We can say that you’ve met the standards in this PIP (Performance Improvement Plan).
But the team has noticed that you’ve been very quiet over the past few months.
I pause. I’m not sure what to say. Or if there’s even anything to say.
As I reflected later that night on our conversation, I found myself thinking,
Wasn’t this what they asked for? They had imposed a Performance Improvement Plan (a get better or get sacked plan that lays out clearly what you need to meet in order to continue your employment with the company).
Colleagues had shouted at me. Others had sent emails reporting my misdemeanours to my supervisors, directors and the administrative assistants.
If I didn’t withdraw and disengage, what else could I do to survive?
It started with a question.
Why do we lose our dreams at work?
Over the past 3 months, I’ve found myself asking that question. Because when you graduate from university, or school, you leave with certain dreams.
You’ve lived out dreams through your university experience. Your university experience was probably the first time where you saw your dreams unfurl and take flight. When you go to work, you expect to bring your dreams to life through the work you do. You may expect to have a similar experience to what happened at university.
And then, BAM! Work happens.
The dreariness of doing the same thing. Meeting the same people. Having to work with people you don’t like, who may sometimes give you a kindly backstab as a welcome gift. You find yourself at the bottom of the hierarchy.
Let me start with my story.
2 years ago, in September 2019, I remember graduating from university.
For the most part, university was incredible. Studying abroad in the U.K., I met people I never thought I would meet. I got onto boards of directors to discuss multimillion pound projects. I taught academic modules. Over the summer holidays, I would have overseas work experiences in the likes of China and Peru.
You may have similar experiences. You were a leader of a committee. You were entrusted with big projects. You were regularly meeting with people globally. You had international work experiences.
Through my 3 years in university, I learnt to dream. I had a dream that one day, I would be working with young people globally to inspire them to unleash their potential.
Then university ended. That’s when the dream started to unravel.
Submitting application after application felt like I was throwing cover letters and CVs into a black hole. I wouldn’t hear anything back.
From being valued for the contributions you were making at university, now, it seemed as if no one wanted you. From being regularly invited to join committees, organise things, and join events, now, it seemed that no one was interested in inviting you for anything.
It got more and more anxiety provoking.
I used food to stuff the emptiness within me. I would eat entire cakes, trays of cookies and boxes of chocolates. Within a month, I grew by 8kg.
But I eventually interviewed, and got a job.
And then I started work. My first task was to write thank you letters. The second task was to compile an Excel sheet of who was coming to an event we were organising. It felt like they were finding me little bits of work to occupy my time. Maybe they saw that I was checking stock prices, reading news articles, and seemed too free.
Was this what I had dreamt about? Was this what you dreamt about?
Then came the silencing.
In school, you’re taught to share ideas, ask questions, and give feedback. There’s a clear meritocracy. You’re graded against a clear marking rubric, and your marks show how good you are. If you have better grades, you have a better bargaining position to apply for competitive programmes, or internships.
Work, seemed different. It didn’t seem like the best idea or question or work product was the most valued. It seemed like there was this nebulous criteria about what was appreciated, and what was not.
And if you stepped out of line, that’s when you were shamed or silenced.
There was the time when I shared a proposal to try something new for a programme with a colleague. Later that evening, I saw an email from my team leader, copying all our team-mates about how I needed to share my ideas with him first, and that “there’s no ‘I’ in team.” Or another time when I suggested moving to the cloud or virtualisation, found quotations, and talked to my operations manager… only for her to raise her voice over the phone and tell me that she had no time for this.
These actions left me feeling small. It felt as if there wasn’t a point to dream. To dream that better is possible, wasn’t that important.
These incidents reminded me that if my ideas weren’t conventional, or seemed too much of a threat to the status quo, I risked being shamed and silenced.
That was my first lesson. That work functions more like an aristocracy, rather than a meritocracy. It isn’t the most powerful idea that wins. It’s the most powerful person.
Then comes the resignation.
Maybe that’s you today. You’ve bravely brought your ideas into the room. But somehow, those ideas aren’t given the space to flourish. The idea is crowded out by the powerful personalities in the room.
Slowly, you find yourself asking,
What’s the point of dreaming?
Why should you continue dreaming?
Because that’s all you have.
I remember dinner with a colleague once. I shared with her all the difficulties I faced at work. She put down her utensils and looked me in the eye.
John, you’re a good person. You’re very passionate. But sometimes, expect less from the organisation you’re at. Don’t expect everyone to be like you.
Some people are just here to do a job.
As I looked at my colleagues, I saw what she meant. You hear it in their voices. The cynicism when something new is brought up, and they say,
This is not our main job. What’s wrong with what we’re currently doing?
You see it in the way they move. They move with a lethargy when they walk in through the door. They drag their feet through work, and you hear it in the corridor.
You can let go of the dreams you have and learn from what’s done around you. People who clock into work like how you would go to ATM. Clock in, press your PIN, and withdraw the money.
It’s just a transaction. There’s no relationship with the work.
Your dreams are all that keep you from treating work like another thing you do – like brushing your teeth, to something you truly live out loud. Like waking up and remembering,
Oh I have to work! That’s great!
The future belongs to those who dare to dream. Each time you bring up an idea in a meeting, you are taking a risk.
You’re choosing not to stay silent. You’re choosing to be bold.
That takes courage. And vulnerability.
You risk being laughed at but still you make the bold choice of speaking up.
The future belongs to those who refuse to settle for less.
It’s your choice. Would you be bold?
But how?! How do you keep dreaming in the face of toxicity?
When I trained as a social worker, I was trained to avoid being directive, telling people what to do. The theory was that if you did that, people would not come to the realisation on their own, and they would not take ownership of the changes needed.
But I realise that sometimes, people do not know. They need some guidance.
Let me tell you what worked for me. It may not work for you.
It was not that dramatic. I didn’t storm into my boss’ office, throw my resignation letter in his face, and walk out.
If you haven’t resigned before, it’s usually a simple email that says,
I am resigning.
The movies make it drama.
Firstly, I quit. Now now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not telling you to quit and stay at home, to find your dreams again. Your parents will probably come and find me!
For me, work naturally came to an end with the end of the contract. Even though there were discussions to extend it, I decided that it wouldn’t serve me best to stay in such an environment. But quitting was a way for me to remind myself that I was worth more. That I could do more. That what they said of me in the PIP, in the corridors, was not true. It wasn’t that I did my job wrongly. That I was so horrid that people wanted to get rid of me.
But I was at the wrong job. I would advise quitting, even if you don’t have another job lined up, if the boss, culture, and work does not fit you.
Try the assessments below. In these scales, you are asked to rate the boss, culture, and work. If your total scores for the 3 assessments below is under 6, consider leaving. These are assessments that I’ve independently produced, based on books I’ve read. It helped me to come to my decision to leave.
I built projects.
Secondly, I developed personal projects. I couldn’t dream with my ‘official’ work, so I dreamt at work, through personal projects. In his little book, ‘Who are you, really?’ psychologist Brian Little shares about how we usually think that our biological and social constructs (such as our culture) shape who you are.
But there’s a third, idiogenic force that shapes our personality, and helps us flourish. The idiogenic self means what is ‘personal or particular to oneself’. In other words, when looking at the idiogenic force, ‘it’s not who you are that explains what you do, it’s the other way around.’
What you do explains who you are. It comes from the projects that you build.
Brian Little explains it as such,
These personal projects for better or worse, are shaped in part by both our biological traits and our social contexts.
But they transcend each.
Because unlike nature and nurture, they are one feature of human life that is not given to us by heredity or society but is generated from within.
Building projects such as my blog, and then later an online training courses helped me to find myself again. These were projects that no one was paying me for. I did them because I liked them. And they gave me hope again.
Be kind to yourself.
It takes time to learn to play the work game.
You’ve been in school for 16 years. You may not see ‘student’ as being an occupation, but chances are, you’ve learnt how to become a better student over time.
You’ve had 16 years of experience.
And how many years of experience in the working world? Wait, how many again?
Each time you find yourself frustrated, blaming yourself for not pushing through another idea, write a letter of love to yourself. Affirm yourself. Remind yourself of the qualities within you, and examples of how you’ve shown that in the past.
Be kind to your dreams.
I confess. There are so many times I want to give up.
Many times, when I go to work, sit down to write a speech, or to write another article, I am overwhelmed by the amount of work that sits in front of me. I know that this creative act of producing, is about going to the wide blue yonder, where there are no guides. Where you may get lost.
It seems safer to stay here, then to stick yourself out there.
You may think: what’s the point? Why do this to myself?
The point is this: dreams are a gift to the world. They bring tidings of joy and hope. They show the way where there is no way. They build something, out of nothing. They remind us that better is possible.
They are a gift to yourself.
They remind you that people can shame you, silence you, shout at you… But your dreams, they are kept in that innermost place.
No one can take them but you. No one can lose them but you.
No one can be bold enough, to dream them, like you.
What’s next for me?
I don’t know. But I’ve come to the point where it’s okay not to know. When I first came back to Singapore, I was gripped by anxiety over not having a job. I ended up stuffing myself with food, to stuff the anxiety within me. Within an hour, I would finish a box of cakes, a bar of chocolate, and an entire cake. I know, I had very high maintenance costs then.
But now? I find myself meaningfully engaged with the freelance writing, speaking and facilitation that I do.
After leaving my job for the past two months, I’ve learnt that security kept me stuck. I thought that having a secure salary every month, banked in, whether or not I did a good job, left me feeling safe. It left me not wanting to push for my own dreams.
Since leaving my job, there’s always the fear that you’ll never make it. That you’ll never earn enough. That you’ll end up having to work at a job you don’t want, to make ends meet.
But there’s a certain freedom to this feeling of having your back to the wall, having no other option except to make things work out. It’s reminds me of what my friend recently told me – the immigrant mindset.
I remember the time in Nottingham. There were days when I would go into my room and cry because it was so difficult to be lonely, away, and never understanding the culture I was placed in. There were times when a teacher would assume that I couldn’t speak English, because I didn’t speak during class. There were other times when I was told off for taking the initiative.
But I kept fighting, because there was no other choice. Except to make things work.
It’s the same with your dreams. Your dreams are a migrant to this land. They are foreign to the people around. People may insult it, trample on it, and try to remind you that you’re just a nobody.
Let them call you a nobody.
Because you know who you are, and what you stand for. And you’ll fight for that.
Be kind to your workplace.
Learn to be a follower before you are followed.
Whilst I don’t have all the answers, the experiences shared here are drawn from the experiences of friends and others I’ve worked with in my counselling practice.
But more importantly, in the absence of a healthy culture and environment to foster those dreams, are there things we can do to, in the words of Nancy Duarte, to dream and re-dream?
How do we be kinder to our dreams, rather than crushing them, when others disrespect them?