America loves a comeback story. From the movie Rocky, to the latest sports hero, we cheer for the underdog. It is one of the great things about this country; the triumph over high odds and setbacks is how this country was founded. While we love the triumph, the thing that must happen before the comeback can take place… is a fall. The hero must be knocked down and be at rock bottom for it is only then that they can get back on top. We love the triumph over adversity, the rally, the getting up and dusting ourselves off, but we often discount the pain we experience in the fall.
Not all setbacks are the same. We have all been there. It can be something as simple as an argument with a co-worker, a review of less than glowing accolades, a dry spell in sales that can make us come home at night and wonder if it is all worth it? Sometimes it is worse. Sometimes we lose our jobs, our way, or even our respect; what do we do then? So much of our self-esteem is tied up in what we do for a living. Our work ethic and identity can be a source of pride, what do we do when our legs have been pulled out from under us and we are flat on our back.
The connection between work and self hits all of us. Writer Gay Talese touches on this subject in his seminal article Frank Sinatra has a Cold. He wonders, what happens to a man who is so intertwined with his work that when a hint of something pops up, it can forever separate the two. “Sinatra with a cold is Picasso without paint, Ferrari without fuel—only worse.”
As Americans, all too often our work identity becomes forever tied to our personal identity. Jennifer the Teacher, Tom the Police Officer, Greg from Energizer, etc. are all too common ways of introducing ourselves and how we are discussed when we are not around. What happens when half of that equation ceases to be? It is only when we are tested that we get the chance to be Rocky.
My favorite example of this fall and triumph was with a young high school student I was privileged to know. Katie was an impressive young woman who worked hard and got great grades. She sang in the choir, sat up front in class, had the respect of her peers and teachers and was a great kid. She was well on her way to being valedictorian of her class and had a bright future in front of her; there was, however, one problem, she had just bombed a test in my AP English class.
It was the third nine weeks, and this caused Katie’s grade to slip to an 89% in my class, just below the cut-off for A. Katie was totally apoplectic. Failure of something like this was something she was totally unfamiliar with. She was panicked and had no idea what to do. It is easy for a teacher or an older person to look at Katie’s plight and poo poo it. After all it is just one grade, but Katie was in distress. Her pain was real and it was tearing her apart.
As her teacher, I knew it was only the third nine weeks and would have no bearing on her GPA (only semester and final grades do that), and I tried to counsel her that it would be okay, but she could not relax. For days, I saw her in my class upset and she tried everything she could to get her grade up, but the cut-off had passed. She begged me to reconsider and give some extra credit to pull her grade up. I called her parents and told them that I was worried about Katie. They shared that she was upset and not sleeping at all. I was in a quandary and did not know what to do. If I gave her the 2 points, she got the A and would be healthy again. It was only 2 points and I had no interest in torturing a student over something so silly, but it seemed like there was more to it than that.
Katie came to me at noon on the day the grades were due and asked me what I was going to do. I had no idea, but as I looked at her I knew what I needed to say. “Katie,” I said in measured tones “I have decided to give you the two points and give you the A.” She made a welcome sigh and said “Thank you so much”. “But there is one thing I need you to know,” I continued, “You earned the B”. She was very quiet. She then looked up at me with tears in her eyes and said softly “Well, if I earned the B, then that is the grade I should get.” She turned meekly and walked down the hall and left.
Katie’s story doesn’t end there. She studied hard the next quarter. Got the highest grade in the class and passed the AP exam. I didn’t think any more about it until she sent me a note put together as she was writing her graduation speech. She told me he went home that night and thought about her life. A very spiritual girl, Katie began thinking about her faith and how she lived her life. In Katie’s eyes, she knew God loved her and because of that she tried to be as perfect as she could and that meant getting all A’s at school and doing the right thing. But that night she went home and talked to God. She realized that he still loved her, even though she had gotten a B. Her faith, her esteem, and her respect were not tied to external things like work and school. It was internal things that no one can take away unless you let them. Katie found out what many people struggle with; what we do for a living is not who we are and the setbacks that often come cannot take that away.
What we do vs who we are
Our work identity is often a sense of pride we like to share. We struggle and sweat and hustle to make something of ourselves. We collect trophies and awards and promotions and proudly display them for all to see. Enjoying the fruits of our labor tells us on some level that it is all worth it. But too often, we begin working for our tools and not letting our tools work for us. When we give in to the notion that we are what we do, we lose the option of control and start letting our careers control us and not the other way around.
As we grow and mature we run the risk of being Joe who drives a truck, and become Joe the truck driver. Tina the stay at home mom and not Tina, who is raising a family. It evolves even further as our politicians, court personnel, and clergy stop having names and exist only as titles. This consumption of self is not in and of itself a bad thing, but it can have positively devastating effects when things go wrong. When we lose the thing that gives us an identity, we lose our way. This is where the comeback begins.
Loss of a job is a massive stomach punch and when our jobs become our identity we take it extra hard. One of the keys to getting off the mat is that we need to remind ourselves of all we had before we had that job, all the things that made us special while we had it, and as hard as can be to get your mind around those things are still in us without that job. Separating your true self from what you think you are is a tough task and not everyone can do it, but this where the triumph is made. Putting our ego’s in check and working hard is how we get back.
I am drawn back again to the movie Rocky. Rocky was a good man before he fought, and what he gained was not a championship, it was a sense of self and what is important. He is an American icon because he never stopped. American’s love winners and rejoice in a comeback. So, don’t ever quit, you have the fight in you, just keep building and building. Version 2.0 is always better anyway.