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Failure Doesn’t Define You

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When my business ended because of the coronavirus outbreak, I had several different emotions all at once. First there was a sudden, overwhelming exhale, a relief that the fight was over, it was a shockingly nice, comforting feeling. That was followed almost immediately by dread, fear, panic and worry. Those are easy emotions to figure out: What would I do for money? Where would I go for work? How would I pay my mortgage?

And then, an unexpected, third, more insidious thought came into my head: Who was I without my business? How will people know me without this title that I’ve tried to establish for so long? I had spent so long defining myself by those job names, by those business brands, I didn’t know where one ended and the other began. I was interchangeable with that title — and if the business ended, what did that mean for my identity?  It was a truly chilling, desolate feeling.

I never wanted my work to define my identity, but it’s easy enough to have happen without even realizing. We spend a good portion of our waking hours investing in a product or service, we get good at it, we feel valued, rewarded…and then in a matter of days or sometimes minutes it can all be taken away. 

If you’ve been laid off, let go, had to close your business, you may struggle with the same types of feelings. And I’m here to tell you that you are, in fact, still here. That job title or business might be gone for a few months or forever, but you are still here.  The title may be gone, but you still retain all the capabilities, the experience, all the wisdom from your many years of work.

We hear so often that success doesn’t come unless there’s failure before it. But sometimes it’s hard to believe that for ourselves. I once had a boss who told me that if I wasn’t failing often, I probably wasn’t working hard enough for him. Sure, he told me that, but I also knew the reality of this workplace, that failure was unacceptable, that it would be committed to company memory and used against you whenever necessary. 

The truth was that failure could mean losing my job. So that was the message I internalize. I could pay lip service to failure and like it from the sidelines, but truly experiencing it was a terrifying prospect. 

So here we are, possibly with failure right in front of us. And you know what? It isn’t so scary! Sure there are the nagging fears of the uncertainty of what’s next, but what we all must come to within failure is the lessons we’ve learned we can draw from it and the epiphany that we are more than our companies and more than our titles. To get to this point, I’ve done a lot of soul-searching and journaling. I’ve mourned the business I lost and the dreams so inextricably attached to it. I’m working on letting them go. It is a process. Don’t rush it, but don’t wallow in it either.

To help that process along, here are a few exercises I’ve done to redefine myself. At the same time, I have tried to stay within the present, knowing that I don’t need some new or better title to quickly change into. I am enough, and YOU are enough. No title necessary. And now, it’s time for your reboot.

Ask yourself the following questions about your past and where you go from here:

What workplace values aligned with my personal values in the past? What values do I want to focus on working for in my future work? What have I felt was missing, if anything?

If I could do any job or task in the world, with no regard for income, what would that job be? (Can you name three?) How feasible are any of these roles in real life? How could I incorporate them more into this new career phase?

What would I like to be remembered for? Write your epitaph. How much of it revolves around work? What else is important in it? What other contributions to the world am I most proud of? What would I still like to add to it?

What dreams did I have as a child? How similar are they to the goals I have today? Do I miss any of those childhood interests? If so, how could I pick back up on them?

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