Published: November 28 2010 21:29 | Last updated: November 28 2010 21:29
At a party last week I met a man who told me he had just lost his job. I commiserated, but he said it was OK, he was well out of it. He explained that his boss was a fool who could not cope with having an underling who was far brighter and more charismatic than him. The man looked perfectly cheerful and reassured me that his pay-off had been large, and the move was his employer’s loss.
I extricated myself and went to talk to a journalist friend who had also recently lost his job. I asked how the job search was going and he said he’d had masses of interviews but no offers. He told me he was getting tired of having to tell everyone that he was brilliant and dead keen, when in fact he was a fairly ordinary journalist who was ordinarily lazy.
This time I commiserated more enthusiastically. By the law of averages, most of us are, on average, deeply average. But in order to get any job at all, we have to pretend otherwise; it’s an exhausting sham.
On the way home I thought about these two men and their different approaches to being fired. Which is better, I wondered: to tell yourself soothing stories that may not chime with the facts or to stare at the truth in all its harshness?
For guidance I turned to the Harvard Business Review website section called Best Practices which offers “straightforward actionable advice”. A blog post called Help! I’m an Underperfomer states that the worst thing we can do is what the first man I spoke to did: blame other people to try to save face. Instead we must acknowledge our failures and recognise what has gone wrong. We must never be defensive. We must ask ourselves – and others – if we have the right skills and “capabilities”.
The response to this from readers on the site is ecstatic. “Fantastic article! Great read! Thank you! Great advice!” they gush.
However, there is only one problem with all this great advice: it’s wrong. It is based on a commonly held, yet fantastical view of human nature: that we are willing or able to change, and that we are rational about ourselves. Both points are false, especially the second.
The clue to the wrongness is in the title of the blog. The dispassionate euphemism “underperformer” is one that I have never heard anyone use to describe themselves. When it comes to our own poor work, we are constitutionally incapable of occupying a neutral middle ground. We either refuse to acknowledge it at all, or we wallow in it, preferring words like: useless, failure, screw-up, hash, pig’s ear and crap.
And this is when things go really awry. Thinking you are crap always makes you much more so. It isn’t the first step to improving. It’s the first step to being unable to get off the sofa all day. It is, therefore, infinitely better to tell yourself a pack of self-serving half-truths. Face-saving stories – or “narratives” as we now must call them – are absolutely vital to survival.
A demonstration of the superiority of self-serving narratives comes from two writers I know. A couple of years ago, they each published their first book and each received a couple of stinging reviews. Writer A’s book was judged to be overly long, saggy and generally unconvincing. She read this and concluded that her book was, indeed, too long, saggy and unconvincing and felt pretty crushed as a result.
Writer B’s book was judged even more harshly. But rather than show any sign of upset, he declared that the reviewer was jealous because his own book had sold badly.
Which author do you think lived happily ever after? Writer B is thriving, blithely considering his book to have been a thwacking great success and has already finished his second. Writer A is badly stuck on her next book, fearing with every word that it’s going to be even saggier than the previous one.
Applying this lesson to the men at the party, I expect that the first man, who blamed his failure on the jealousy of others, will find another job very soon. I fear my honest journalist friend may have to wait rather longer.
The only consolation is those who insist on the painful truth are nicer people than ones who hold up a flattering mirror to themselves. This may be true, but they aren’t necessarily nicer to have around. When a friend tells you that they are merely average or their book sags, you have little choice but to hold out the distorting mirror yourself and insist that actually they are outstanding and their book skips along like nobody’s business.