Thursday, January 22, 2009

Don't Get Sad, Get Bad

All morning long, while doing the semi-annual dishes (Question: What’s the difference between Martha Finney and Martha Stewart? Answer: Just look in the kitchen.), I’ve been wracking my brain trying to remember who told me about Timothy Ferriss’s fantastic book, The 4-Hour Work Week. I was down to the lasagna pan when I remembered: It was “Anna,” one of the “voices of experience” I interviewed for Rebound. Ah yes, now that I’ve read the Ferriss book on her recommendation, I can see how it all fits.

Ferriss is one bad boy. I like him. While I don’t necessarily approve of all of his tactics (some of them are a little duplicitous for my taste), I love his attitude. Which is basically: Your life is your own and you have every right (in fact, responsibility) to lead it exactly as you want to. And…by the way…you can. You just have to be bad enough to break out of the box that someone else shoved you in. Which totally fits with what Anna was telling me about her experience. So let me tell you about her first.

The brief version of the whole story, which you can read in Rebound, is this: She was a hugely successful salesperson in one of the top ranking companies in her industry. She helped the founders grow it to the point that it could be sold to a public company and walk away millionaires many times over. She’s glad for them. They deserved the rewards of their hard work, she says. So far so good.

But then she watches the new owners run the company into the ground partying like it was 1999. And she’s getting both angry and worried. What to do? Management tells her: Nothing! Everything is groovy, no worries. Her plan was to move to California – a more happening market for her merchandise – but that would require buying a hugely expensive house in an insane market. So she double-checks with her manager. Are you sure it’s a wise personal risk for me to take right now? Absolutely! Go for it! Enjoy the beach, he says.

Within days of her closing on her house, the word comes down that the new owners were shutting the company down. Why wasn’t this the absolute worst news ever? Anna had been a very “bad” girl. She had chosen not to fully believe her boss and had seized control of her own life and future. So, by the time the news hit her, she already had two job offers in her back pocket – offers from her employer’s direct competitors, no less. She seamlessly went from one company to the next, taking her value with her.

Make no mistake. All is not totally hunky dory. She still grieves the destruction of the company that she helped raise from its infancy, not to mention the anguish of her former colleagues, who she keeps track of on Yahoo blogs. But she is in a job she loves, with people who are smart, cutting edge, and totally committed to the smart, ego-free management of the business. (No champagne-saturated helicopter rides for this executive team, nosireebob.) Her former coworkers, who had been "good" and obeyed their management's instructions to be loyal and faithful, are out of work en masse, now competing with each other in a dwindling job market.

When I say “bad,” I’m talking about an internal shift toward the direction of self-respect and self-sovereignty. I don’t mean that you should consider doing anything that will result in a regrettable firing or even a court case. I don’t want to find myself on Nancy Grace trying to explain your “Martha told me to do it” defense. This is about arriving to the realization that you are 100% responsible and in control of your career and life. And if something in your company isn’t passing the smell test, don’t be “good” and believe everything that’s being handed to you. Be “bad” and take action on your own behalf, for the sake of your own future.

If you think that one of the best ways to keep your job may be to be eager to please, you could actually be taking the front spot in the bye-bye line. When the executive team is sitting around the table thinking about who to lay off and who to keep, no one is going to say, “Well, you know, James is always so good about taking his lunch leftovers home on Friday nights. Let’s keep him.”

You know how annoying some over-pleasing, obsequious people are. You don’t know what they have to offer you and your life. All you know is that just being around them makes you really peevish for some reason. They’re the first ones you want out of your life.

So what do I mean about being bad? That all depends on how your particular brand of being good is screwing you up.

Are you inclined to believe management when it’s telling you that you’re safe, even though people are disappearing right and left? Does blindly believing management feel like you’re being “good” like you were when you were blindly believing the parents? And that you will somehow be rewarded for your loyalty? Time to get bad.

Does taking action on your own behalf feel oddly disloyal or disobedient? Time to get bad.

Do you find yourself taking on really crappy assignments that no one else would be caught dead with? And that you wouldn’t do either if you weren’t afraid of getting fired? Time to get bad.

Are people all around you getting promoted, even though you are doing the lion’s share of the work? Time to get bad.

Are people taking credit for your work? Time to get bad.

Do you suspect that people are just looking for an excuse to fire you? Time to get bad.

Have you been the object of an ambush? Time to get bad.

Do you feel that normal actions that reflect self-respect are being received as insubordination? Time to get bad.

I wish I knew how to help you specifically get bad. All I know is how to tell when you’re on the right track. You’re acting reasonably, responsibly, like the adult with healthy self-esteem. And then someone (some, uh, jerk) says to you, “Hey! Who the hell do you think you are?”

And you can mentally respond with, “My own bad self.”

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