From Good to Great: Part 2.

Finding the right room and the right seat.

When I got my first job at a relatively large design agency I was so excited to be apart of a larger team of Creative Directors and Art Directors. Up until then I had always been my own art director and believed mentoring and coaching by more experienced designers was exactly what I needed to get better and go from good to great.

In my mind I was going to be taken under someone’s wing and encouraged and pushed and taught in a way that would feel like growth — both challenging and rewarding. What actually happened was some severe micromanaging, a little bit of alienation and, of course, being told I wasn’t good enough.

If you read Part 1 of my series From Good to Great you know that I was looking for someone to tell me I wasn’t just “good” and to push me to become great. I wasn’t afraid of constructive criticism and in fact I was looking for it — though at times it did hurt. My response to this less than positive reaction to my work was not to quit, it was to buckle down and work harder.

In my gut I knew I wasn’t incapable; I could learn new things and I was going to prove it. I said to myself “this is the big league, this is what it takes.” So I set to work training myself as hard as I could at the style of design this agency wanted. I pushed myself beyond my comfort zone and wore a huge smile the whole time. I was miserable.

Sunk Cost Fallacy

You may be wondering why I wouldn’t just quit. For starters, quitting a job is much easier said than done — but I think I was suffering from something more powerful: The Sunk Cost Fallacy.

The Sunk Cost Fallacy is “the idea that a company or organization (or person) is more likely to continue with a project if they have already invested a lot of money, time, or effort in it, even when continuing is not the best thing to do.” I was endlessly struggling and making what felt like no progress but I had already put in so much energy. I kept thinking “if I do good on this next project that will be my big break and they’ll see that I’ve got what it takes.” But that wasn’t happening.

In the meantime I was working on some smaller projects that I was really good at and thoroughly enjoyed. Though they didn’t seem to be getting valued or noticed. So I kept trying at the other stuff, convinced my hard work would pay off. Misery ensued. I started to fall into that trap every designer fears, I started hearing thoughts like “Maybe I’m really not capable? Maybe I’m not cut out for this industry?”

Finding the Right Seat

One Saturday it hit me. I was working on some designs at home, watching tutorials and continuing to try and improve when I realized “I don’t want to do this.” Not like right now on this Saturday but ever. I had spent the last year or more trying to get better at something I really wasn’t passionate about. It wasn’t the kind of design I really wanted to do long term and I was wasting time. Those projects I mentioned earlier that I was successful with — that is what I wanted to do, that was what I was passionate about, that is what I wanted to read Medium articles about. I wasn’t incapable or a bad designer I was in the wrong seat at the wrong agency doing the wrong work.

Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, writes “leaders of companies that go from good to great start not with “where” but with “who.” They start by getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats.”

I should have never been hired at this agency because I wasn’t the right person for the job. Jim Collins discusses how the best companies need to identify when they have someone in the wrong seat but in my case I had to discover that on my own.

That was an epiphany for me. I immediately closed the project I was working on and starting working on something that was inline with what I now knew I wanted to do. I felt challenged and proud of my work, even if it was my own project and not real client work.

The Silver Lining

In the end it was a successful career step even though it was a painful and at times a hurtful process. I wanted to be pushed so I could suss out my specialty and trim the fat and that is what happened. I certainly wasn’t being told “good job” anymore and even though I wouldn’t consider this a healthy mentoring experience I learned a great deal.

Armed with this new and empowering knowledge I was finally able to walk away and find a new job that aligned with my passions, strengths and personality.

I’ve now learned to evaluate every station in my career with a clear perspective on if it’s the right seat for me. I no longer succumb to self deprecating thoughts or beliefs that “it must be me.” Everyone has a unique set of skills and talents if they are willing to look for them. The road might be rough but don’t be afraid to change directions even if you’ve been on the same path for a while.

If you are sitting at a job feeling miserable, feeling like you just aren’t good enough to grow and none of the doors are opening don’t just keep “trying.” It might be time to consider that you are in the wrong place in the wrong seat.