The best and worst career advice I ever received

If you don’t wake up every morning feeling like you’re about to be fired, you’re doing something wrong.

I received this piece of advice from a mentor early in my career. It stuck.

What he meant to convey was that complacence does not breed success. A ‘fighting for your life’ mindset ensures productivity because you are constantly working to prove your value by adding value to the organization you serve.

This advice was accompanied by the following:

Change your job every two years.

Until recently I didn’t make the connection between these two pieces of advice. I assumed that the former was a mindset, and that the latter was simply a tactic for achieving rapid career progression (since it is usually easier to earn more pay and more title faster by changing employers rather than staying with the same one).

But the two pieces of advice are not unrelated. In fact, the former makes the latter NECESSARY.

Living in constant fear is emotionally exhausting. It’s hard work waking up every morning hoping that you’ll prove your worth, and going to sleep each night (if you CAN sleep) questioning whether your efforts have been enough.

Living in constant fear of failure is also incredibly damaging to work relationships. It means holding others to the same impossible standards to which you hold yourself. It leads to a lack of empathy as results trump all else. And it leads to a micro-management leadership style that stifles innovation on the part of others.

If I’m fighting for my life, I’m going to do everything I can to remove risk associated with reliance on others. Fear leads to a command and control approach to leadership that we have come to learn is actually pretty ineffective.

After about two years of living in fear at an organization, you are going to hit a wall. You’re going to burn out. More than that, you’re going to burn others out as well.

After two years, you’re exhausted and in desperate need of a reset. And the fear of being fired has built up to the point that you are CERTAIN that it’ll happen any day now, and so you take things into your own hands. You start planning your next move.

And after two years, you’ve done so much damage to your relationships with colleagues and burned so many bridges that any future you once felt you had now feels foreclosed.

So every two years you change jobs. And every two years that change in jobs comes with a better job title and bigger salary. My mentor’s advice pays off. But it’s also toxic and unsustainable.

How do you break the cycle?

First, stop doing that. Recognize that the toxic effects of your fear of being fired are actually making it MORE LIKELY that you will be fired. Not because of poor performance, but because you have become cancerous: hyper-productive individually but at the expense of the health of those around you and of your organization as a whole. At some point the only way for an organization to preserve itself is to excise you.

At the end of the day, you don’t have control over your destiny at a business. What you DO have control over is the extent to which your behavior is harmful, and the extent to which you are likely to be fired because you’re an ass hole.

Second, rethink your role. Is your purpose to preserve yourself? Or is it to support the overall health of your organization? By rethinking your role in terms of the latter, you create a space of empathy. You become concerned with the interests and feelings of others. You listen rather than barking orders. and you become invested in the success of others as the NUMBER ONE measure of your own success.

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