BY MARYBETH GRONEK
I insist on being the dumbest person in any room.
Not by choice, I’ll add. By practice. Grueling, ego-killing practice.
And I’ll be honest. It kind of sucks. That is, until the results.
I was recently at a dinner party where I felt woefully out of place. Everyone present was more advanced than me in nearly every topic of conversation: real estate investment, stock market, travel, finances, entrepreneurship. Throughout the party I faced a now-normal internal struggle to check out.
When I’m confronted with my own lack of knowledge and success in a single area, I admit, my natural reaction is to shut down. It’s self-preservation of sorts. Preservation of the ego. It can be exhausting to continually be around people who are in the *than you* camp: smarter than you, quicker than you, overall, just better than you. It makes me doubt my own accomplishments, how far I’ve come, and if I’m not careful, my value.
I have recently learned the importance of doing the exact opposite of checking out: of leaning in. Of asking questions, basic questions that help me understand fundamental concepts of how things work. I realize these questions expose me to the scrutiny of others, to their awareness that I don’t know shit about what they are talking about. But that’s okay. That I can live with. What I can’t live with? Nodding my head, fake-smiling, pretending I know what they are saying, then leaving the interaction not only no more improved, but also guilty of being a preposterous hack.
Everyone is going to have a little bit of ego in them, of wanting to be proud and feel good about self. Of wanting to look smart and accomplished among others. But to lead from our ego? That shit is dangerous. That’ll keep you stagnant. We need to decide what we want more in life: to feel good or to grow. If it’s the latter, we absolutely must surround ourselves with people who will challenge us to raise the bar in all aspects: intellectually, morally, ‘work’fully, fiscally. And for this to happen, for us to actually learn from these interactions, ego must take a back seat. Yes, these people are ‘better’ than me at certain things. But if I run from it now, I will not learn how they got there. Meaning, I will never get there myself. The stakes are higher than we realize.
Here’s where we need to reframe our thinking: Acknowledging someone is smarter than us does not minimize our value. Self-awareness is not a weakness. To look boldly at reality and face it full on — that is a strength. And that is the only place from which personal growth, and consequently success, can begin.
When the success gap between me and the person I’m speaking with is painfully obvious, and consequently, I’m feeling the impulse to check out, here’s what I ask myself: which game am I playing? If it’s the finite game, I’ll surround myself with people that make me feel good. If it’s the infinite game, I’ll put myself in circles that challenge me. Because here’s another law of nature: your network is your net worth. Proximity to power is power. To hold court with success is success. It’s better to hang out with goldmines than ash-heaps. Even if I stick out like a grubby piece of coal among the shine.
Because here’s the thing. Those paragons of success we admire? They were once the dumbest person in the room. All that glitters wasn’t always gold. They dared to question, to learn, to aspire. They dared to hang out in the goldmine. Discomfort, not glory, is the furnace of success.
BY JENNY B
I don’t like to be seen struggling; and, every day is a struggle.
The tension within this paradox of sorts has been driving me forward and holding me back, waking me up in the morning and telling me to go lie down, for years.
Predictably, this theme has played itself out on many stages in my life. In a dozen years of working in a secured building, I was the type of employee who never forgot her badge or keys. And, you could count on one hand the number of times I didn’t have it ready in my hand, walking from the car, to give the appearance of sailing effortlessly through the morning rush. (Having a Director stride by while seeing me struggle to find my ID badge, revealing that perhaps I was not totally organized, as I performed an archeological dig through a large and brimming bag - once was enough.)
I had become adept at anticipating the need and managing perceptions. I’ve found that has a floor and a ceiling to it, as you navigate life’s complexities.
At a cold and rainy bus stop at age 19, one of my college roommates was trying to pool and count coins so that each of the three of us could have exact fare. Impatiently, I tried to shut.it.down by snapping, “Just give $1. The fare is 90 cents.” The shortness in my tone was uncharacteristic of how we spoke to one another, and it was also one of the few times I was quickly rebuked by another of my roommates, “She’s just trying to help. We have to stand here and wait for the bus, anyway.” We were Sophomores, wise fools, at Harvard, years before the invention of smartphones and payment apps. In retrospect, I can still feel how the cold and early morning had worn on me, and how the quickness of the reactions in the situation cut to the bone: I wanted to give a dollar and not care about not getting any change in return. I didn’t want to, even so briefly, feel the weight of scholarships, part-time jobs, and student loans, while I took my winter glove off my cold and grasping fingers to search for coins to save us 10 cents a piece. That was my ‘floor’.
It’s not just about money. You won’t see me playing darts on a night out. No need to show that to the whole bar. And, it took some time for me to get comfortable playing cornhole/sidewalk-toss-bags at barbeques with family and friends, because, despite having years of experience playing sports, I worried that I wasn’t good enough at it and that my shortcomings would let my partner down. I used to anxiously only display what I felt like was good and polished enough.
This took a weird turn when I fell in love with my husband. On one of our fairly early on dates, in a crowded restaurant, I told him what amounted in my estimation to all the unlovable things he might find out about me some day. I am what some call a ‘reserved’ person. I hadn’t planned to do this. And, I can’t remember if he asked some question that prompted the first disclosure. But, once I started talking, the truth just set itself free and I looked up from the table with an expression of, “Well, now you know. And, if you are not going to love me because of it, then time to go.”
We’ve been married 10 years and our daughter is 2 years old.
I was given a wonderful gift, during a visit with my brother. At the height of the holidays, we had driven hours to be together and had almost as many children in the house as adults. I remarked on my intentions to organize and paste in photos in my daughter’s baby book, soon, and how I was going to have to paste a picture over any prompts that I couldn’t quite answer at this point, such as, “Date of first tooth.” (I don’t know. We were busy. She has a whole mouth of teeth, now, and that seems to be going fine.) This is a task I have both looked forward to, not had time for, and dreaded, in equal parts, how it was probably not going to turn out as good as I wanted it to, for her to have it for all time. Children rely on us, in their first years, more than anything. Parents and guardians have the double challenge of trying to construct and document the reality and narrative of how the journey into becoming who you are began, while trying to survive your child’s infancy.
My sister-in-law’s eyes lit up in response, “Let me show you the baby book I made for ours.” With genuine glee and openness she handed me a large, 16x16” album from a shelf where she knew exactly where it was, despite their recent move, and then almost as quickly got called away by a crying baby or a call from work. (There are many instances, and the urgency weaves together for the modern mom.)
The large volume rested on the back of the couch, I stood and took in all the ways she had outlined the memories from first sonogram through first birthday. It was a mix of glitter puffy paint, photos cropped with wiggly-edged scissors, and page titles and captions that could only have been homemade by mom – by this mom. She told me that she had done it during late and odd hours, after spending full days and sometimes nights caring for patients at the hospital. My talented sister-in-law could have made a sleek and elegant album with surgical precision. The one she made looks like it was made by a tired and loving mom. When she had pasted a few photos down and all of the next photo didn’t fit on that page, she just cut the photo and generally pasted the other part on the next page. She did while her household was sleeping, because she enjoyed doing it.
When was the last time I did something as a passion project? When was the last time you did something without judging in advance what the result would be? My nephew’s baby book was complete. And, my daughter’s was still a loosely pinned board in my mind.
Seeing how another working mom had done it, and that done was better than perfect cracked the ceiling for me. What raised the roof for me was when I saw that “Aunt Jenny’s visit” when my nephew was a new baby had its own 2-page spread. I had no idea that my harried, long-weekend visit where I dragged my brother, a-new-and-sleep-deprived-stay-at-home-dad, out to the touristy walking spots in Charleston mattered. It was the only visit we managed in the time they lived in Charleston, where my nephew was born and before I became a new mom in Chicago.
Looking at them now, the snapshots were great of my brother holding his 3-month old son in front of the 500-year old Angel Oak Tree, smiling at the Waterfront Park after we figured out how to unfold the stroller, and at all the eateries where Southern little old ladies and one gentleman cooed over him and awkwardly commented to me as if I had recently given birth to this child. (“He’s so good. Don’t have a second one! It’ll be a terror.”)
But, my nephew will know, because it’s pasted in his baby book across 2 pages.
In this season of resolutions and a new decade of hopes, that is my wish for you: to struggle, be seen, and know you are not alone. Everyone is struggling in some way. Being seen is one of the best ways to get the help or guidance that moves you forward.
I’m a writer, who prior to his hadn’t written anything in a long time. It all felt too deeply personal to share. But, what are we sharing and how are we meeting each other if not ourselves?
I’m going to keep going – when my kid is really snoring, not pretending to snore.
And, I hope you do, too. Happy New Year!
BY MARYBETH GRONEK
I used to think fights were a necessary evil. Something one just had to grit their teeth and endure, like taxes and holiday traffic. Do what you can to avoid them whenever possible. Unfortunately, for the majority of my life, abiding by this motto meant altering my behavior, my emotions, and sometimes even situational reality to make ‘okay’ things that were clearly not.
While I love my parents and am proud of the way I was raised, like every family, we had our issues. One of them was conflict. Oftentimes, we operated under a sweep-everything-under-the-rug mentality. Which worked until, of course, I tripped over the rug on account of the unspoken issues buried underneath. Arguments occurred sporadically, but when they did, *everything* came out. Fights were emotional, blame-based, circuitous, and consequently, rarely resolved anything. This cemented my belief that fighting was to be avoided. Not only unpleasant, but actually pointless.
As I got older, I found it challenging to maintain relationships with this mindset, both platonic and romantic. Either I had long-term relationships where I wasn’t speaking my mind, and therefore, harboring resentment and dissatisfaction. Or I had short-term ones where I was speaking up but in a way that was destructive. Hence, short-term.
I have since had three epiphanies about conflict that have set me free:
I love boxing.
I started a few years ago as a way to try something I might like but also might be terrible at (I have weird objectives, I know). I do the speed bag, pad work, punching bags. You know, the whole drenched in sweat thing. It’s good fun. And I feel like a badass.
I train with Sam Colonna, a legend in the boxing world. He’s down to earth, a straight shooter paisan-type with a gym on the Southwest side of Chicago. He collects more heading-in-the wrong-direction neighborhood kids than trophies. And that’s saying a lot because his gym is full of trophies. He turns their lives around (the kids, not the trophies). He’s like a second father to me.
There’s something he says fairly often: Don’t fight someone else’s fight. Fight your own fight.
He’s right. In the ring when someone is coming after you, it’s really tempting to be reactive and fight back in a way that is playing into their hands. Suddenly, it’s their ring and you’re just living in it. Instead a good boxer will stay engaged, sidestep, and block calmly until their opponent is tired and they are back in control. A seasoned boxer knows what they want and then waits for their opening. Then they fight their fight.
Disagreements in real life are much like fighting in a boxing ring. We have to know what we really want and fight our fight, not other peoples’. During a disagreement virtually *everyone* is going to come at you with their ego, their insecurities, and their words aimed to harm. Cool. That’s their fight, and I refuse to play it. You should too, because there’s something better out there. When it comes to disagreements, here’s what our “fight” should be — growing together, not apart, through the disagreement. Restorative conflict. That has to be our end goal and the undercurrent behind every sentiment we speak. If we want to get good at conflict, we need to get off the I’m Right-You’re-Wrong ride and get on the Let’s-Discover-Each-Other ride. And we have to decide right now that when others come at us with the former, we don’t engage on their terms. We block the punch, humbly, and then lead with the latter.
6 Terms of Engagement for Restorative Conflict.
Conflicts are the point where someone ends and I begin. And vise versa. It’s a beautiful reminder of a person’s otherness from us. They are not me. They are different, and it’s beautiful. While fights may start as disagreements they are really opportunities in disguise. An opportunity to know the person better. To know ourselves better. An opportunity to grow together. To dive into the depths of who a person is, to come up for air, only to discover that there is more to know. More enigmas to unravel. You are limitless, which means there are limitless things to discover. And I am committed to finding them. Your infinite otherness doesn’t scare me. It compels me. I want to know you, and I want to be known. Because, dammit, that’s what relationships are all about.
There’s another quote Sam says fairly often.
Don’t telegraph. Don’t tell me what you’re going to do before you do it.
He says this when I move my elbow back prematurely before throwing an uppercut. He’s right. My telegraphing kills the mystery — and my advantage.
I realize in writing this article, I’m doing a similar thing. I’m lifting back the curtain and revealing my conflict playbook. But if my lessons learned can help others, in a way, I’ve won the round. We both get an advantage. This is me fighting my fight, Sam. I’m sure you’ll understand. 🥊
BY Nick Henning
It was an average Thursday morning. I was working with my team on filling roles for a large Financial Services client. Out of nowhere, I get a meeting request from the company executive administrative assistant. Odd, I thought. The meeting was in ten minutes with the President of the company in his office.
As I walked into the office I noticed that in the corner was one of the partners of the company. They asked me to shut the door and sit down. My blood pressure began to rise. Then the President started speaking. I knew what was coming. The tone of his voice and lack of eye contact said it all.
I was one of the "golden employees." You know the ones that the organization show as an example of growth opportunities to new hires. Promoted 3 times in a matter of two and a half years. Also, I was a part of the executive leadership team with everyone else at least twelve years my senior. However, I had been unhappy with the organization for the past couple of months. It all started when there was a change in the compensation model and executive leadership. Promised that if I hit certain metrics (which I did) I would make a certain level of income (which I did not). Additionally, the executive leadership shifted to become more of a “good old boys club.” I learned that I was making the same income as my previous boss who happened to be a woman which didn’t sit right with me.
The meeting lasted all but ten minutes. They walked me out of the front entrance. Later I learned that they had a company-wide meeting to announce my departure. To address any questions and get ahead of any ripple effect. At the time I felt betrayed because my current boss at that time who was a partner as well wasn't in the meeting. I had built a tremendous relationship with him. I guess it was his way of communicating that he didn't agree with the decision.
As a result of this experience and a couple others, I know the shame and stress associated with getting “redirected.” 5 times through the course of my career to be exact. Yes, that's correct I was fired three times by organizations I worked for. The other two times I had to fire myself after unsuccessful entrepreneurial endeavors. Yep, I fired myself. Remind me to tell you that story one day ;)
But it only gets better. I have advised thousands on their careers as an executive search professional. And wait for it…I'm a career coach now. Proof that anyone can do anything. Literally.
You would think that being fired 5 times makes me unqualified to be a career coach. I would say the opposite. It is precisely these types of experiences that qualify me. I have deep empathy for those that have lost their jobs. I know the thoughts and feelings that can take over. But the silver lining is that I’m able to help navigate them to the next role faster. I learned it’s best to reflect and discover your strengths, talents, and ask the difficult questions to clearly define your values. This will help you create a purpose, find alignment, and have meaningful work. I know the best way to tell your story to put yourself in a good light from a bad situation. I mastered how to communicate the transferable skills learned from the previous role. Most importantly, I learned how to ask the right questions while going through the interview process to identify toxic environments and bosses. And so much more.
As you can imagine at first I had some reservations about writing this article. Would it be career suicide? What would potential clients think of me? Again, thoughts of fear, doubts, you know, the typical ego-shielding bullshit. However, a voice deep within started gently speaking to me not to hide these experiences from others. It grew louder and louder over time. Then one day it finally became clear that it was my soul yelling it’s time to step out of your comfort zone and share this article with the world. It knew that it was critically important to share the insights that I gained and provide advice based on what worked for me after these painful experiences.
Lesson 1 - Don’t ignore the warning signs.
Whether you're placed on a performance plan, feel disengaged, or dread Sunday evenings, these are all red flags that indicate you should start to look for another role. Every one of my firings was preceded by a period of misalignment. Every. Single. One. With the role itself, the leadership, or the culture of the organization.
Some of the warning signs were unrealistic expectations, unmet promises, and a micromanaging boss. A "high performer" throughout my career I received a promotion or two in almost every organization. As a result of my willingness to please and desire to achieve, my leaders would place more on my plate. Before I knew it they were expecting me to do the role of 3 people. In one organization.
Advice 1 – Take action
Once you see a warning sign immediately start taking action to find something better. Don't "suck it up" or "stick it out" when you know it's not right. Every time I knew deep down that I needed to move on. And not doing so ate at my health and soul. Meanwhile, I would convince myself that something would change or I would find a new role the following year.
Being in a toxic environment or constantly stressed is unhealthy. We all deserve better and the sooner we get away from constant stress the less damage long-term it will have on our bodies. If your boss is shitty that is not your fault. However, continuing to work for them is. So start taking action now! Put together a job search strategy and execute it. Update your professional branding like your cover letter, resume, LinkedIn profile. Start reaching out to your network to let them know you're seeking the next role. Get out and start building more relationships.
Lesson 2 - You did not fail and you're not a failure! You learned.
Education can be expensive. It sometimes costs money, other times pain. Life is full of lessons learned. I learned a great amount through these experiences. More about myself and what I needed to do in order to be successful in the future. What type of bosses and environments I needed in order to excel. Most importantly, I learned it was how I internalized the occurrence that mattered the most. I had two options failure or lessons learned. The most empowering thing is that I got to decide.
Hindsight is 20/20. Looking back, these lessons helped me learn, grow, and become a better version of myself. Every redirection led me to something much better because of the knowledge gained along the way. Also, they prepared me for future challenges. Overcoming them provided me with confidence to conquer challenges in several aspects of my life.
Advice 2 - Reflect and take ownership
Take time to reflect to prevent history from repeating itself. Write down the lessons that you learned from this experience and internalize them. Both the good and the bad. Be sure to include what you're grateful for in having this experience. The key is to view it as a positive experience in that you learned more about yourself and what you need.
Take ownership of your part in it not working out. Self-awareness will help you avoid getting yourself into similar situations in the future. We are all far from perfect. Yet, we're perfectly imperfect. Don’t wallow in self-pity, resentment, or let thoughts of fear creep in. This will only drain your energy levels and distract you. Again, you learned and grew. Now is the time to focus your energy on immediately taking action after reflecting. Whether you realize it or not you do have a new job. Your new job is finding a new one so start putting in your best effort by implementing a job search strategy.
Also, create a stress management plan and start implementing it. Finding a job can be very frustrating and stressful. Focus on taking care of yourself by eating healthy, exercise, and quality sleep. All of these things will help you ward off stress and help you perform better while interviewing. Benjamin Franklin said it best. "if you fail to plan, you are planning to fail."
Lesson 3 - Forgiveness is key.
Being fired is painful. Rejection by others is difficult in all aspects of your life. Especially in your career. However, don't carry around your resentment because it's very heavy and weighs you down. Forgiving your boss or former employer is one of the most empowering and freeing things you can do. It will free up your mental space and give you more energy. Ironically, one of the worst bosses I ever had said one statement that I carry with me today. "You're always learning what to do and what not to do by those you work with and for." In this case, it was the latter but I'm grateful for the education. The sooner you forgive them the more energy you will have to focus on the things you need to do.
The worst thing you can do while interviewing is to speak negatively about your former employer. Though they may have done you wrong it will only reflect poorly on you. Often, potential employers will think that you were most likely the cause of the problem. Trust me and resist the temptation to vent. As mentioned share what you learned and what you're grateful for from your past employer. Put a positive spin on a negative situation.
Advice 3 – Self-love is the answer!
The most important person to forgive is yourself. For allowing this to happen to yourself and putting up with an unsatisfactory job. Often we put up with negative bosses or toxic work environments because of fear. Fear of the unknown and the what if's etc. It has an impact on our productivity, engagement, and overall happiness.
Some self-love is critically important. Most often, we are our toughest critics. 80%+ of our self-talk is negative. Don’t continue to beat yourself up. It’s a waste of precious energy. Apologize to yourself, accept the apology, and then move on. This may seem like a silly exercise to do, but it is SO important. Every day is a brand new fresh opportunity to become a better version of yourself. So don’t hold yourself back by reliving your mistakes over and over again. Show yourself some love by focusing on creating the future version of yourself that you actually want.
Better times are coming!
Being fired is difficult, to say the least. If you take away anything from this article, let it be this: being fired is an opportunity for you to start anew and could be the best thing that happens to you. Take for example, Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey, and Walt Disney. All three tremendously successful, yet each one was fired in their careers. If they hadn't been fired and remained in those roles they might not have gone on to great feats. It comes down to your mindset and how you internalize the experience. Does it make you bitter or better? The choice is yours!
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