One of my favorite old jokes is one I first read when I was much younger. Maybe you’ve heard this one before:
Two campers are in their sleeping bags in the tent they share, trying to fall asleep when the first camper sees the shadow of a bear, cast by the full moon, through the top of the tent.
The first camper gasps and in a loud whisper tells his tent-mate of the impending danger.
The second camper quietly and quickly slides out of his bag and begins to put on his hiking boots.
The first camper, in a hushed shriek, says “what are you doing? You can’t outrun a bear!”
The second camper calmly replies, “I don’t have to outrun the bear. I just have to outrun you.”
Now in a much different context, not related to tents or bears, I was talking to a friend who had just lost his job as a marketing executive. He had only been there a year. He’s good, with a lot of up-to-date experience in a fairly specialized industry.
So what happened?
From my perspective… could be a few things.
- The job description changed.
- The job description is not exactly a contract. Probably more like a vague boilerplate or at best, the hiring manager’s snap-shot wish-list… what I need right now. And yet, who’s hired right now? It could take weeks or even months to complete not only the hire but also the onboarding of the hire after the time the job description is posted… not to mention the time between the manager feels the need and the opening is announced. So a mini-lesson here for all of us: don’t be surprised when the work you’re asked to do doesn’t match the job description.
- The players weren’t all in place.
- From my vantage point, it sounded like not everybody in the place agreed on what the new person should do or if the new person was even needed. Not a harmonious place to work.
- Oh wait… A BEAR!
- More like unbearable: my friend’s admission that he was putting in insanely long days, at cost to his family and other relationships outside of the office.
Did you ever think that the bear outside your tent might be the best thing that could happen to you?
My analogy is falling apart here so forget about the bear. My friend was in the wrong tent.
It was a bad fit.
Now that may sound like a weak answer to give to an interviewer when my friend is back on the market: “Why did I leave? It wasn’t a good fit.”
No, that’s not enough. My friend will have to be more analytical than that, accept responsibility for his current jobless condition, and perhaps most importantly, make it clear why this next opportunity WON’T be a bad fit.
A brief tangent here. In the college professor world, there is a phrase called “publish or perish.” Perhaps you’ve heard of this. It means that when you are a tenure-track college educator, you usually are expected by your college or university to meet certain expectations regarding your publication activity. This might be academic articles, books, presentations, exhibits, chapters, and so on. That’s the “publish” part of the equation. Do all this and you get promoted and you earn tenure. Don’t do all this, and you “perish,” at least at that institution and then it’s back on the job market for you.
(This also answers the question that some people ask, the one about what we do for the rest of the day outside of the three hours a day when we’re teaching in class. The answer is actually a lot longer, but let’s not make this all about me.)
Another thing about the academic career is that the climb toward tenure, at least in one’s first job out of grad school, almost always takes about six or seven years. So if one academic sees that another academic spent about six or seven years at their first position before moving on, well, we all know that means “perish.”
That’s not to say it’s always that way or that it’s always fair. There are some places where getting tenure is the exception, not the rule, and that new hires are run through the grinder and then disposed of, maybe after only three years if the “trajectory” doesn’t look promising.
So here’s where this becomes about me. My current job is not my first job. I was at my first job for, oh… about six or seven years.
I must have perished.
My employer was kind enough to let me find the door before they picked me up and tossed me through the window, so thanks for that. Remember what you read about job descriptions a few lines ago? I stubbornly continued to work for the job description job instead of the reality job. That didn’t turn out so well.
Was it fair?
Everybody hired at this place around the same time I was is still there and thriving.
And here I am at my current job, still here and thriving.
That first job? It wasn’t a good fit. My current one is.
And it took me a long time to get to this place, the place you’re reading about right now. And the topic of why I left my first employer was rarely brought up, much to my relief.
But now I know why it wasn’t brought up.
There was no reason to bring it up.
Six or seven years.
We all knew what that meant.
Back on the market, I had to unlearn a lot of bad advice that I had taken… repeat, “that I had taken”… the worst of which was “keep your head down.” No, don’t keep your head down… keep your head UP! unless you want to miss what’s going on around you. This spins off into more stories, but let’s stay focused here.
“It wasn’t a good fit.”
That may be true but no, that’s not enough. You might lose your job or want desperately to escape your job because of a bad fit. Get out of the wrong tent and into the right one, ideally before the bear catches you.
You can’t outrace the bear.
Embrace the bear. Whether it’s by choice – yours, theirs, or the bear’s- You’re not the first person to need a new job. What could you have done differently? What will you do to make a better decision for your career?
Replace the bear. You are going to do your best to find a better fit and a better situation.
These are better uses of your energy than trying to outrace the bear.