When Life Gives You Lemons, Make This…

It was February, 2012.  My boss had been laid off a few months earlier, and we had a new manager.  He decided to make sweeping changes to the organization.  The effect on me and my team was this:  my team was split up between two of my peers, and I was given a newly-created role – Strategic Planning and Process Design.

(c) AdobeStock Photo

(c) AdobeStock Photo

It sounded like a job title they give someone who they don’t know what to do with and are trying to find a way to get them to leave.

It was uncomfortable, to say the least.  My team was upset, and I was devastated.  It felt like a slap in the face.  All our incredible work together, all I had done to create a chemistry that yielded consistently outstanding results.  And now it was dismantled in only 2 weeks.

In Episode 070, we explored failure.  The type of failure that often results from experimentation, trying something new.  That type of failure can be hard to deal with, but is manageable with an attitude of experimentation.  And so often it is the catalyst for success.  But this?!?  This was different.  This was another person passing judgement on what we considered success and deeming it not worthy.  This cut me to the quick.

I had to give myself time to grieve, but not too long.  After all, I now had to create a job for myself that went with my new title.  So I prayed and then picked myself up and set to work.  The former constraints of my job were now gone.  I had new constraints though: no budget unless I got some project dollars, and no team unless I recruited them to work with me.  I would have to use influence to get support.

So, I let myself dream of the possible, even with all the limitations.  I asked myself, “What’s the greatest value I can bring to this organization, and how can I be creative to deliver it?”

It’s funny how constraints can actually enhance creativity.  Igor Stravinsky said,

The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one's self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.

And Jeff Bezos agrees:

I think frugality drives innovation, just like other constraints do. One of the only ways to get out of a tight box is to invent your way out.

When this type of failure occurs, we often have no choice but to pick up the pieces and figure it out.  Invent our way out of the tight box.  And this is where practicing failure as part of innovation comes in handy.

All those times when we experimented with software designs we rejected?  Practice for this situation.  The disastrous expense envelope experiment?  Practice again.  So when the org change happened out of the blue, and not of my own making, I had experience at seeing things from a different perspective and creating something different.

People say “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”  But sometimes you have to make something completely different – like iced tea.  It’s another version of Option B.  Forcing you to make something whether you want to or not.

If you find yourself in a situation anything like this, maybe you can learn from what I did to create a new job for myself.  One that ended up getting me noticed enough to transfer to the side of the company where significant transformation was going on.

  1. Give yourself time to grieve.

Recognize it for the loss it is.  Feel the weight of it.  Denying it only serves to make it go underground, which undermines your attempt to move forward.  Feel it in your body.  Your heart.

  1. Limit your grieving time.

As important as it is to grieve, you do have to get moving.  And grief can become a habit that makes you stuck.  So set some limits, and then decide to get moving.

  1. Don’t make any sudden moves.

We so often react out of emotion –like anger, spite, or insecurity.  I felt like it.  My emotions ran the gamut, sometimes in quick succession.  You want your decisions to be right for you, not ones you’ll regret.

  1. Avoid turning anger in on yourself.

Anger is often not considered acceptable, so we turn it inward.  At best, it leads to insecurity.  At worst, it can lead to depression or anxiety.  Instead find an acceptable outlet for your anger. Some things I did:

  • Reframed the situation to find the positives. I was no longer responsible for month end support, I didn’t have to do performance reviews, I didn’t have to work as many hours.
  • Used physical activity to get rid of pent-up emotion. This works wonders.  Exercise, dance, singing, playing an instrument.  I used them all.
  • Prayed blessing over my new boss. This was hard.  I was so angry.  And I knew I wasn’t supposed to be angry at him, so then I was angry at myself for feeling angry.  Once I realized what was going on, I knew I had to pray that God would bless him.  I knew he was loved by God, even as I believed what he did was wrong.  It took a while to believe my own prayers.  And when I did I was set free.

5. Engage your creative mind

Once you’re in a better emotional state, let your creativity fly.  Allow yourself to dream.  What cool thing could you possibly create out of this situation?  Don’t let the constraints get you down.  Let them fuel you.  They can drive an idea you otherwise wouldn’t have thought of.

It's like when someone asks you to name your favorite book.  It’s not that you can’t think of one at all.  There are just too many, so your mind gets overwhelmed.  But if someone asks, “Name your favorite book by John Grisham,” it’s much easier.  Now your mind has limits, and doesn’t get overwhelmed.  That’s what we’re talking about here.  Constraints providing focus.

I can’t tell you how much fun I had making something out of nothing.  Making iced tea out of lemons.  Sure, I missed my team.  But I recruited some of them to work on my projects.  We built more automation.  Developed a strategic plan that is still being used today. And fixed bad data.  I got to work with some different people, which expanded my horizons.  All because of a huge failure that whacked me upside the head.

Are you experiencing something like that right now?  Maybe you’re injured, and can’t do your normal exercise routine.  Maybe you have less money, and can’t take the vacation you normally plan.  Or you just found out you’re allergic to a food you eat all the time.  It doesn’t have to be something as big as your livelihood.

Whatever it is, give yourself time to grieve, but set a limit.  Don’t make any sudden moves.  Avoid turning anger inward, and engage your creative mind.  See what you can make out of the lemons you’ve been handed.

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  • Kathleen ~ what great advice! I found myself in this sort of situation twice, and both times I either suffered through it without adding anything positive to the situation, or I left. I wish I would have had you as my mentor! Ah well…life has a way of continuing on, and I haven’t been even living near either of those jobs for two decades…but still I look back and wish I would have done things differently. Thanks for your great insight, as always!

    • It sounds like you learned some valuable lessons from these experiences, Linda. In the end, maybe that’s what really matters.

  • Very helpful insights and wisdom Kathleen. The one thing I would add from my own experience with challenging work situations is not to take things personally. I have allowed myself to get angry and frustrated with situations which when I have looked back on several months or even years later, I have realised I took it way too personally. People tend to do what makes sense to them at the time and usually without thinking. Yes people can be malicious, but often it is a lack of emotional intelligence and not thinking about the impact of their actions on others.

    • Oooo. You’re so right, Sunil. Do you find it hard not to take it personally, or am I the only one who struggles with that one?

      • Taking things too personally if I am honest has been a life long challenge for me. Its only relatively recently i have grown in awareness of this and seen how unhelpful it has been.