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Why I failed: Things They Don’t Teach You at School

Lessons I've learned by climbing the corporate ladder and then letting it all go away

You will not find many articles on personal failure. So seize this one.

I decided to write my story so that readers, especially young professionals, would benefit from what I’ve learned. In that way, it can be of help to other people.

First I have to tell a little bit of my story, of who I am. I am a nerd (and proud of it too!). I have always been one of the best, if not the best, student in class. During my teenagers I would easily give up beach on a bloody hot summer Sunday (I used to live in Rio de Janeiro) to study for my Science test on Monday. I’ve always tried hard to do my best. And it worked. I had excellent grades on the “Vestibular” (Brazilian version of SAT tests) and could enter the best universities in Brazil. I chose Chemical Engineering as a major, known as “easy to get in, hard to get out course”. At college I still studied a lot and managed to have a Cum Laude degree from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. Then went right into Master’s degree in Brazilian highly reputed COPPE/UFRJ. It all went great. Because of my performance, I even got an invitation to go directly to a Doctoral program, a gracious offer I turned down, for I really wanted to start working and get my hands dirty!

I joined a big corporation after passing the national technical contest in second place. And in work my life was all about thriving, as was my student life. I did good and earned promotion after promotion. I was in the fast lane. People loved me. I delivered. I turned from being a brilliant engineer to a brilliant manager. And things were still doing just fine. I love challenges and managerial life was full of them. I got quite high in the corporate hierarchy after some 15 years in the company. I was part of the big decisions and I dealt daily with the big bosses. It had all payed out! All the dedication and commitment, all the grit and effort. I was high up and had a dream job… except it wasn’t that dreamy. That’s when I started learning my lessons.

It turned out that being a manager with such high responsibilities meant having a tremendous workload. I had to work late hours every day and often during the weekends. I had hundreds of e-mails to read every day – which I didn’t – I can talk more about that some other time. I had meetings after meetings, so that I hardly had time even to go to the toilet. I got urinary tract infection for retaining liquids so long. I missed many lunches. And even if I did have some “free” time in my office, there were always people coming in to talk about many various problems – which I enjoyed very much – while there were other people standing on the door waiting for their turn, and then the cell phone would ring and the secretary would say my boss was summoning me for some emergency. I had to deliver results extracting effort from people that weren’t directly my subordinates. This is very energy consuming. Many people will identify themselves in this position. However, all this workload was not the worst of it. For me the really stressful fact was that I disagreed on the way my bosses were leading the business. And that was the biggest hurdle. I had to really spend a lot of time and energy articulating things or simply swallowing up decisions I did not agree to, and that was very difficult for me, since I had long decided to keep my integrity and not simply agree with the boss – although that would have been much easier.

Well, living that life I had been taking Zoloft (antidepressant) for 3 years, I was taking sleeping pills very often and tranquilizers for tough meetings. I remember one day being so nervous and upset that when the secretary brought in some papers for me to sign I couldn’t, because my hand was shaking so much. I was completely burned out.

That was not the life I had dreamed of.

So I quit.

I gave up my so hardly achieved and lifelong desired managerial role. In five minutes it was all gone.

But I could not expect what would happen next.

Giving it all away was not easy. However, in the few first days, it felt really good, like I had ridden myself of a terrible load. I did not quit the company though, since I thought I could still contribute in other ways. Then I started noticing some hard facts of life, and that’s when important lessons began to be told.

Lesson 1: People do not treat you as nicely when you’re not a manager anymore

The very first thing I noticed is that when you’re a down to the bottom of the pile again people will treat you differently – and more snobbish. People that use to smile at you for just passing by will solemnly ignore you in the elevator. They will not even notice your existence in a meeting and pretend you’re not there. Your e-mails will not be answered anymore. You’re nobody now. Get used to it.

Lesson 2: Some people you thought were your friends are not

I used to think people liked me when I was thriving. But when life gives you a downturn you will discover some people don’t really like you, just your post in the business hierarchy. I’m sure you’ve already heard this, but I can tell you it is very hard to separate which friendship is real and which isn’t when you’re up there. But it is good to have this in mind. I don’t mean to sound like Agent Mulder in the X Files: “Trust no one”, but just be aware. Anyway, if bad times come for you, you’ll know who your real friends are and the good news is you will find help in very unexpected people. So not all is lost.

Lesson 3: Once you quit, people will think you’ll do it again

When I quit I thought I would still have my reputation for being such a dedicated and competent professional. But it turns out people find it very weird that you simply gave it all up. They start thinking that you’re emotionally instable, weak, and can’t stand pressure. Or that you did something terribly wrong and are trying to cover it up. Therefore, by quitting my post, I was quitting the consistent good brand I had built myself for years. I had no idea this would happen, so my advice is: think carefully of the consequences before simply quitting. Only your close friends will know the real story. Most people will just judge you incompetent.

Lesson 4: If the big boss doesn’t like you, very few will

The worst consequence of all was the big bosses started thinking I was weak and craven. They started thinking I could not stand a high responsibility role any more. I was taken out of the map. I was now an incompetent and unstable person that should be put aside. None of my previous achievements mattered. And once high management thinks badly of you, I found out many people will too. So it turned out all other doors were closed for me.

I did get some opportunities in other positions further away from my previous one, but after going through all of this, I decided to take a leave. I felt I was unjustly judged and humiliated. I could not work with these same people anymore.

Lesson 5: Manage your boss

After some months in a sabbatical period, I had time to go through everything that had happened in my work life and finally concluded what I had done wrong. I think that the main err was to not manage my bosses. At the time, I had conviction that I was doing the right thing – and I still have. But I did not go through the trouble of selling my ideas to my bosses. I was too busy. I had to get things done. They didn’t understand what I was up to. They had no knowledge of the plan in my head. I simply questioned all their decisions, slapping inconvenient truths at their faces all the time. Now I see how annoying I became. Bosses really do prefer people who are amenable and docile. I was not one of them.

I’m not saying you should suck up to your boss and do always as told, without questioning. But there are some ways to question and still make a point that are less harmful for you than open confrontation. One has to play the boss, be nice to him sometimes, why not? Give some so you can take some. I missed that part. I was so passionate of my convictions, I was so sure they would be proven right in the end – and they were – that I simply did not care about managing my bosses. It turned out this made my life miserable. Had I had some more patience, I might had an easier life and, who knows, even stayed longer at my post.

Lesson 6: Manage stress

This might seem obvious, but it is very, very hard to do. I am convinced that the stressful life I had was actually a hindrance to my career, in the sense I was so full of adrenalin that my mind was not clear to see some things. I wish I had at some point just stopped for a while and taken time to digest some situations. Arianna Huffington and Thrive Global have some great advice on this. Now I clearly understand when they say that working too much will not do your career any good. This is one good advice to take.

Managers generally have a miserable life and I question myself if things really have to be this way. With good or bad bosses, the corporate world will suck your soul. You will miss your doctor’s appointment; you will miss dinner with your children. You will earn a good money, but is it really worth it? Is there any other way it could be done? I hope you, dear readers, will think of ways to make better and lighter workplaces.

Another aspect of the whole story is that although I had an engineering, a masters and a post-grad degree, I was never prepared to the difficulties I would find at corporate life. The equations I learned were not enough. I wish schools would teach more soft skills for kids, such as resilience, time management, stress management, and others alike. For problems and difficult bosses is what kids will find in real life and no one is preparing them for it.

As for me, after all this, I do not think my professional life has ended. However, it ended in the way it was constructed for years. I have failed staying up there, but I have learned my lessons, I have changed, and I’m back on my feet. I do not regret all of it. There are things that I have done which I would do all over again – I might even write about that sometime later. And although some people will still look at me and find it very strange that I let go my dream position, I’ll be fine, knowing that failure is just a part of life. Having the courage of accepting my errors, learning from them and still be willing to go on has certainly made me stronger.

I hope you have benefitted from my story. Good luck to you all! 

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