glad whenever somebody left, because that would mean they wouldn’t be able to avoid what I did.
There are a few other things about that article that I can relate to. First it is that the subordinate is in some way to be blamed. There were times during my difficult period that I basically gave up on my career. But that’s also going to be put down to a boss who’s callous enough to know that there are only a few slots for people to advance and he doesn’t fight for more of his people to advance, and he’s actually going to discourage everybody else from thinking they’re actually going to advance.
Ultimately I broke out of that situation. I had enough patience to do it. I was lucky: nobody seriously believed that I was stupid, but during those first few years they were pretty suspicious. I had years of academic achievement to not let that bullshit affect me too much. I had unhappy JC years, life was tough in NS, and life was tough in Snowy Hill. They couldn’t kick me around much harder than I was kicked around for the preceding years. And very fortuitously, I had the sort of temperament where I had low sensitivity to other peoples’ opinions. That comes in very handy in adult life.
At first, I was quite desperate to show that I was a worthy employee. But then maybe I made a lot of mistakes and rubbed people the wrong way too much during those first few years. It was a pretty lonely existence at that time. There was a retrenchment and the only reason why I didn’t get chopped was because I still had many years left on my bond. I’m sure more than a few people were wondering why it wasn’t me. During those dark moments of despair, I used the internet at work a lot more than I needed to. I blogged a lot once I was out of the office, I spent all my free time reading. I loved being an undergraduate and used the time to open many doors of intellectual inquiry, and for the first few years of work I was following up on that. After plumbing the depths of despair, I did what anybody with a jail sentence would do – spend all his time reading. Eventually I clawed my life back. We all knew that this wasn’t going to be sustainable. My bosses weren’t stupid. Well – not all my bosses were stupid. Eventually everybody realised that we had a very awkward situation on our hands and that was when I started to move ahead. I had always been given a few intellectually challenging problems. I started to expand my skill sets. They started to realize that I was one of the better mathematicians in the office. Maybe I learnt from my mistakes, learnt to be more practical, had a sense of how the system worked. I realised that I was expressing myself in ways that opened me to accusations that I was an impractical person who was too engrossed with my theories. The problem was that they weren’t acquainted with my way of thinking and my ideas were dismissed not because they were lousy but because they were unfamiliar. Funny thing is, by the time I left the office, I was complaining to my bosses that a few of their schemes were impractical and unrealistic. Full circle.
Also, another good decision I made was to keep my head down in the lean years. I made sure that only a very limited number of people saw me underperforming during the lean years. That allowed me to start on a fresh slate with a lot of other people during the later years. If I had screwed up too much, it would have been too hard to turn things around.
And that’s the thing. It’s a pretty awkward situation when the guys who had been looking down their noses at me (and quite a few of my bosses were around for the entire duration of my stay at that company) and they ended up seeing my career progress, albeit slowly. I was wondering about that myself. For a few of them, we made up with each other and I probably count them as friends, but it isn’t possible to entirely wash away the shadow of those few years.
But I probably paid quite a price for those early years. If I hadn’t so completely lost confidence in myself during those years I would have tried harder for the other things in life, maybe a bigger social life, maybe a girlfriend, maybe I would have left Singapore for Mexico anywhere up to 3 years earlier. But obviously everything that took place beyond the first three years of my stay at the company is not anybody’s responsibility other than my own.
So on one hand I could blame the attitudes of my superiors for making life difficult for me during the early years. But the fact that I was able to turn it around also means that my attitude made a big difference. So yes, with fortitude and hard work, you can make a difference. Only problem was: why did it have to be so hard?