Want to know the hardest thing about reinvention? The shame.
I spent most of my youth and all of my adulthood until I was in my mid twenties as an evangelical. It wasn’t something I ever wanted to leave. Unlike most kids, I didn’t question my faith much. I believed it.
I was an evangelical and proud of it. I was training to be a minister. In fact, that’s why I entered higher education after my bachelor’s degree. Initially, my dream was not to be an academic.
That world came crashing down for a bunch of different reasons.
But I’ll never forget the feeling of deep darkness I entered when I left the religion of my youth. I would spend nights staring into the darkness of the ceiling, finally flicking on a TV program to distract me enough from my thoughts so I could fall asleep.
I remember how lost I felt, not knowing where my life would go now.
And there was one feeling that was unfamiliar.
I felt embarrassed.
I eventually found my identity again as an academic and threw myself into my studies. I loved it and realized I had a good mind for it. I came alive working on some historical problem or figuring out the wording of an ancient Greek inscription that nobody had ever interpreted before.
Then, I realized that the job I was training for, a professor, no longer existed. I applied for all the professor jobs that I could, but didn’t get anything.
I realized that there were—in fact—hundreds and even thousands of people applying for that one job in rural Idaho.
And my world crashed down again.
I left academia, and with my spouse and kids I moved into my parents’ basement for a while until we could figure our lives out. The money was dwindling, and as our siblings were buying houses and growing their wealth, I was left trying to figure out whether I could even get a job that paid more than minimum wage.
In other posts I’ve talked about that story, and I want to acknowledge that you can indeed build an amazing career from any degree once you learn how.
That’s what this site is about. I wrote about it in this post about using your story to find your purpose.
But in that moment, I came back to a familiar feeling. And that’s what I want to acknowledge, because it’s the dragon that looms over your shoulder when it comes to reinvention.
I was deeply embarrassed. I was embarrassed that for a second time I was dumb enough to devote my life to something that was a lie. I was embarrassed that I once again had nothing to show for my years of hard work.
Except for the letters after my name.
Ahh yes, those god-damned letters. I was so embarrassed of those three letters—P.H.D. I thought that they were a symbol to the world of how naïve I was. They represented my stupidity, my ignorance. They were a token of five wasted years, of a dead end, of my family not having the life they deserved.
They represented a guy who was smart, but not smart enough to google, “Can you get a job with a humanities PhD?”
I imagined that they made me a running joke. I thought employers would be chuckling after I walked out the door, pointing to the letters P.H.D. after my name on my resume that also had my construction work and my stint as a camp counsellor on it.
No, I wasn’t proud of my PhD. I wasn’t proud when I moved in with my parents or interviewed to be a realtor. I wasn’t proud when I had to desperately send out messages to junior staffers and government workers who were 10 years younger than me. And got ignored, a lot.
If there was anything that made me want to take those letters off of my name and my resume, it was that.
It would be at least a year before I felt confident putting them on.
It’s plain embarrassing that the world you believed in and identified with doesn’t make sense anymore, whether that’s a company, an industry, or a relationship. It’s humiliating to have to start again.
It’s embarrassing to have to beg someone to take you and your credentials seriously in the world.
And it’s embarrassing when it doesn’t happen.
It’s embarrassing to have spent years in university only to have to work a job you could get with much less education.
When I came across Brené Brown’s work and read her books, it was a breath of fresh air.
And I realized that her work explained my embarrassment. In fact, she wouldn’t call what I was feeling embarrassment at all. She’d call it shame.
“I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”Brené Brown
Unworthy of connection.
That was it, wasn’t it? I cut myself off from my academic peers and history because I felt like I’d failed according to how they understood the world. And I didn’t fit into the world of work, where I felt like a deep failure in how expertise was ACTUALLY perceived—usable real-world experience.
This disconnect, standing between the academic world and the real world, was painful, not just because it represented failure, but because it was lonely.
Welcome to shame. I am Chris’ raging sense of inadequacy.
I incorporated deep failure and inadequacy as a central tenant of my core identity and held on to them tight.
I am a failure. I am a mistake.
I am ashamed.
There are some of you reading this who have hit a serious dead end in your life. You have hit a wall where it is undeniable that your life, or in particular your career, will not be what you thought it was. You can’t avoid the reality that a world you loved and believed in doesn’t exist anymore.
It’s gone. It’s fucking gone.
And with that disappearing world, you see yourself disappearing too. Because you had your identity in that world. You understood yourself in it.
So it’s not just that it’s gone.
You’re gone too.
I think the thing that hits me the most about Brown’s TedTalk when I saw it (you can watch it below if you never have) is when she talks about the courage to be imperfect. It takes courage to accept your own imperfections and mistakes.
And when I think about the people who have undergone tremendous transformation and rebirth, I imagine courage.
But I’m a high achiever. And I don’t cope well with imperfections. It takes a lot of courage to admit these. And sometimes I don’t think I’m brave enough.
I was never one of those people who was okay with not being the best or the brightest. As a minister, I thought I had all the answers to life. As an academic, I thought I was smarter than the average mortal. I thought my life was going to be different, and that meant something.
I was so wrong.
This is the embarrassment. I fucked up. I devoted my life to something, and I can’t do that anymore.
And the only cure, as Brown tells us, is vulnerability. It’s coming clean. It’s acknowledging to others that we feel like we made a mistake, whether or not your thing actually was a mistake. Because that’s when we can begin to move through it and accept and like ourselves again.
So this might be the important first step in transformation when your world goes down the drain.
Find someone you can tell about it. If you made a mistake, admit it to yourself. And—by the way—maybe you didn’t make a mistake. Maybe the world just changed and there’s nothing you can do about it.
But accept it and admit it to yourself.
I’m a beautiful human with many flaws. I’ve gone down the wrong path many times.
But that’s not going to stop me from having an amazing future.