The day I was floored by the word “unprofessionalism”

What will always go down as one of the lowest moments of my life was when I had to quit my last job. To make matters worse, I hadn’t even been at it for more than 15 months!

Failure isn’t something people want to talk about. Success, yes. Achievements, yes. Accolades, oh bring them on! But failures? Nah, it is far too embarrassing, even humiliating, so why bring it up? Maybe if we keep quiet long enough, we can pretend to the rest of the world that it never happened.

But me? Well, I need to talk about it so here goes!

For me, the failure in my previous job has become a nagging, constant thorn in my flesh, visible only to me. The pain it instills is also felt solely by me (in no small measure) everyday. No one else knows, and I reckon no one really cares much even if they knew. Because failure is usually experienced alone, whereas success is something everyone wants a part in. No surprise that I walk around daily bleeding from this thorn all by myself. And no wonder too that I now catch myself sometimes asking if I might be falling into depression over this incident.

It’s been nearly a year now since I left my job, but I still find myself unpacking this part of my history, trying my darnedest to make sense of what went wrong. I don’t yet have all the pieces fitted nicely into one big depressing jigsaw. But I do see each stand-alone piece of what went wrong with increasing clarity now, as I pick them up one at a time and mull over each, like a little boy examining pieces of Lego.

One such piece was a vivid memory I have of what took place just before a client meeting. I had by then officially tendered my resignation, but since he had fixed up the meeting weeks ago with the intent of having me come along, my boss advised that I join in.

As we waited for the client, he turned to me and began to talk about my leaving. I don’t remember his exact words anymore, but he basically accused me of letting work that didn’t interest me slide and flounder, something that to him smacks of my lack of “professionalism”. He told me that while it was just dollars and cents at the end of the day that might be adversely affected, such “unprofessionalism” would have far more destructive consequences were I to bring it with me to a non-commercial, social service job. (I had mentioned in my resignation letter my intent to pursue such work after I leave). To him, people’s very lives were at stake in such service jobs, and I would be doing more harm than good, if I didn’t change my “unprofessional” ways.

I remember being too stunt at that moment to stand up and defend myself. Because, in the working world, everyone’s all about professionalism right? It’s about being ethical in the way we deliver our work; applying our qualities and skills to the job at hand, and in a manner befitting of a “professional”. It’s probably one of the worst things to be accused of, and it took me quite a while after that conversation to let its import sink in. But when it did, it plunged me into a state of failure and despair! Was I really like that? Did I really show a total lack of professionalism in my work? How did I get this far if it were true? Would not the world of work have spit me out as soon as I showed even the tiniest bit of such unacceptable behaviour?

The struggle to understand this was very real, but once I took a step to own and admit to my failure, some clarity emerged.

The truth was very simple actually. What to my boss was ‘unprofessionalism’ was in fact a textbook case of a job misfit. I simply didn’t have the right DNA to work in the commercial sector in general, and in his line of work in particular. Every one of my boo boos and missteps arose from this simple truth. The job needed someone with attention to details for figures and calculations. That was not my strength. The job needed someone who had business development acumen. Definitely not my strength. The job needed me to be very ‘sales and marketing’ in my approach to clients, and in my written emails. I lacked that too. The job required that I be able to juggle multiple tasks like hurling circus balls simultaneously into the air, without letting a single one fall to the ground and smash into smithereens! Sadly, multiple-tasking was also not a skill I had in abundance. The job needed me to be full-on and available to work through things during and outside office hours. I lacked the capacity to be that committed 24/7, especially when it also adversely affected quality time with my family and myself!

So everything that my boss saw as my “unprofessionalism” was in fact just me struggling outside my comfort zone. Any wonder I floundered?

I want very much for this failure not to overwhelm and cripple me to the point where I can’t even lift my head high with dignity. Cause that’s probably the point where many fall into depression, self-blame and mental incapacity. If this failure was truly because I wasn’t “professional enough”, then so be it. Anyway, the inherently flawed working world has a way of using such words to accuse and bully many into doubting themselves. After all, aren’t there far more damaging behaviours in the ‘wild wild west world’ of work than being “unprofessional”? Things like embezzlement, defamation, sexual harassment, nepotism, outright lying and excessive work hours leading to permanent physical ailments like high blood pressure and stress disorders?

For me, the bullying that leads someone (in this case, me!) to self-doubt has to end here. I mustn’t let it destroy my faith in myself and what I can or cannot do. I simply have to pick myself up, dust myself off, and move on. To not do so would truly make me “unprofessional”.

But first I need time, and a place, to heal. This blog is as good a time and place as any to start that healing.

Leave a Reply