Saturday, April 9, 2011

Crash and Burn

I have had a truly terrible no-good rotten week.  I returned to work on Monday after a week off, ready to get stuck in to the quarterly busy period that comes with the territory in my accounting job.  Little did I know that the job I've loved had morphed while I was gone into something I'm not sure I want to do.

There are big things afoot at my company, and I have been asked to take on some different responsibilities.  It's placed me outside of my comfort zone.  Up until now, I've approached the requirements of the job with over a decade's worth of experience and expertise in a specialized field.  There are rules and guidance to address technical accounting issues.  I understand my objectives and there is a framework, a discipline, that I can apply to the process of achieving those objectives.

Now I've been asked to partner with someone in our organization who doesn't have financial sophistication to help him analyze how he runs his part of the business.  Hard questions have been asked of him.  Questions that he needs my help to answer.  Questions that need to be answered quickly.  However, mining the company's disparate information systems to try to answer those questions is a new process for me.  I haven't done it before and the only way to figure out how to do it is to just do it.  At times, I'm not even sure I'm trying answer the right questions, let alone doing it in the right way.

I've worked so hard this week.  Pretty much all my waking hours.  Wednesday night, after a 15 hour day where my effort was monumental but my accomplishment puny, I hit a wall.  I started to question whether I could be effective at this part of the job.  It's a possibility that these new responsibilities will soon become ALL of my job.  I started to wonder whether I even want to do this.  I started to feel like I was failing.

I'm embarrassed to admit this: I sat in front of my computer and wept, harder than I have cried in a long time.  The frustration had built into this lump of tension that sat in my stomach, traveled up to my throat, behind my eyes and squeezed my brain.  I had to let it out. 

The next morning, I confessed to my boss how I was feeling and requested some coaching on the best way to approach the issue.  I was assured that nobody thinks I'm failing.  I said that no one had made me feel that way, but that I felt that way.  I don't like it, not one little bit.

Coincidentally that evening, on the drive home from the office at 9:30, the local public radio station was hosting a Think Out Loud segment on Failure.  There was a fascinating discussion on research with children to study the impact of praise, motivation and coping with failure.  Professor Corpus presented findings that show it can be detrimental to young children to constantly praise them for how smart they are.  It leads to a mindset that success comes from an intrinsic, uncontrollable attribute.  When the children face challenges as they grow, their response to failure is a tendency to give up.  They attribute previous successes to their intrinsic characteristic, smartness, and believe the failure has occurred because they are "just not smart enough."  This is demotivating and can lead to a child's disengagement from the challenge.  The research conclusion: it is important to praise children for their effort, not their attributes.  This leads to an ability to view failure as the result of a controllable action (I did not work hard enough) and provides motivation to increase future efforts.

I reflected on this discussion of failure and how it related to my current dissatisfaction with my performance.  Why did I end up indulging myself in a 10 minute crying jag so intense I nearly hyperventilated?  I think it was because I knew that I had literally given all of the effort I could and was not succeeding.  There was no more left.  I have met with much success in my career, the product of both hard work and a general aptitude.  I was thinking if this kind of effort is required and it's not enough, I want no part of it.  I've never flamed out that thoroughly and it hurts to consider that happening now.

This is not the first time in my career I have shed frustrated tears.  It will undoubtedly not be the last.  As I try to relax and recharge this weekend, I'm reminding myself that just because this is hard now, I can improve.  This too shall pass.  I will learn and become more efficient.  I may, in the end, decide that I'm better off applying my current expertise at another company that requires it rather than applying myself to this new facet of financial analysis that I don't enjoy.  But I will have learned something in the process. 

So tell me, have you any advice as I deal with this potential failure?  Have you overcome a failure in the past, or had to admit defeat?  Misery loves company; tell me your stories.


  1. Hey, I don't think it was all about the job. I bet it's a combination of things that have built up and left you feeling this way. Crying is a good way to let it out, as long you don't get in a bad place and view it as a nice release.

    After a good cry, I'm usually calmer and able to rationalize what I'm feeling and thinking. You are so strong and so amazing...never doubt yourself. And if you have doubts, just contact me and I'll remind you what a special person you are.

    Sending hugs and love, from someone who has dealt with her fair share of failures and just keeps dusting her self off like the crazy optimist she is...mwah!

  2. Wow, KB, what a week.

    I love this sentence: "At times, I'm not even sure I'm trying answer the right questions, let alone doing it in the right way." That is pretty much my internal conflict about everything.

    Regarding failure, though. I have one perfectionist child who does not like to make any mistakes (like her mother, who's still learning). Anyway, I always remind her how we learn to walk: by falling. Ultimately, the substantial learning we do comes out of failing.

    Now, if I could only take my own advice. Hypocrisy abounds in this comment. Sigh.

  3. Nicki - Thanks for the encouragement. I really did feel better after a good bawl.

  4. Leanne - You are absolutely right about learning from mistakes. I learn so much more about how best to do things by screwing it up first. Doesn't make it feel much better, but I am trying to remain philosophical.

  5. I think it's a very hard situation you've been put in, in that you're doing something completely new to you, and it's not clear how you're supposed to succeed. And you're accustomed to working within known parameters and doing well. So of course you're going to be frustrated, feel like you're doing your utmost and not getting very far and of course that's going to make you upset. Hang in there, KB!

  6. Lisa, thanks for your kind words. I am trying to accept the natural frustration, push past it, and keep my chin up.

  7. You have my utmost admiration for being able to do accountancy and numbers in the first place! I agree with Lemon Gloria, it sounds like your company has placed you in a very awkward situation and therefore they should help you get to grips with it. Take it one step at a time, and if it's still not your bag, then as you say, you are fortunate that the skills you're good at and enjoy are extremely transferable to another company.

  8. Helen - Thanks for your support. This situation is kicking my butt into gear and may just be the catalyst needed to make some big changes. Those numbers skills could come in handy if they are needed elsewhere in the world. Stay tuned!

  9. Somehow we have to separate ourselves from the failure. Inspite of all of our efforts, the problem might still be a problem but that does not mean that we are failures. We have to, at some point say, "I've given it my best" and be ok with that. Difficult to do but so necessary.

  10. Botut - you are absolutely right. I don't deal well with failing to meet expectations - my own or others - but if the expectations are too high, then giving it my best effort simply must be enough.

  11. Life ain't all sunshine and rainbows, dear. You'll face a lot of difficult challenges, and if you let it, life will beat you down until you can't get up. That's why it doesn't matter how hard you can hit, it's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. That's what Rocky said. Quitters are losers, and winners never quit.