When a CEO resigns because of a disclosure about his private life, the expectation is that they will disappear from public view, become a private citizen once more, and rapidly be forgotten. What made the former CEO of BP Lord Browne different, was that he wrote about what happened next in his autobiography. What was noticeable in his account was his recognition of the value of having faced difficulty and learned from it. He talked of being happier than he has ever been and of his recognition that the person he had become was arrogant, and was hiding his loneliness in his work.
Steve Jobs talking to Stanford graduates in 2005 made a similar admission when he spoke of the learning that came from being sacked from Apple: the company he had founded. While his instinct was to run away as a very public failure, he slowly began to realise that the most important thing was what he loved doing, and so he began again. From that new beginning emerged Pixar, which in turn was eventually purchased by Apple. He came back to where he had started. Except of course he didn’t. The person who re-entered was changed. As he said, “Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith”.
This pattern is found again and again in accounts of those who have faced failure in public ways. As painful as it is, there is something about facing reality and accepting failure that allows for moving forward. At the point of facing rather than running away from what has happened, there is a liberation from which new possibilities emerge.
Russ Harris calls this the ‘reality slap’, and in his new book of the same name, he writes about the value of 4 steps to moving forward:
- Hold yourself kindly. The instinct when something bad happens is to move into harsh self judgement.Show a bit of compassion to yourself, in the same way as you would to a friend going through a hard time.
- Drop the anchor. You are in the midst of a storm being buffeted by the winds – dropping anchor is about finding ways of grounding yourself. Learning simple mindfulness exercises can be a powerful way of separating yourself away from the whirlwind of thoughts, and recognising you as separate from the problem which is impacting you.
- Take a stand. Difficult times are when it is most important to ask yourself ‘What do I stand for?’ ‘What is important to me?’ ‘What meaning can I create from this experience?’
- Find the treasure. Just as Lord Browne found that his life was better and more authentic as a result of his public exposure and Steve Jobs went on to even greater success using his learning from setback, there is treasure to be found in difficulty. It will not be apparent at the outset, but by following steps 1-3 it will become clear where that treasure lies.
Facing the reality slap contradicts most of the advice given to those who are experiencing career difficulty. Among all the books that are written on careers, the attention is primarily on the skills for success – find your strengths, hone your brand. Very little is given to the importance of facing and learning from hardship.
For anyone reading this who has just experienced a career setback that is affecting their view of themselves and their possibilities, take these 3 steps.
- Be kinder to yourself today than you were yesterday. This could be a thought, or it could be an action.
- Sit down, feet on ground, back against a chair and close your eyes. Allow your breath to get into a regular rhythm, and when it does take 10 breaths. During those 10 breaths notice the thoughts that come into your mind (as they will) and let them go. Don’t hang onto the thought, but treat it as a car going past your window. After your 10 breaths open your eyes and notice how you are feeling. Build this into your daily life.
- Ask yourself how do I want to be after this experience? How can I use this time positively so that it contributes to my life’s journey, rather than it being a detour?
By working on these steps, the treasure will emerge.