Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Lessons from a Failure

Articles usually focus on success stories, in part because they make the author look good. But much can be learned from failures. So here is one I had today.

I failed with a client, one of my favorites. After 10 sessions over an year's period, we agreed that she wasn't making enough progress to justify continuing.

Note: I have changed a few details to protect her anonymity.

She was a medical researcher on soft money who was unhappy at work and wasn't sure if she needed a new career or strategies for becoming happier on her current job.

So, we came up with a number of alternative careers that seemed to amalgamate her skills and motivations, but she wasn't excited enough about any of them to justify the major effort required to make a career change.

We also tried to figure out how to make her happier in her current job. Her greatest malaise there was that she couldn't motivate herself to write big grant proposals even though she needed those grants to stay employed.

We discovered that the problem was that she was so perfectionistic (partly caused by an overbearing mother) that she made any big task unnecessarily painful. In addition, even if she were to get a big proposal funded, she'd dread having to run such a big project--her perfectionism in doing every detail would make running the project painful. It also would require her to manage people and a big project when her preferred style is to stay immersed in her own research.

To try to reduce her perfectionism, we agreed that her mantra will be "Make it fun; more will get done." When she stayed fully vigilant about doing that, she made significant progress on the proposals, but in the end, she didn't feel motivated enough to stay with it.

She left my office today her perfectionism not much changed, her contentment not much greater, her motivation to change not much higher, and concluding that she isn't meant to be in such a high-powered organization and needs a stable, lower-level job. I fear that she won't be happier in her new job--her perfectionism will go with her and she'll feel bad that she can't even be very successful in that lower-level job.

What did I learn from the experience?

1. When someone, especially someone intelligent, comes to me saying they need to change jobs or careers, I need to honor that and spend less time trying to tweak the current job into acceptability.

2. Don't get seduced into the counselor's trap of always believing that cheering the client on will help him or her rise to the challenge. Sometimes, even if a person has a Ph.D. from a top university, is impressive in intelligence and personality, and employed by a prestigious institution, the person may indeed have risen to his or her level of incompetence or is burned out from having worked so long at it. 

3. Scientists do burn out. Most spend years going down blind alleys and rarely discover much of importance. That, of course, is dispiriting enough to make even a once-driven person want to change careers.

4. Sometimes, nothing works. With this client, I used coaching techniques, cognitive-behavioral methods, exploration of the childhood origins of her problem, career counseling techniques, and even with this most capable client, nothing worked. I just have to accept that, remember the lessons above, and move on.

Do you want to examine a recent failure to see if there are lessons to be learned?


Grace said...

What is the goal of your career counselling?

Marty Nemko said...

It varies with the individual, of course. But that aforementioned client is was to either help her transition into a career she found more rewarding or to become significantly happier with her current career.

Grace said...

If your goal was to find a career that your client found more rewarding, than didn't you reach your goal? Maybe taking a step down the ladder was just what your client needed. The goal isn't career advancement, but career contentment.

So often, we take on careers that we love only to find out that the majority of our time is spent in doing the administration around the job and not in doing the job itself. How draining.

You explored every avenue with your client, and you needed to do this in order to get a greater understanding of the cause of the dissatisfaction. The answers may have been surprising and even disappointing, but answers were found. This is success.

Marty Nemko said...

Oh, I should have clarified that I am doubtful that she will be happier in a lower-level career. Her perfectionism will hurt her there, and, as a very smart woman, I think she'll feel bored, out to pasture.

Grace said...

The unfortunate conclusion is because of your client's personality or preferences, not from a lack of motivation or options. You can take a horse to water...

This process gave you insight, but do you think there was any more that you could have done for this client based on the information that you had then?

Anonymous said...

Have you heard of Three Minute Therapy by Michael R. Edelstein? I think his techniques could work very well in overcoming perfectionism.

From my own experience as a perfectionist I think boredom may very well be more tolerable than imperfection, so she may end up happier in spite of being bored.

Marty Nemko said...

I know Dr. Edelstein and his book, Three Minute Therapy, very well. The book is very good and I'd imagine he was an excellent cognitive-behavioral therapist.

Home Remedies For Heartburn said...

I rarely write remarks, but after reading through a ton of remarks on martynemko. I actually do have a few questions for you if you tend not to mind. Is it only me or does it look like like some of the responses come across like they are written by brain dead visitors? :-P And, if you are writing on other online social sites, I'd like to keep up with everything new you have to post. Could you make a list of the complete urls of all your public pages like your Facebook page, twitter feed, or linkedin profile?

Marty Nemko said...

Dear Home Remedies,

Yes, some of the commenters aren't great, but my overall reaction to the commenters and the lack thereof is to increasingly doubt myself. I have written almost 1,000 blog posts, 1,000 articles, 1,100 tweets, and 7 books over the past quarter century and my influence and reputation appear to have DECLINED over that time. My blog and twitter have declined in popularity.

You can access all my stuff: radio show, twitter, website articles (my longer stuff) and this blog from my site: