Suzy Welch wrote a complete and concise description of a condition called the Velvet Coffin. You work in a really great job situation where you feel deep down that you are not going to grow as an individual. The job is excellent, the pay is very good, and the lifestyle is wonderful. The only problem is you have a forward thought in time in which you look back and see that you did not achieve what you might have otherwise had you taken more risks.
The Velvet Coffin Scenario Resonates with Me
The last several years has seen me with an annual compensation 60% to 80% less than what I saw in each of all the new millennium years before the Great Recession. Temporary bumps closing the gap to within 20% may last anywhere from 6 months to a year, but they do not last. As of yet.
It did not have to be. I had a really great job that would have endured had I decided to do one thing. Stay.
With my skills and background, I had a perfect job, in perfect work conditions, living a very pleasant lifestyle. I did very well both in terms of work responsibilities and life routine. I was successful in the way people generally aspire to success.
After reading Suzy Welch’s description of what she calls the Velvet Coffin, I thought it was time to reflect on this concept. Some people say you should embrace it all the way, others may advise to step out and shake things up. Reality is a little more complicated than that.
Well, what is the perspective of someone who lived that life and took the advice? Is it the right approach for a career? Is it good general advice?
My Great Work/Life Situation
When I say great work/life situation, I am referring to one that is professionally and materially comfortable in which you occupy a highly stable, white-collar position. You live that life and you live well in a general sense. I am going to talk about another work/life situation later that is also good, but let’s keep with this definition for now. It is the condition many seem to strive to attain.
I was living that life with great proficiency and saw zero issues with it for the many years it was my reality. The fact was I didn’t really examine my overall life at that time. I was completely focused on career, work accomplishments, and professional development. As far as I knew, I was doing fine and only needed to work harder, learn more, raise my professional cachet and the rest would follow. That was the limit of my perspective and how I measured myself. Since I felt I was in a great situation, I saw no need to consider alternatives. My only complaint was that I didn’t achieve more fast enough. I was intensely ambitious.
Why Did I Leave?
When the HR Director asked me why I was leaving that great situation, I really didn’t have a good answer. I had known him for a few years but I couldn’t really explain my push to go. Although loss of a major responsibility was a genuine trigger for me, all that I could express to him was that I needed to grow my career further. The real answer was more complicated. The exit conversation was one in which he shared a tremendous amount of wisdom from his former career in engineering in which he faced similar choices. His advice remains sound and I have shared it in past articles on this blog.
I felt a sense of humiliation at losing direction over a major project and responsibility. That had never happened before and my response was try something else to address what I saw was personal inadequacy. Looking back, I could have accepted it. The reasons for giving the project to an outside contractor was solid. No, I left because of underlying fears about my life long-term with that organization.
Observing Other People’s Encounter with Success
A few months leading to my departure, I began to become aware of the outcomes of other people’s choices in life. I saw some people who had a long tenure at an organization get replaced by others who had far less time in but more varied experience. I saw people pay for their elevation with their health. As I spoke with such persons, and saw the professional and personal consequences, I wondered about many things.
I witnessed how some people who had a more well-rounded experience that was much less homogenous than would be the case with a long track record with a single organization be more dynamic and versatile individuals. They could address critical situations with more optimism and willingness to leverage them towards greater change and more sustainable solutions.
These rare individuals seemed to provide more value and accomplish more. They seemed to have more going on about them. I could not explain why. All I saw as the common factor was that they worked in more organizations and seen more successes and failures. Their awareness of others was rather keen. By contrast, I did not see quite that level of engagement and breadth from those with 10+ year careers in an organization. On the flip side, I did see the more dynamic types of individuals leave sooner, thus face more frequent income turbulence. You have to judge which group of individuals were in the better situation.
The Real Reason I Quit
I wanted to be one of those individuals. The dynamic kind and I considered that outcome would be unavailable to me the longer I remained in the situation I was in. I would have great fundamental skills if I did stay, but I would have less capacity to branch out and be more capable for other opportunities in such organizations such as higher executive roles involving international relations or becoming the CEO or chartering such organizations to begin with and with the capacity to work with thousands of people. I felt I was increasingly losing those possible futures the longer I stayed. That was the foundation for my decision to leave manifested only when others deemed the scope of my capabilities insufficient to processes I had previously managed well for a few years.
You Probably Had a Job Lined Up, Right?
I did not have a job lined up. When I decided to leave, I decided to leave. I felt that staying was not the right decision and income was not a factor. The weeks that followed until I had a new position grew increasingly uncertain. A small crack started to form in my comfortable universe.
Was It Worth It?
A co-worker asked me, “Are you sure that is what you want to do?” I spoke with such certainty, but I was not quite clear about it. I was transitioning from a high-level role with strong detailed work processes involved to a role that was research oriented and highly detailed oriented. I thought for certain that such experience would be a great investment towards the future. I was charting a new journey. I just did not expect that part of the new path to end 6 months later with no job prospects in sight.
My life really did change, but not in the way I naively considered. Boughts of homelessness, living in hotels, ruined credit, having no automotive transportation, giving away most material possessions resulting from involuntary moves, trying to get good sleep in a car, fighting off hopelessness, intense self-criticism, deep financial despair, loss of high level work, receding into junior positions, going from a supreme sense of independence to living with relatives and a growing entrenched sense that I may never succeed again and to just accept it. That is part of the journey I took following from choices I made in and around the time of the Great Recession.
In light of all that I lost on a decision to take the risk to become better, was it worth it? It would be totally dishonest of me to say something definitive right now, because despite several years that have passed, I am still in this process. My answer is I do not know. I cannot say yes, and I cannot say no. The only real answer I have is, it remains to be seen.
A Person of Value
What I can say is that I have had a tremendous amount of experiences in contrast to what I lived before the Great Recession. All the bad and all the good. I am more knowledgeable about people matters in a more detailed way than before. Both the good and bad dimensions of that. I was forced into a greater level of empathy and emotional IQ because you must reach that level to survive great setback and still remain functional and eligible to achieve again. I didn’t rationalize that as it was happening, it is just the response to life.
I learned valuable lessons in verbal communications. Not the kind of lessons I was building on, the polished professional speak about matters of a superficial nature. The real lessons about entrenched relationship problems, pain, disappointment, business dealings, revealed perceptions, struggle, fundamental duplicity, and base motivation and to engage on such matters appropriately rather than disregard the uncomfortable with a change of subject. Sometimes you have to face such things without an avenue of escape. On a more positive note, I gotten a much better view into alternative ways to help people.
I have worked in more places, seen slightly different takes on business and operations as well as widely differing approaches. I have seen more cause and effect from professional decisions, both personally and at an organizational level. I have taken more time to try my hand at a more diverse set of procedures and concepts related to the type of work I’ve done in the past and have learned a great deal about such processes. I stretched and pushed myself in a different profession and expanded the scope of my abilities beyond what I generally have done in earlier work. I cannot say that I am better off than I would have been had I stayed in that genuinely nice job, but I feel measurably better in general quality than I felt I would have been following a more polished course.
Is This the Right Template for Personal Growth?
This is the real question. Should people follow a path of diverse work experience and interests to gain a broader caliber? It is beneficial to do so, but only in theory. Actual realization of benefit is not guaranteed.
The risk is forfeiting something that is good and comfortable for a simmering level of material strife at best and premature life termination at worst. That last part is no exaggeration. You can easily be at greater risk of periodic personal jeopardy undertaking such a journey. I have stories about an electric transformer in a roach infested hotel on cold wintry week without power as one example. Supportive conditions can more easily falter and leave you isolated and much more limited in your ability to recover. Never facing such conditions or having long passed such a point can make comprehension of such outcomes hard to fathom. It is highly unpleasant.
The upside is that if you survive or avoid the worst aspects of the process, you may have a chance at enjoying life even more. You now know how precious it is and may be less likely to take successful living for granted. When you do regain access to more idealized work and living conditions, you should be more equipped to operate in such conditions more effectively.
Nothing is free in life. We are surrounded by cost. Privilege is when you can choose when, how, and what to pay for. That includes surrendering privilege to more greatly amplify the future privilege of a greater kind. If you are lucky.
Is this path the right template? That is a personal decision. It is not a value judgement on those who do not make such sacrifices. Nothing is wrong with working in the same position for 30 years to life. That is a good thing and a huge benefit to those who steadily pursue the cultivation of an aspect(s) of an organization. Sometimes having both qualities, reliable constancy of effort and agile response to changing conditions, in a single team or organization delivers greater outcomes. Life is dynamic and it is all choice.
Personal Growth from Professional Activity
Returning back to Mrs. Welch’s article, there is a sense that we sometimes define ourselves based on the work we do. That is not what she communicates, rather it is one of the unspoken questions from the article. Must we gather meaning from our work? My answer is not a yes/no type but to say that we should find meaning in our work but not 100% total meaning. That is to say that work should not encompass the complete entirety of our universe or perspective about how well we are doing in life. It seems unhealthy to have your work be your life.
In some occupations, your purpose is to help people. In others, it is to fashion products or solutions in a great way. Another job may encourage taking the state-of-the-art, whatever it is, to a higher level. But when you go home for the day or night, that is also you as well. The person who gains great meaning from entertainment, literature, outings with friends, oblivious expenditures of time chatting about whatever, or simply pondering about things.
The truth is a successful private life feeds into greater potential to do a better job. A better job can improve the quality of private living. Both are inter-related in terms of how one can nurture the other. The private life is the more important one however. Private lives always exist even when jobs disappear. If the profession of your dreams is not available, you should still work. For most of us, income is a minimum requirement towards a stable existence. Second, you should develop a hobby and/or actively pursue some kind of structured or creative activity your entire life. In one way, such activities maintain continuity should a profession fold. Otherwise, it is also a way to stay energized even during low points in a profession.
The Virtue of the Velvet Coffin
The operating condition described as the Velvet Coffin is a real phenomena. It can strike without warning in a way reminiscent of a slow bake to despair. When all your hopes and dreams, expectations of continuity are placed into a single job, the stakes can be high emotionally and spiritually. You may find yourself tied to the job in ways that go beyond pay. Jobs are not guaranteed and over identifying with them can be problematic. With the right perspective though, the Velvet Coffin can be transformed into a Velvet Chair. A seat which represents recognition of years of value that does not diminish the opportunity to live a vibrant life in the community and in private endeavor. Be not afraid to learn from the choice either way.
It is choice and not an unwelcome one save the constitution and desire to more decisively expand the breath and quality of one’s scope.