Jeff Schmitt: From the Bottom Up

You're a Sellout. What Now?


"What comes around, goes around." It always seemed a hollow cliché.

Now the signs can't be ignored. A small setback leaves you boiling. A critical comment quietly devastates you. Deep inside, you know the reasons. Maybe you stood by while your executives gouged their clients. Maybe you didn't stand up for your beliefs—again. Maybe you learned that your peers view you as "the spineless sycophant," the "yes man." You grudgingly agree.

You can justify it to yourself. You've always had so much to lose. There were the unforgiving job market, your insurance, your mortgage, and your family. Your social standing, your routine, that comfort zone. You had debts to pay and people to please. You took the easy way out. Who could blame you?

No single event brought you here. It took an accumulation of small compromises. Years ago it was all still ahead of you. You had dreams; you had a plan. You had courage, too. Little by little, you took your hits, you let things go. You started backing down. You toed the line. You stomached disrespect. You resigned yourself: "This is the way things are."

Trading Silence for Security

So you stayed below the radar, laughing alongside people you secretly loathed. Timidly, you collected your paycheck. You bent over backward, boxed yourself in, became the person they wanted you to be. It ate you up inside with each sleepless night. You put up the front. You could compartmentalize at work as the restlessness seeped into your real life. Your belt line expanded as your health withered. You chose silence for security and the emptiness grew.

That's when it catches up to you: the self-loathing, the nagging doubts, the regret. Now you've learned the price. You've squandered your potential and settled. You've lost your purpose. You live for only the moment, terrified of tomorrow. You shrink from conflict. You hide from yourself. And you suffer in silence.

You're a sellout, like so many before you.

It is a harsh realization. You were nothing special. Your teachers pushed you. Your teammates admired you. Your mentors championed you. It all seems so far away now. In the end, you became everything you despised. Or did you?

How to Redeem Yourself

You've reached that day of reckoning. You've veered off course and lost momentum. Thankfully, we are blessed with will. We have choice. We can hope. We can act. We can change. We have the freedom to reinvent ourselves. We are endowed with a spirit that compels us to care and create. We may have sold out our talent, our values, and our future, but we can always rediscover them. We can transform, set things right, and go forward. Here's how.

Evaluate your life: It can be a tough medicine to swallow, but you must. Your life hasn't worked out the way you planned. You won't count yourself as one of the lucky ones. You won't be spared doubt or shame. It all went by so fast. So often, our youth was defined by recklessness, vanity, and callousness. Things came too easily; we couldn't see the big picture. We squandered opportunities. We made the wrong choices for the wrong reasons. Accept the facts and move on.

Reflect. Quit dwelling on "if only I had." Ask yourself: How did I get here? Where did things go wrong—and why? What really held you back? Was it fear of change, of failure? Was it your pride? Your expectations? Did you lose your focus? Did you have the courage to make real sacrifices? We frequently look back in anger. We direct this energy inward, where it pollutes and drains us. Blunt your worst instincts with self-knowledge. Direct the remaining energy outward.

Come to terms: We worked hard, stayed loyal, and played by the rules. Despite all that, we fell short. We wasted all those years with precious little to show. Our lives grind forward; our dreams drift away. We lament a life not led. We certainly can make a mess of our careers. It takes but one person or one choice to pigeonhole or stigmatize us. We can vent that we're spent, but it achieves little. In this world we cannot go back, only forward. That's why we must let go.

Forgive those who damaged you and took so much. Forgive yourself for the misplaced priorities, concessions, and timidity. Then wipe the slate clean. Live from this day forward and don't look back. Accept the past and make what you've learned the foundation for your new life.

Stand tall: As we grow older we often become smaller. Our world contracts. We fall into patterns, become congested, rigid, and closed. We are weighed down by expectations. We struggle to get out of bed, then spend our waking hours watching, consuming, evading. We quietly waste away. You may have lost yourself in inches, but you can regain yourself in inches, too. Start by projecting confidence, even when all you feel is doubt. Find pride when you are humbled. With each disappointment, dare to hope.

Walk away when you want to lash out; engage when you want to withdraw. No matter the temptation, no matter the pressure, never compromise your integrity. You may never get it back.

Break away: What did you want in your youth? Did you dream of crisscrossing the globe? Taking the stage in front of screaming fans? Rubbing elbows with the big shots? What did you lack to make it happen? Talent? Discipline? A belief in yourself?

It may be too late to rekindle youthful ambitions. That doesn't mean you can't still salvage something. Look back at those dreams. What do they reveal about you? Do you crave adventure? Notoriety? Belonging? Identify these needs, find your voice, and seek an outlet. Make yourself relevant. Make yourself productive. Make yourself happy. So often, we lose our way in our rise through the ranks. We begin defining ourselves against others. We look at what they make, where they live, what they do. And we resent the ones who caught the breaks, who reap the rewards with less ability and sacrifice.

Of course we're falling into the oldest trap: coveting, worrying what others think, following convention, and growing sterile. Thankfully it is never too late to turn it around, to leave it behind. When you have an end point—when you carry that unique vision for yourself—it is much easier to bear disappointment. Don't accept your life as it is. Define your life on your terms, not those set by people and circumstance. Break away. Become the person you could and should be.

Rebel: There comes a time when the great ones—the artists, the innovators, the leaders—become sickened by themselves. They can no longer accept the pretenses, corruption, and cruelties around them. They commit to change and separate themselves from the pack. And they pay a price.

For years, you lived a double life. You told people what they wanted to hear. You paid lip service to corporate mantras, knowing they were an empty facade. Despite this, you put your identity into your work. You deluded yourself. You spent years perpetuating a fraud. Now you have awakened. What do you do?

You become authentic.

Go against the grain: Live up to those corporate values, even when others will not. Draw lines for yourself. Know what you cannot accept or will never do. Live your life based on your convictions. Work with passion—and with people who share your values.

Never be afraid to be one of those who break the rules. They are the ones who inspire; they are the ones who eventually shape reality. They are the ones who keep their dignity, integrity, and purpose. They are the ones who never sell out.

Author's note: This piece was inspired by the sermons of David Jeremiah and the music of Rent.

Jeff_schmitt
Jeff Schmitt is an online columnist for Bloomberg Businessweek. He has spent 17 years in sales, marketing, project management, training, legal compliance, and recruiting. You can reach him via e-mail or follow him on Twitter.

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