Does Failing Make you a Failure?: Autistic Professional Confessionals – Part 4

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This is the fourth of a four-part series of the significant episodes in my autistic working life, where I’ve endured failures and scraped by with second chances . . . sometimes.

I recall with fervent light the joys of being given a second chance.

To make things right.

To achieve after letdowns, make amends, rebuild, reforge, and try again.

I like to think that one day I’m going to “arrive” in my professional life and be flawless, always delivering above expectation, and balancing my autistic strengths and opportunities with mastery.

That day isn’t today.

I’ve endured a couple of recent failures where the second chances weren’t given. I was not afforded the opportunity to make it right. My actions weren’t enough. My talent, insufficient. My earned goodwill, depleted.

What do you do when you feel the problem is you?

It’s normal to make mistakes, sure.

But should the mistakes define you despite your achievements?

They shouldn’t, but when it’s achievements that often define us, we can scarce afford to fail.

This is why I have issues. It’s why many of us do.

We tie ourselves and worth into being able to achieve and overcome beyond our imagined capacity, to prove ourselves to ourselves and to others. To conquer without what we know we won’t conquer within — because it needs no conqueror.

Things have come a long way on the Life Autistic, but they have further yet to go.

We’re still fully in a world where we feel more often excused for our “oddities” because of our talents, where our “weirdness” feels tolerated only as long as we can deliver. 

But what happens when we can’t. Or don’t? 

I’m well aware that my autism doesn’t come into play at the forefront of my professional performance or lapses thereof. But it’s the backdrop of who I am as a person. It’s in the gaps that people can’t consciously explain but subconsciously detect. It’s a tingling sense of otherness that turns sour and prominent when people’s views turn critical.

I can articulate a point to an audience, until I don’t. Or deliver on multiple things, until I miss one. We don’t always get the benefit of the doubt for a miss. We cover over our background and myriad personal challenges with achievement, but as soon as an execution gap comes up — it feels ugly.

It exposes the worst.

So as I try and fail, at what point will the failing outpace the trying?

I know the answer’s probably more positive. Where the only true failures are those who fail to try.

But what about when you’re done, when you’ve failed enough and exhausted your tries?

The Life Autistic isn’t a narrative looking back with answers to all the questions. It’s still ongoing, where the bricks are still being laid, the paths still walked, and where the torn sails may lead this raft onward or prove too tattered to carry it forward.

 

 

 

 

Truth Be Told: Autistic Professional Confessionals – Part 3

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This is the third of a four-part series of the significant episodes in my autistic working life, where I’ve endured failures and scraped by with second chances.

If it were your:

  1. First business trip, and
  2. First time meeting all your peers in person, and
  3. First org-wide succession planning session, while being your
  4. First month after a major promotion into a leadership role

Then I’m sure you probably wouldn’t have done what I ended up doing: something that hushed the room, raised eyebrows, and quick-dry cemented my reputation in a way I never could undo.

I’d like to say that many of us with autism are more “truth crusaders,” but we’re more “defenders of fact.” We’re good at pattern recognition & anomaly detection, but we’re not the best at keeping quiet about it.

And that can get us into trouble. 

I was the second-newest of the thirty organizational leaders at a summit – a big step for me after many steps in my Apple journey. Midway through, we discussed who on each of our teams would be our best future leaders in the making.

Since those in question were all my peers just weeks ago, I knew well who’d be ready to make the next steps.

One of the leaders waxed enthusiastic and eloquent about one person, someone who’d launched some initiatives, conjured up some coaching tricks, and cobbled some half-decent results.

But I knew this person. They weren’t really altogether worthy of that billing.

As this narrative went unchallenged, I thought “I’m sorry, I just don’t see this from them.”

But what came out was, well—just that:

“I’m sorry, I just don’t see this from them.”

*crickets*

So what do you do with crickets? Make more noise?

I kept going, already committed to the flag I planted, articulating my disagreements, all the while trying to find some footing to recover and yank this tirade back into something that’ll pass for constructive feedback.

It didn’t work.

That quiet, awkward lull gripped the air for too long — thankfully, our business manager called for a break. As soon as he did, I saw my boss get up from his chair and start making his way toward me. Great.

“Hey Hunter, just a bit of feedback —”

The disappointing complexity of the situation seized my shoulders. Our culture was supposed to be “feedback fit.” I had a direct view into this person’s impact. I made a mess of conveying “perceived truth” vs. “perceived opportunity.”

Unlike times where I rushed to judgment, this time, I felt the truth of the matter could offset how I went about speaking the matter. 

I’d like to say I salvaged this situation and made nice — and I did: I spoke to the gentleman at dinner and was honest about my own learning opportunity in tactfully conveying my thoughts. Thankfully, he knew enough about my “impassioned” tendencies and was gracious enough in me coming around to apologize. We get on decently these days!

I’d also like to say that my reputation was reforged as more one thoughtful and graceful in truth — but it wasn’t.

This was not one of those easy fixes, despite the work.

These introspections into my autistic professional self, they’ve helped — even if it’s just highlighting where I know I can be hasty, where I need to work harder, and where my “numb spots” lie.

It’s hardest even when you know and feel you’re right.

But it’s not always about being right.

The idea of right/wrong & truth/untruth & good/better/best had long been my success criteria in The Life Autistic — until I ran aground in my hardest lesson: failure. 

 

Getting a Chance to Make it Right: Autistic Professional Confessionals – Part 2

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This is the second of a four-part series of the significant episodes in my autistic working life, where I’ve endured failures and scraped by with second chances.

When I was 15, I started working for a Department of Defense subsidiary.

No joke. True story. 100% real.

Yeah, it was for the Commissary on NAS Keflavik, but DoD subsidiary has a great ring 🙂

I’d love to tell the story of my first boss there: a beer-drinking, cigarette-smoking, vulgar-joke-telling, meat-cutting, German-speaking Chicagoan guardian angel —but not today.

Or how I finally earned the respect from another boss: a tougher-than-nails Philippine grandmother, standing tall at 4’9″ and working endlessly and quietly until everyone else around her faltered — but not today.

No, today’s tale is about when I almost alienated Frank, the Winston Wolf of getting produce departments up to snuff, the one who was supposed to help us win the US Military’s Best Small Commissary of the Year award.

I toured him around the produce department, answering his questions matter-of-factly. Almost too matter-of-factly.

Me being autistic me, I leaned way too far into in my blunt, under-nuanced assessment of the situation.

When he asked why we had a towering stash of parsley boxes in the cooler, I said “Because we just order this stuff indiscriminately.”

He nodded.

Fast forward a day later, I get paged to the directors office.

“Hunter,” he said. “Do you remember what you said to Frank about our inventory?”

Oh God. Here we go. I could see myself being fired no matter what, because this was big, and there are no second chances to make things right, and—

But he didn’t fire me.

“Do you see how what you said might have misrepresented us?” 

This was the first major learning between my professional work and Life Autistic, where I just needed someone to help me see what I didn’t see at first.

I felt bad, but I felt better. We didn’t get the orders right, but it wasn’t because we were careless — we had a corrective opportunity to fix, which we did.

The director then went one step further, giving me a chance to make the situation right. 

This is big for us binary-thinking autistic folks, who thrive on wanting to restore balance by fixing things.

I went to Frank and apologized, knowing better where I could have been more tactful. Did we lapse and order too much parsley? Of course. But could I have better judged the situation more appropriately? Well, now I could.

Frank understood. He put out his hand, accepted my apology, and appreciated me being thoughtful enough to address this directly.

Later, I asked the director if I could take the judging day off.

“Why?”

“I don’t want to be here and risk mess things up.”

“No, Hunter,” he said. “You’re a part of this, win or lose. You helped make it happen.”

I got a chance to make it right and also not make it wrong.

And yeah, we won.