“The secret to a long life is knowing when it’s time to go”
– Michelle Shocked
I used to say that any company that hired me full-time was doomed to go out of business in six months. That was more of a joke than the truth, but I do sometimes have an instinct for looming failure. My enthusiasm draws me towards a quixotic organization, and my powers of observation quickly disillusion me. That was true in my teenage relationships, and has proved equally true since in my dealings with employers and various causes – a fact that causes me even more self-doubts than satisfaction.
For example, I once gave up my usual freelance status for a position with a company that I was convinced was doing new and exciting things, and would be a benefit for users. I was quickly promoted, but my increasingly insider position made me uncomfortably aware that the company was spending more time on development than in finding a business model.
After a deal I had nurtured for three months fell apart because the CEO couldn’t bother to check his notes before negotiating, I did a little mental graphing, and concluded that the company would never turn a profit before it ran out of money. I resigned, and the company declared bankruptcy ten months later. Its end would have come sooner, except that employees were on half-salary for the last six months. I never saw any figures, but the company must have had a gross income of well under ten thousand dollars, while spending several million.
A while later, I took a similar position, partly for the pay but mostly for the chance to work with some industry leaders. Soon, I realized that its strength,too, lay in research. At that point, it was two-thirds of the way through developing its own product, which supposedly would be the cornerstone of its future products. Not wanting to leave the product half-finished, I stayed until its release. It sold poorly, much as I had expected, leaving the company with nothing to attract additional investment.
After much conscience-probing, I resigned. A few weeks later, massive layouts hit. The company careened along for several years, but as a consulting house rather than a manufacturer. By the time its doors closed for the last time, its original plans were forgotten by everyone except the executives.
More recently, my enthusiasms lured me into becoming active on the board of a non-profit. In this case, familiarity soon bred alarm. Although I believed in everything the organization stood for, I couldn’t help seeing that the founders had an unfortunate combination of arrogance and inexperience that seemed certain sooner or later to produce a disaster.
Not only did they have no idea of how to deal with the public, but they were incapable of seeing the need for developing a community. Worst of all, with an approach that could only be called aristocratic, the founders gave the board little to do except to agree to decisions that were already made.
For some months after I resigned, the organization was struggling just to raise the money it needed to survive. It took a couple of PR hits, but survived, largely because no one was watching it.
Then the non-profit managed to annoy people in quantity. The founders were denounced, sometimes legitimately, sometimes abusively. Their commitment to their cause was questioned. Previous supporters declared they would not donate again. Other organizations stopped associating with it. Sponsors were questioned about their connection, and, instead of making a public apology, the founders chose to remain unrepentant.
The organization still has supporters, and can probably continue until the next time it needs funds. But, as I write, its future effectiveness seems doubtful, and maybe impossible. The death watch has probably started, although it may be prolonged through stubborness.
In all these cases, I found myself tangled in mixed emotions.
On the one hand, I felt that I had dodged a bullet against all odds, that I had been wandering oblivious through an obstacle course, and only escaped being dragged down myself through lucky coincidences. I also felt my prophetic gifts proved, and had to resist uttering variations of “I told you so!” in public.
On the other hand, I had committed myself on all of these occasions, and made friends – or, more accurately, perhaps, friendly acquaintances. Could I have done anything to stave off disaster if I had stuck around? I asked myself on each occasion?
Fortunately, I’ve trimmed back my megalomania by concluding that I could only have been tainted by each failure, but that doesn’t eliminate the guilt. I’ve been the first person to mutter against myself analogies about rats and sinking ships, feeling hypocritical because, for all my concern, my sense of relief is even stronger.
I suppose I should be grateful for the survival skill. After all, with my ideas of loyalty and obsessive tendencies, things could have been far worse for me. And I do feel grateful – just not very proud.