Saturday, March 22, 2008

Feeling Eliot Spitzer

When I wasn’t much older than Ashley Dupre, I was seduced into a job I should have never accepted. Trilingual with a freshly-minted masters degree in international business (and the ego to match), I scoured the earth for a position that was worthy of my brilliance. Working at UPS as corporate marketing liaison for franchisees from Mailboxes Etc., my situation was friendly and challenging but felt a little "brown" in every sense. I wanted sexy. I wanted branding. I wanted to use my languages. I wanted to use my passport.

For a mature executive, even the interview at IBM Latin America would have been a dead-giveaway that the job wasn’t a fit. The gray office space didn’t even have cubicles but open architecture that looked like something out of a 1940’s newsroom. They had been through round upon round of layoffs, so aside from smelling the fear, everyone I met had a long face and sad eyes. When we talked marketing, they talked components. When we talked creativity, they talked price point. When we talked corporate culture, they bragged about their victory in wrangling budget for teal paint. A sizzling hot pot of marketing inspiration, it was not.

But I was wooed, not by anything they said and certainly not by anything I saw. Fort Lauderdale did not offer a strong community of educated single professionals, either. No matter. I was wooed by my ego and the delight as I played the words “Brand Manager, ThinkPad, Latin America” over and over again in my mind. OOH, how sexy. That the pay was significantly higher than what I made at UPS was nice, but it was the “Brand Manager, ThinkPad, Latin America” that made my juices flow. With that and some experience, I felt only breaths away from becoming the next Seth Godin.

In quiet moments as the movers packed my boxes to transport me from UPS in Atlanta to my new destiny in south Florida, I definitely felt a shudder when thinking about that lifeless office space and those long faces. I grimaced when considering the linearity of the conversations and the rigidity of the responses. Fancying myself not so much a steamroller, but more a sweetness-oozing Little Mary Sunshine, I braced myself with enthusiasm thinking, “IBM really wants to be better in marketing!" About that dreary office? "I’ll just be super friendly and have them warming up in no time!” After all, I would have bliss to spare as “Brand Manager, ThinkPad, Latin America”. Delusion comes in many flavors.

Within weeks of starting this glamorous new adventure, my mood was adapting more to the environment than the environment was to me. My sweetness had not only been met with resistance, but had convinced my coworkers I couldn’t be taken seriously. After two months there, the flow of evening martinis was less to escape my deep unhappiness than to break loose the logjam for tears, snot, sobs and fists to go flying as I pounded the floor in tantrums of anguish for my situation and disappointment. That I found an “out” before self-destructing completely or getting fired is a stroke of grace more than brilliance. A phone call here, a resume faxed there (remember those days?) and “hey, yeah, that sounds like a fine opportunity”. POOF, demons be gone, and adios IBM.

You don’t have to be a psychologist or career counselor to recognize the flow: ego leads, actions follow, heart breaks in the wake, behavior becomes reckless, exit orchestrated either gracefully, or in Eliot’s case, disastrously. Although the pattern is transparently easy to recognize, so often we ignore when the ego is leading us into disaster. Having coached hundreds of professionals across multiple industries through challenges more constant to the human condition than any of the conditions present in their work, the questions we have to constantly return to when charting our course of action are ones like these:

1. What brings me joy/happiness? The drivers of your joy are often called core values. We all have core values without which our lives are tedium, torpor and torturous. If you can’t name any value or quality that results in joy for you, you need only look to the last time you were REALLY happy and ask what qualities were present there or conversely what qualities were lacking when you were last REALLY unhappy. If whatever you are doing or considering doing does not possess elements of your core values, it is the wrong move. In my case, although my ego got a little “schwing” from the title, I was betraying my core value of playfulness.
2. Does the WIN really matter? Whenever we make choices according to what we think we are supposed to value, we’re making a big gamble for what is likely a short term win and a complete loss in the long term – save for any riches salvaged in the form of character-building insights. Take my WIN of “Brand Manager, ThinkPad, Latin America”: let’s say I stayed and got the marketing-genius of the century award (even figuratively). If I was doing it to impress other people, how impressed would they have been when upon meeting me they found me to be a nasty, bitter, alcoholic corporate burnout?
3. When is it time to say WHEN? What if you made a dumb choice and went for something that really isn’t what it was all cracked up to be. Or maybe like Eliot's case, it IS exactly what it was cracked up to be, only in pursuing it you forgot what you’re cracked up to be. Let’s say you played hard to become EVP of whatever when you really were much more content managing sales folks. Let’s say you campaigned hard to become governor when you really just liked the thrill of discovery and making right. There’s a moment when what is happening does not compute. If you look around yourself and find yourself thinking “this is not my beautiful house”, a la David Byrne, pause to pay attention and take stock of your situation. If you’re already doing things you can’t believe, wouldn’t want photographed (or traced), or are ashamed to admit to those who love you, it’s probably time take that pause a bit further. It’s probably time to make that change you wish to see. Allowing the pieces of admitting error to fall where they may is many shades superior to the potential debris from the acts we are all capable of committing.

As it so happens, I went to see Seth Godin speak at NYU today. He talked about looking at what is happening around you and allowing what you observe to support you rather than fighting against it. Although his references were directed to marketing and shifting realities due to new media, they pertain aptly to life. To borrow from the new book he was plugging, the temptation to create a Meatball Sundae, to dress up something to be yummy that is just downright disgusting, is one we all fall for at one time or another. So let’s take a lesson from the ex-gov, and what the hell, from any of your own sorry “I CAN’T BELIEVE I…” lamentations. In his closing words today, Seth departed from talk of markets and media. In a moment of self reflection, this nine-time bestselling author confessed that his greatest success was not being a marketing guru, but the decision he made when he “set out to be the best in the world at being ME”.

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