My last, failed attempt at conventional employment came to an end 14 years ago. Almost to the day, I was let go in the first week of 2010, as a public affairs writer for a big energy company.
It was essentially the start of my real estate career. So in the scheme of things, that termination was a blessing. Funny how things work out.
But occasionally I look back and wonder, what went wrong? How did my supervisor/subordinate relationship go off the rails?
I’ll confess, that experience was not the first of its kind for me. It was the third in two decades, between 1990 and 2010. Three different jobs—all three—came to an unfriendly end.
And that 20-year period included only five years of regular (not self) employment. One could say I made the most of my opportunities.
I was a contract worker in 2010 so they didn’t really have to fire me. My gig was up and I was told without apology they didn’t have the budget to continue. Somehow they found the funds for a replacement soon after I left.
Recently I read “The 48 Laws of Power,” by Robert Greene. It’s been a mega-best seller since its publication in 1998. Right there in Chapter 1 is advice that might have saved me from those sad partings.
Its title: “Never Outshine the Master.”
I was hired for having certain credentials. Such as prior experience as a writer in Big Oil. I’d written about cars and fuels for auto magazines. I was freelancing regularly for the Denver Post.
My boss, meanwhile, had no real writing background. Occasionally they boasted of a background in graphic design. (I‘m using they/them pronouns.)
I was doing well enough, producing written communications, interacting with executives and engineers. VP’s were saying hello in the elevator. My boss caught on and suddenly I could do no right.
They removed my name from my publication’s masthead, replacing it with their own as the department head. I was gone in a matter of months.
My crime, I am certain, was having outshined the boss (who was not a master except in their own mind).
An earlier job termination came in 2005. It was a similar story. The job was in a quasi-governmental setting. My work drew some applause from our client in Washinton D.C., at the U.S. Department of Energy.
I had a friendly talk with a high-ranking official, a Deputy Secretary of Energy, about something I’d written. It was the kiss of death. My boss soon killed the nine-year old quarterly magazine I’d been producing.
Terminating the publication was done “to save money,” they said. Never before had those words been uttered in our office.
Before long, they terminated me. There was little explanation. Not a team player, blah blah blah. (I got along fine with the team; it was the boss and I who were at odds.)
It may sound self-serving (or delusional) of me to attribute my dismissals simply to superior performance. Maybe so. And someone more adept in office politics may have better navigated those environments. That’s for sure.
Greene the author says he too was often guilty of unintentionally outshining the master. He was a a young writer working for magazines in New York.
“I had all these ideas coming from college that what matters is just being good at what you do, just being creative. But no, you have to be political.”
“I didn’t have this radar that goes, that person you’re dealing with, they’re insecure,” he said. You have to tailor what you do and what you say according to their insecurities.”
This from a podcast with Greene recounting his own mistakes.
I find that many self-employed entrepreneurs are unsuited for office life. They are too intolerant of bureaucracy, too averse to authority. Those aversions do not seem to hinder success in the outside world, at least in real estate.
I would advise anyone remotely interested to check out “The 48 Laws of Power.” The notion of power, says Greene, enters into all human relationships, not just offices and work. A successful marriage demands a form of power.
It is not an uplifting read. It’s full of advice and historical references on how to deal with your “enemies.” I don’t know if I have any outright enemies. But it translates well to everyday life.
Among the other chapter titles or “laws” are these:
- Never Put Too Much Trust in Friends
- Get Others to Do the Work for You
- Learn to Keep People Dependent on You
- Court Attention at All Costs
- Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy
I am not big on New Years Resolutions. But I aim to practice one principle expressed in the book. Assume formlessness. See the final chapter, Law No. 48.