When we’re young and in prime career building years, we are focused on what we need to do to be successful, and as we become more career entrenched the focus turns to keeping that success. Sadly, more times than not, it’s at the expense of our true selves.
As we become part of the corporate grind, slowly, as days pass to months, then years, our true selves are homogenized into what is the acceptable norm. We have allowed ourselves to become part of the status-quo that we bitch about when we come home. We have allowed ourselves to become comfortable with the current state of L&D and fearful when discussions about change surround us. As a profession we have collectively lost, or are willfully ignoring, our voices.
Recently I was laid-off, made redundant, position eliminated – state it as you will, but in essence was told that based on a spreadsheet somewhere, I didn’t come out on the black side of the ledger. There are a couple of truths here: 1) this really wasn’t about my work ethic or performance but if I had been less of a Learning Rebel with a cause, I might still be employed. This leads to point number 2) this was a blessing in disguise. Cliché, I know, but through multiple leadership changes, and intercompany divisional mergers the company I joined six years ago is not even a shadow of its former self – not even close. While the company slowly went back into time, I could not. I tried, really I did – but my friends and family were the recipients of the slow burn of anger I felt daily. Seeing the learning culture that was so carefully nurtured and fostered being systemically dismantled was painful. Being a witness to learning in the organization going backwards, with slide decks (one was 178 slides, I kid you not) being sent out to the population that neither addressed a real business issue nor ensured the exchange of learning was like a stab in the heart. We were slowing turning into the dreaded “tic a box” department. Therefore the company and I parting ways was really for the best.
Now, as I am struggling with the inevitable grieving process of losing a job, I remembered this nugget in my life. A personal story that gives me perspective: “My Grandfathers Sneakers”.
Here we go.
I lost my grandfather over 30 years ago to cancer. He was a hard working man all his life, a Union journeyman electrician who worked on the Queen Mary. He was truly representative of his WW II generation – work until you’re exhausted and then work a little more, come home, have a drink, eat dinner, watch Cronkite and play with the kids. He drove his giant, gas-guzzling, American-made car with pride. He lived his life the way he thought he was supposed to.
Soon after he was diagnosed, he went shopping – alone. This was news in itself, as my grandmother bought him every article of clothing he ever owned. I can remember this event like it was yesterday…he entered the house with a “cat ate the canary” smile. He went straight to the family room, sat in his old worn out recliner and pulled out a box of shoes. We were transfixed. He opened the box and pulled out a pair of brown sneakers. I was speechless. I had never seen my grandfather with a pair of sneakers. It was always steel-toed boots, dress shoes or slippers before bed. I thought my grandmother was going to have a fit (imagine a proper southern woman complete with coming out parties and sweet tea and you have my grandmother). “Jim! Are those sneakers? What in the world were you thinking?” she asked in that tone that could only indicate wifely disapproval.
Here was his answer, “I don’t have much longer in this world and I want to leave it wearing sneakers. No more work boots, no more dress shoes, just these nice comfortable sneakers.” And you know what? He wore those things everywhere with everything, it didn’t matter. He even wore them with his good Sunday suit. 18 months later he lost his fight with cancer but won the sneaker battle. It was a small, powerful statement. To a Rebel in the making, the sneakers were a representation of his true self. A lesson I had almost forgotten.
The moral? Wear the sneakers. Be the true version of yourself. I may be unemployed, but I’m happier. I’ll find another gig where a Learning Rebel is embraced, where I can lead other rebels. Another gig that will allow for fresh eyes, fresh points-of-view and a willingness to accept (or at least listen to) different opinions. Will it be hard? Yes. No harder than having a southern matriarch standing over you wondering if you have lost your mind. Wear your sneakers and may they represent your true self. Kaizen!