Why To Say No to That Big Opportunity

Woman's hands holding wadded up American $100 bills.

Q: Should I leave my own consulting practice and join another firm as their CEO? I know I can bring a lot of value, as my Rolodex is strong and I have big ideas, but I’d have to convince one of the 3 co-founders of this (he’s skeptical, to say the least). I’d own 20% of the new company and I think it would be a real relief to be in partnership with other people.

A: Wow, that’s a heck of a role, and 20% sounds like a lot. I can see why you’d be excited by it.

But, let’s do the math, shall we?

You’d go from owning 100% of your own work to owning one-fifth of shared work. If their company is worth 5x what yours is worth now, then you’ve gained… absolutely nothing. As CEO, your job would be doing the revenue generation of this entity, so you’d be nearly 100% responsible for driving the growth of the shared company, but only partaking of one-fifth of the upside. That 20% seems smaller by the second because you are doing most of the work to make it something, financially.

Even if the math were better, what’s important here is the messy landmine of a social situation you’d be willingly stepping onto.

Your desire to be “with other people” is blinding you to the impending implosion. You’d be “partnering” with someone who isn’t on board with you joining, so you get to do what you already do, but with a critic sitting in the corner. A critic who because of his precedence on the team, and his higher ownership of the company will have a bigger vote than yours, maybe even a veto vote on everything you want to do. So, ask yourself… What does that cost you in time and energy and general hassle factor?

Pshaw, you’re thinking. You’re strong and capable and determined and so — obviously — you can handle the conflict!

But, I’m asking, should you?

When any of us enter situations where we have little to no social support, when we work with people who don’t get us, when we willingly step into situations where the knife is already out, there is a real cost. It’s a social isolation tax.

Social isolation tax and how it compounds

I used to minimize this social tax.

And then, I took a job that had the title and money at a Fortune 100 company, which had equally bad social dynamics. But I said yes anyway.

Why, you ask? Cause, I thought, I can handle it. Or, maybe I thought, I should be able to handle it, er, anything.

And no one asked me, should I want to face bad social constructs?

When we accept a situation where we’re separated, isolated, and set up to fail, we can find ourselves doing crazy things.

As my tee up suggests, it didn’t end well. I have already written about getting hired and fired in a short 18 months. So while I had wealth and title and even the theoretical ability to have an impact as one of the top 100 leaders in a top-tier company, it didn’t last.

But there’s a bigger point I want to share. It’s more personal, more ugly.

When we accept a situation where we’re separated, isolated, and set up to fail, we can find ourselves doing crazy things. If you clicked on that link about getting hired and fired, I shared how I threw my once best friend under the bus. I distinctly remember looking in the mirror after all that had happened to see a villain staring back.

What’s not in that piece, though, is equally revealing. My then-husband criticized my hours. Working to overcome heinous dysfunctional situations requires some serious factoring of hours, something like 1.5 hours for every productive hour because you have to spend way more time convincing people of things when they are resistant to you and your ideas.

So, I pushed husband #1 away from me for not supporting me. You see, I was funding his super expensive law school degree with the funds from this Big Job, so I couldn’t understand why he couldn’t see the tight bind I was in. The more he critiqued, the more I backed away and the less rooted I became as time went on.

This is how the social isolation tax compounds.

But it’s even more ugly than how my first husband and I lost each other. (I did warn you, right?)

Also not in that piece about getting fired is something I didn’t want anyone to know. But it is certainly part-and-parcel of the social isolation tax. Here it is: I slept with a colleague. A married colleague. I didn’t love him, though at the time I thought I had real feelings. I just wanted, needed to feel the comfort of someone, anyone. However bankrupt it made me feel emotionally to meet up in sad little motel rooms, I did it to feel less alone, less isolated.

So, I had a big job with a big title working with people to have a big impact.

But I was a cruel friend, a shut-off person, veering toward a divorce, and a marriage-breaker cheat.

“Everything terrible is really something helpless”

I look back at this time with some compassion as I write this. I think of bell hooks’ words: “everything terrible is really something helpless.” I was doing the very best I could given my state of belonging, the social context in which I was operating.

Perhaps, and far too predictably, this explains why I study the things I study: collaborative work cultures, power and voice, ideas and belonging.

What I’ve learned is this: Bonds, connectedness, and social relationships are not “nice to haves.” Belonging is crucial to the impact we make. Yes, it affects our mental state and loneliness. Yes, it affects our immune systems and healthiness. But it’s more than how we emotionally or physically feel. These social threads tether us to the fabric of the world. They are fundamental to how we humans intellectually operate to create, well, everything.
So, when any of us put ourselves in social situations where we have to play defense, we will also find all sorts of crazy ways to cope. Coping can look like ignoring friends/family/children, or fighting with our colleague or roommate or spouse, or crying in the bathroom, or numbing or eating or imbibing too much, and the list can go on. Fill in the blank of nearly every negative situation you see at work and it’s mostly helpless humans, exhausted from the lonely and isolating social conditions they’re in. Not because any of us like doing crazy-ass things. Not because they are bad people. But because we — each and every one of us — need to belong. Even at work. Especially at work. Because that’s where we go to contribute our bit to the world for the vast majority of our waking hours.

Why you should run away

So, back to your original question. Should you take this big job? I told you as soon as we started. The answer is emphatic: Run away, run away.

But I didn’t explain to you why.

And I feel the need to. Because it applies to so many others who write to me. “Should I take money from a VC who has a long history of pushing out the founder” (and it’s the founder writing to me). Or “should I work at this big/ brand /company even though the job/boss/company seems a wrong cultural fit for my disposition?” These are all the same question: Should I choose what seems like a big impact, when the people I’d be working with are wrong for me.

A lot of us think big jobs or big titles, or big companies will let us have a big impact. And so, we think we need to accept the bad social situation to get the other “big” things (title, money) to do our “big” work.

Wanting to be bigger in impact is an expression of your own expansiveness.

But that’s not how things work. Even the best, most strategic idea means nothing in isolation. If the strategy conflicts with how a group of people already believe, behave, or make decisions together, it will fail.

Ideas become real not because of the spark of the idea, but because of the work of many. By how the friction of different takes shapes the nascent idea into something viable. By how the united effort across a company or industry or marketplace causes it to scale. An idea becomes big enough to dent the world not by any one effort, but by ours.

The way I think about this is a 2×2 graph.

On one axis, we have the power of one’s distinct voice and values, that singular expression true to each of us. It’s you.

On the other axis, we have the social context of belonging, the way in which we relate to one another. It’s us.

2x2 grid with Isolated and Impactful on the top two squares and disengaged and assimilated on the bottom
  • If you have a weak voice, and equally weak sense of belonging, you will be disengaged. From yourself and others.
  • If you have a strong sense of you, but weak social support, you are isolated. (This is why I worry about the scenario you describe.)
  • If you have high belonging but with a weak voice, you “belong” in the same way one belongs to The Borg, by fitting in, by assimilation.
  • It’s when you have both in full measure, where you have a strong sense of self — with clarity of purpose and values — AND you are in a context that lets you contribute that, that’s when you can be impactful.

This is the mental framework that underlies Onlyness, the agentic power that allows someone to make a difference even if they lack societal status or organizational power.

Who we are is what we make

When you first reached out, what I saw was that you wanted to be bigger, you want more impact. And you saw joining with other people as a way to do that. You seemed a little embarrassed by your ambition. And so that’s what I want to return to. Ambition is beautiful. Wanting to grow and have a great impact is natural, as natural as flowers blooming. Flowers bloom not to show off, but because that is their job.

Wanting to be bigger in impact is an expression of your own expansiveness.

So I celebrate you claiming what you want, clarity of self, chasing bigger ideas and wanting to have a bigger impact. And I want to show you that it’s okay to want even more than the role. You can also want a social setting where you can thrive. Where you can have belonging and congruence, and a sense of us. Don’t limit your ambition so much that you don’t get what you actually need to succeed.

We deserve to find ourselves surrounded by those who actually support us, who see us, who want better for us, and with us, and thus stand with us. Even if we can’t spot them right away, we can seek, craft, and build the intentional systems in our work lives that enable us to do our best work. We can choose that over and over again, so we can do bigger and bigger things.

Because who we are is what we make.

That spot in the world only you stand is the source of your big ideas. It’s a function of your distinct history and experiences, visions, and hopes. This distinct set of ideas born of you is manifest when we are in the right social structures. When we can belong as our fullest selves. That’s why Onlyness is not about the single-dimensional message of you being more you, or you finding the clarity of your voice, your own values. That is just one axis. It is also about finding the right social spaces, the ones where who you are will be celebrated. That is the context in which you can be most fully alive.

This piece was first published on Marker. Yes & Know readers get this extra bit:

Walk this idea into your own ambitious reality. 

  • Can you name your next big ambition? Can you write it down? 
  • Does your ambition include more than the status/influence/scope; does it include the social context in which you operate the best? 
  • Who can you share this with so you speak it into being?

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