We all know that everyone is imperfect and that everyone makes mistakes regularly (in fact, I’ve made the mistake of eating a donut every day for the last two weeks). So why do we all feel ashamed or guilty about things that haven’t gone quite right in our professional lives?
A major culprit is American culture, which tells employees that they need to constantly strive for perfection. Since the 1980s, we’ve been obsessed with self-help and self-improvement under the misguided belief that if we try to become perfect, we can control everything that happens in our lives.
The result of this faulty thinking is that we’ve become judgmental and overly critical of ourselves, our employees, our colleagues, our friends, and strangers we read about on the internet. Not to mention, we feel defeated and discouraged when we realize that the only thing we actually control is our behavior, not the outcomes of our efforts.
To make matters worse, we can be punished for making mistakes at work or in our careers—whether it’s by being fired, or being denied a raise, or being considered unemployable because of a gap between jobs.
Another reason why we feel shame or guilt is that many of us come from cultures that tell us there are only a few acceptable career paths to follow. If we’re lucky enough to be talented in and passionate about one of these career paths, then we'll have highly fulfilling and successful work lives. If not, we'll spend many years feeling like a square peg trying to squeeze into a round hole, achieving neither pleasure nor success from work.
A third cause stems from our parents' desire for us to always be safe.
I heard Khaled Hosseini, author of the bestseller The Kite Runner, speak at a book talk years ago. He decided to choose the “safe” career of medicine after watching his parents struggle on welfare when they came to the United States from Afghanistan. His parents said, “You have to make something of yourself. We came here because there is opportunity for you guys here, and we want you guys to make something of yourself."
It wasn't until many years into his medical career that Hosseini first entertained the thought of writing professionally, although he had been writing his entire life. Eventually he found the courage to pursue his dream of being a writer and went on to become a bestselling author of three novels.
The problem with grief and shame
One of the major problems with grief and shame is that, besides making us miserable, they make it harder for us to choose the right career, get a job, or change professions. Shame and guilt manifest themselves in all aspects of our careers, including in our decision-making, networking, interviews, and even resumes.
It’s all OK
Let me give you permission to feel OK about any of these things that may have happened to you:
* You got fired.
* You got laid off.
* You didn’t get the promotion.
* You didn’t get the raise.
* You’re not making as much money as you should be.
* You didn’t move far enough up the ladder.
* You’ve done too much job hopping.
* You could have been a doctor.
* You got a PhD and didn’t do anything with it.
* You didn’t finish your PhD.
* You didn’t get a college degree.
* You did something unethical.
* You shouldn’t have sent that email.
* You shouldn’t have said that thing that you said.
* You shouldn’t have turned down that job.
* You shouldn’t have accepted that job.
* You shouldn’t have stayed out of the workforce for so long.
* You spent too many years doing work that you didn’t like.
Be kind to yourself
So, please—be kind to yourself and give yourself permission to make career mistakes. If you learn from them and allow yourself to move on, everything really will be OK.