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A year of beer, fear and tears

Amid the uncertainties, it's important to take stock of all things that have shaped us - both good and bad

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My intention is not to dredge up the past and reopen old wounds. But rather, what we all want is healing - and closure. It's been several months and many of my former colleagues have moved on to bigger and better things.

WHEN I started this column about two years ago, I thought it would be nice to round off each year with my own reflections on workplace lessons learnt. Sort of like a time-out to do my own annual review.

But when I look back at 2017, I feel a strong need to reach out for a beer.

There's no way for me to mince it - this year was a painful wake-up call on so many levels. The retrenchments and restructuring that have plagued many industries finally came for us. Waiting for the axe to fall was possibly worse than the cut itself, as rumours had been swirling the past few months.

It was not like I was unaware of the state of affairs in the industry. I have seen the labour statistics. I have written articles on the displacement of jobs in the new digital economy. I have even helped retrenched relatives polish their resumes.

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But nothing quite prepared me for the moment when I witnessed it myself. It was messy, it was human, it was heartrending. For weeks after that, those of us who remained were all pretty much walking bodies, numb to the world. I cannot even begin to imagine how the others felt.

My intention is not to dredge up the past and reopen old wounds. But rather, what we all want is healing - and closure. It's been several months and many of my former colleagues have moved on to bigger and better things. But I don't think any of us - be it the retrenched, or the people left behind - will ever forget that day. And we shouldn't.

For me, lesson No 1 is to never give your heart and soul to any company - perhaps just your time and skills. It's not about being cynical. The reality is that it is not rational to expect loyalty, but if you do, you might be setting yourself up for disappointment.

"It's just business, nothing personal," they always say. But of course it gets personal. For many of us, our work is firmly entrenched as part of our identity. When our jobs become redundant, we tend to extrapolate it to think we are redundant. And for good reason - many of us pour out too much of ourselves into our jobs.

My biggest takeaway from the entire episode is to never let my work define me. Yes, it will always be a significant part of my life. But it is not everything.

I can always trust my dad to put things in perspective. He once saw my article on the front page of the paper. "That's nice," he said. A few hours later, I found out that he had since read it and used the paper to line the garbage bin.

But it encapsulates things quite perfectly, don't you think? What you accomplish today can be quite easily forgotten tomorrow. It's much easier said than done, but I'm learning not to get so hung up over the small things that I end up losing sight of the big picture. There is more to life than to make a living.

Taking charge

This means trying not to burn my nights and weekends on work, unless I want to burn out. For many of us, the idea that there could be one day where you are given just a few hours to pack your career into a cardboard box changes your perspective in life quite considerably.

It also doesn't mean you do a half-hearted job. On the contrary, do what you can with what resources you have. Job pride is a great and rare thing, but I have learnt that one must always do it for your own future's sake - not because that's what you're told to do.

This also brings me to the other lesson that I've learnt from this entire episode. I cannot emphasise this enough: take charge of your career.

There are many things that we cannot control. But there are a lot more that we can. This means thinking seriously about what you want to do five years, 10 years from now. What skills do you need to know to get there? What resources do you need to get better? These are all real questions that we should stop putting off.

A friend once told me, perhaps in the heat of the moment, that I only ended up where I am because of luck. I was stung, but perhaps there was some truth in it. All my life, I never really planned where I wanted to go. I never thought of being a journalist. It just happened to be the only opening available when I graduated. And after that, how I ended up in The Business Times was because an acquaintance casually mentioned that it is a great place to work, despite never having worked here. Coincidentally, there was an opening. It's been more than four years since.

Having friends as colleagues

But I think the time for trundling along in one's career is over. Taking charge of your career doesn't just mean ambitious plans for the future. It also means having some self-awareness of where you are at right now.

If you are stuck doing mundane work that is not going to add to your portfolio in the future, it's time to re-evaluate your job scope. Being self-aware also means you know when to say no to bosses when your plate is already full and what skills you lack that hinder progression. These are all very unsexy issues that are easy to dismiss, but we can no longer afford to wait.

This year may have been grim, but contrary to what I've been going on about, it wasn't all bad. There were many poignant memories made. This year's office party proved to be the most epic one yet. Karaoke sessions with colleagues - correction, friends - and having them endure my best Taylor Swift impression is also one for the books. Throughout the year, whenever it got hard, it's all these relationships at work that really helped me, ahem, shake it off.

A few of us were reflecting on the past year, and we all agreed that one common narrative is the need to put people first over process. Allow me to paraphrase an oft-cited quote by Maya Angelou: "People may forget what you say or write, but they will never forget how you made them feel." It's something I still struggle with. Truth be told, I always find people the absolute best and also the downright worst part of the job. But as always, it's a journey.

In the coming year, may we all have the ability to have a (metaphorical!) beer when it comes to things we can't help. And enough coffee to sustain us for the things that we can. Cheers to that.

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