Work, Failure, and Identity

My business mentor sent this amazing article to me and it made me cry. https://www.inc.com/magazine/201309/jessica-bruder/psychological-price-of-entrepreneurship.html

So many quotes spoke to me:

Though driven and innovative, hypomanics are at much higher risk for depression than the general population, notes Gartner. Failure can spark these depressive episodes, of course, but so can anything that slows a hypomanic’s momentum. “They’re like border collies–they have to run,” says Gartner. “If you keep them inside, they chew up the furniture. They go crazy; they just pace around. That’s what hypomanics do. They need to be busy, active, overworking.”

I know that place! This is explored in much more detail in Exuberance: The Passion for Life, by Kay Redfield Jamison, which I found very helpful for understanding the intensity I bring to my work and creativity process. My favourite quote from her book is “If exuberance is the Champagne of moods, mania is its cocaine.”

Back to Bruder’s article: from a guy who put everything including his house on the line and only came through with hours to spare at the worst point in his business.

Afterward, he made a list of all the ways in which he had financially overreached. “I’m going to remember this,” he recalls thinking. “It’s the farthest I’m willing to go.”
…emotional residue from the years of tumult still lingers. “There’s always that feeling of being overextended, of never being able to relax,”

I know this place too. I over reached, just before falling completely apart several years ago. I went way beyond my personal resources to attend a conference, and at the end they invited me to create a network and be paid to do so and I came home to choirs of angels singing. Then they all went back to their lives and not one single person moved the plan forward. I waited and sent polite emails and my stomach dropped and my heart broke. As my confidence fell apart, so did every business opportunity I’d been working on. 10 unrelated arrangements with different people fell apart and so did I.

The alternative mental health community has not been a safe haven for me in this way. It has contained essential and valuable ideas, but also Tall Poppy Syndrome, a lot of lone wolves with no community capacity, and significant issues with poverty and hostility to those who make money.

Some make successful businesses and ventures from their skills and experiences. Some, like me, struggle and struggle, looking desperately for a validated way to a fair income. Poverty and all that came with it for me – inexperience with money, self depreciation, discomfort with marketing, had a cost that got bigger every year. At one stage an interstate org was arranging me to visit for a week long series of training and workshops. I was ecstatic. When they asked me for a bio I froze up. They knew I was bad at marketing myself, and good at what I do, but the freeze spooked them and they canned the project. I hated myself so much I wanted to die.

In my little world I hear often of others success. Those chosen to give keynotes at conferences, invited to overseas opportunities, paid consultants with the ear of people who can fund their projects. There’s so much failure and comparison and fuel for self loathing. The standards are impossible. The hurdles to be included and treated as a professional are impossible. Peer work is a nightmare risk, and hidden behind our inspirational heros are so many untold stories like my own of exposure, unemployability, and brutal failure. It’s a cruel trick and the stakes are exceptionally high.

I’m painfully, constantly aware that for many others, my own modest successes represent the same pain and lost opportunities. That people look to me and feel the mix of inspiration, envy, and sadness with which I regard my own role models.

So does cultivating an identity apart from your company… “Other dimensions of your life should be part of your identity.”… it’s important to feel successful in areas unrelated to work.

For me, who has donated thousands of unpaid hours to my networks, considered a tattoo of my own logo, and invested my career with profound meaning about the value of life, my identity, and my place in the world, this advice is profound and difficult to follow.

I am so tangled with my business and career aspirations it’s hard to tell where one end and the other begins. It’s been an incredible challenge to set up any kind of business model because I am the business. Having missed out on formal education and all the doors opened by validated skill sets and access to professional memberships, I have found a side road to my goals where that validation is irrelevant and the professional bodies are largely nonexistent. It’s the Wild West of consulting and freelancing. The clients are gun shy because of slick assholes who overcharge and under-deliver. And the contractors are unprotected from most forms of exploitation, have no minimum hourly rates, unions, or HR. Just this last week a client decided not to honour my invoice and paid me only the amount they arbitrarily decided I should have charged. I’m so glad to have found pathways that bypass the formal with all those issues, and yet I’m so poorly equipped to navigate them. The very qualities that have driven me to freelancing are those that leave me vulnerable. Upskilling is largely a brutal process of learning from my mistakes. The mental health costs can be significant.

I’m tired. Several psychologists over the years have suggested I simply sit back and enjoy my pension. I’ve stopped going to therapy with them after that. There’s meaning in work, inclusion. As Helen Glover put it, you attain citizenship when you pay taxes. I want to be a ‘real person’. At times it’s killing me. Sometimes I have to step back from this capitalist cultural fusion of work, money, and identity. I have to find a way to embed compassion and the context of a culture that is often not kind to those with illnesses and disability into my own understanding of the value of work. I’m starting to shift how I see it all, and transitioning to a clearer business model where I sell certain skills or outcomes rather than clients asking for anything they want I can do- it helps. It puts a small buffer between my business and my soul.

Let me finish with a recent poem I wrote:

My business is not
Who I am in the world.
It is not
My identity, my value, my self respect
Not the sum of me
My place
My impact
My legacy.

My business is a project
One project among many
A way to earn money
Make a difference
A way to be in the world.
It is not the only way
The one, true, right, way
The sum of every effort until now
Validation for all that came before
The reward for every tribulation.
It is just my business, one dream
Among many.

My business is not
Proof that I’ve ‘made it’, or
Evidence I’ve settled, given up, sold out, lost faith.
It doesn’t mean I’ve gone over to the other side
Become a success or failed a character test
It’s something to be proud of but not the only thing
It’s a part of me but I am not
A piece of it.
If it died I would still be here.
My business is not
Who I am in the world.

One thought on “Work, Failure, and Identity

  1. Sarah l hear your words l remember in the haze that l call my memory an anxious spirit entering a room for the first time, a room of people who ldenitfied themselves as voice hearers. This spirit sat with caution while holding the mask of confidence. She was not l dont think confident in what she was doing or even in who was present at that time but l read a confidence within a confidence that gives the fragile flower the strength to break forth from the cocoon like bud which had for so long kept it safe in camourflage knowing or knowing not that from that point all things would alter.
    Though we dont meet l still see that spirit in your writting.
    The strength, the doubt, the caution, the exuberance. Like a parcel of mixed lollies so many flaviours and it is this mixture of flaviours that makes this parcel so special. The unpredictablity coupled with intense comitment, loyalty and love all these qualities were present in that spirit who walked through the door and blessed us with her presence so many years ago.
    Take care. Be proud not just of what you do but of who you are.
    Thinking of you
    Jenny

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