The Insult That Catapulted My Career
In 2007, I did a fair amount of work with corporate executive teams on the subject of coaching their entry-level employees -- also referred to as Generation Y. I had been hired to explain the mindset of this new generation of workers and how to coach them in their careers. It was a subject I had come to care a lot about. In the year leading up to the corporate work, I had seen a dramatic increase in the number of young people coming to me for coaching. The confusion and distress over their careers was so intense, I would use the term "onset career crisis" to describe how acute the pain of early career development was for them.
A Generation Punished By Rewards
When teaching the executive sessions, my favorite reference to explain what Gen Y was experiencing professionally was a book by Alfie Kohn entitled, Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes. The book had been written long before we adopted the terms "helicopter parents" and "boomerang kids" (Also known as "KIPPERS" -- Kids In Parents Pockets Eating Retirement Savings.) Kohn was ahead of his time. In the book, he points out how Gen Y was a product of a society that used too many external motivators to get them to take action. The result was a generation who lacked intrinsic motivation -- aka, the desire to do things for the sake of doing them. Moreover, it showed that all the positive reinforcement they got (i.e., everyone gets a trophy for showing up) created a very negative side effect: Gen Y was petrified of not being able to live up to the potential that society had told them they not only possessed, but were obligated to make good on.
Gen Y Expert Told Me Off
The reaction to my presentations had been positive enough that it made me think that I should explore ways to coach young professionals on a larger scale. I decided to start researching ways to do that. I looked for fellow career experts who were coaching Gen Y and reached out to them. One of them had become a very outspoken proponent for the generation. This person's work was cited in the media and had a new business -- which was growing nicely -- that focused on helping young professionals. So I asked if we could grab a call to discuss the topic of Gen Y and got a "yes." I was psyched.
Since I initiated the meeting, I led the conversation. I shared how I got into career coaching and talked about my experience with the Gen Y and the managers who were frustrated in leading them. I outlined my recent work with young professionals and how I thought we could be serving them better. I then asked the question, "What are your thoughts?" What I expected was an engaging conversation about the topic. What I got was the following:
"I think you should stick to coaching mommies like yourself. You don't know what you are talking about." I'm pretty sure a few more things were said, but at that point, I was so struck, it was lost on me.
Then there was ...
Finally, an out-of-body experience where I remember saying something to the effect of, "Oh. Wow. Really? Well I guess I appreciate your honesty. Thanks for your time."
Anger, Fear, Sadness & Anger Again (Thank Goodness!)
I hung up the phone and was fuming. I mean really, really mad. Then the self-doubt kicked in. Was this person right? Was I off-track? This coach certainly had a lot of success in the space if you based it on media attention, so perhaps I sounded like a complete idiot and got justly put in my place?
My anger turned to fear and sadness. I spent the afternoon in a haze of confusion. How could I have been so crazy? What was I thinking? Geez. Did I just humiliate myself or what?
I processed the event for several more hours until my husband came home from work -- at which point I promptly sat him down and gave him the blow-by-blow. I could feel my energy rising, my anger showing, and my voice speed and tone increasing. I got it all off my chest. When I was done, I stared at him.
Then there was ...
Finally, an in-my-body experience where I remember watching a huge grin cross my husband's face, and an even bigger laugh come out of his mouth, as he said, "Good. I'm glad it happened. It's clearly lit a fire under your ass. That always gets you doing your best work. Go prove the coach wrong."
My hubby was right.
How could I possibly let one person derail me from what I felt was right? Why couldn't I do it my way? And more importantly, why was I looking for this expert's approval? The only validation I really needed was from the young professionals who benefited from my work. That would be the true and only test of whether what I was doing was worthwhile. I was guilty of looking for an external motivator when all I needed was to follow my internal one. I wanted to help Gen Y and, darn it, that's what I was going to do. End of story. No validation necessary!
Thanks for the Insult -- No Really, I Mean It!
Fast forward to today, and I've worked with hundreds of recent grads to show them how to find career satisfaction on their own terms. I absolutely love working with young people because they are incredible learners. They still see the world as full of professional possibilities -- all they need is some guidance, 20 seconds of career courage, and the skill development necessary to make their career goals a reality. That I can do.
I look back now and have to thank that expert for the insult. Without it, I'm not sure I'd be where I am today.
How about you? What insult got you to pursue a new avenue in your career?
Or did an insult or criticism make you give up on pursuing a career path? If so, I hope this story inspires you to use their negativity to your advantage.
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J.T. O'Donnell is a career and workplace expert who founded the top-ranked career advice site, CAREEREALISM.com. In 2009, she launched CareerHMO, the first on-line career care membership site which specializes in curing chronic career pain.
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