I was told it was nothing personal, just business. The rejection stung like a paintball gun to the kidney. Cognitively, I understood that it was “just business” but that didn’t make it any less heartbreaking. It may have been business to them, but it was personal to me…

This week, I will graduate from a four-month leadership program through FOCUS St. Louis and Coro Women in Leadership. I’m really glad I participated in the program, and I gained some invaluable lessons and insights. For example, I learned about:

1. Risks. I am an ambitious risk-taker. A Coro classmate described me as “taking a swan dive into every new situation.” I like the sound of that.

2. Mistakes. Recognizing my mistakes is not the same as hating myself for them. It’s more important for me to be willing to learn from screw-ups than to be perfect all the time.

3. Guts. My gut is smarter than I give it credit for. I should trust it more often.

I wore floaties until I reached high school.

Here I am prepared to take a “swan dive” into any new situation.

I was accepted to the leadership program in August. My supervisors had enthusiastically written letters of recommendation for me, and my boss allowed me the time to attend the program.

Most attendees in the program had their tuition paid for by their employers. Without this kind of support, the program was a significant financial investment for my husband and me to make. We had to weigh the benefits of the program against the likelihood we could only afford to eat saltines and generic Kraft cheese slices for the next few months. But I saw the value in professional development, and I needed a challenge.

Actually, scratch that. What I really needed was to change my career.

Let me step back.

Finding My Tribe
My employer had been a positive part of my life for two and a half years. My position was exactly what I needed after having worked for a sociopath during the 10 months prior to being hired there. My new boss quickly became a mentor, teacher and friend. Under his tutelage, I improved as a writer and as a professional.

My coworkers laughed at my jokes, granting me permission to be myself in the department. I quickly found my place in the pack. I belonged.

I don’t always express admiration or care toward others in the warmest way. My modus operandi is to deflect personal emotions with sarcasm and humor. But I feel things very strongly. I internalize everything.

Over the years, I grew to care very deeply for my colleagues, and I was passionate about my work. Plus, I was good at my job – really good.

A Tough Blow
At my annual performance review in April, I received perfect marks and glowing feedback – as I had in each previous review. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to garner the raise I requested. I was told it was nothing personal, just business.

The rejection stung like a paintball gun to the kidney.

Cognitively, I understood that it was “just business” but that didn’t make it any less heartbreaking. It may have been business to them, but it was personal to me. My self-esteem has always been reflective of my professional achievements.

Until then, I had imagined myself working my way up the ranks to a VP someday. I had even brushed off a couple of recruiters throughout the years. But now everything had changed.

I hadn’t positioned myself as a good enough investment. From the company’s perspective, they had me for a bargain. I had already developed a comprehensive strategy and was leading several projects and initiatives. Upon making it into the boardroom, I noticed I was the lowest level employee in there. I certainly appreciated the seat at the table, but if they already had the milk for cheap, why should they give the cow more money? That would have been udderly ridiculous.

A Second Opinion
Friends responded to my plight in one of two ways. Some said I was right to ask for what I deserved. Others said I asked for too much and should be grateful I had a job at all.

Was I deluding myself?

My gut told me I was worth it. But the only power I had was the freedom to leave. And at the time, I didn’t fully realize just how powerful that freedom was. I had no idea I wielded the only power I needed.

L is for Loser
I started feeling like a schmuck for putting myself in this situation. I was bummed. Then I was sad. I became depressed. Fortunately, I learned that the company’s Employee Assistance Program covered counseling.

Perfect! My company was kind enough to provide someone to help me address the depression I felt because of my company.

To call this period a really dark time would be the biggest understatement ever written on this blog. I don’t want to get into specifics, but let’s just say even I couldn’t muster enough sarcasm to combat the deep melancholy of those months. I was in the shit.

It’s amazing how differently my year ended than it began.

It took me some time to accept that I wouldn’t be advancing at the company. But walking away is a risk.

I took my time. I sent a handful of applications, went on a few “interesting” interviews – some of which are blog posts for another day. But in August, right around the same time I started my leadership program, I was called in to an interview.

Then, I was called in to an interview somewhere else. Fast forward a few weeks, and I had two job offers in front of me.

My gut was cheering me on! And simultaneously telling me to puke. I had never been so optimistic nor so terrified.

Moving On
When I put in my notice, my boss wasn’t surprised. No one was surprised. I’ve never had a very good poker face, but I never wanted to give the impression I was unhappy. Unsatisfied, certainly. But I loved my work and enjoyed every day collaborating with the talented people around me.

The departure was rough. Having deflected emotion via sarcasm for the past two and a half years, I found tears welling upon informing colleagues.

Despite everything, I left the company in the best way possible. I know they made a business decision. I understand that it wasn’t personal, even though it hurt. I wish everyone could find joy and passion in their job the way I did at this one. I will always be grateful to the company for my experience, and I can honestly say I found something to get pumped up about on every single day I came to work. I laughed on every single day of work. How many people can say that?

Guts and Glory
My gut has been shouting, “I told you so!” ever since I began my new gig. And since starting, I’ve been challenged in ways I never anticipated. I’ve learned several valuable lessons from this past year’s experience:

1. My self worth is not determined by the value an employer may put on me.

2. I’m very, VERY good at what I do.

3. I’ve got good guts.

I will never again let my self worth be defined by my net worth – a lesson I want to record here lest I need a future reminder.

My gut tells me I’m not the only one who needs a reminder.

For less about my own personal triumph and more about my own personal humiliation, check out some of my other posts: