By now, most of us have settled into the post - New Year economic reality. We're just sitting around, watching all of those resolutions fall by the wayside. If that's you, here's some advice: Stop wasting your time paying attention to all the economic pontificating. It's nothing but a distraction that has the potential to make 2003 just like last year — a year we'd all like to forget. Because while the experts blather about recovery, recession, double-dip recession — you name it — an elephant stands quietly in the corner, unmentioned: What lots of us have been silently hoping for, without ever quite saying it aloud, is that the good old days of a few short years ago will return. And when they come back, they'll bring all their hope and promise — that we'll once again live in a turbocharged economy that made it seem possible to find work that offered the spiritual solaceof poetry and a compensation package that could handle a second house in the country. Well, the elephant has a message for us: Forget it.
It's not so much that we're guaranteed an economic death spiral into depressionary oblivion. Things aren't that bad. But things have gotten bad, and seem even worse, for the simple reason that they used to be so good. At the height of the new-economy phenomenon, everything about work seemed up for grabs: the employee-company relationship, the definition of white-collar creativity, the ownership of (if you will) the means of production. All of this blue-sky possibility has evaporated, and that's the hardest thing to admit. Nobody talks about reinventing the idea of work anymore, and that feels like a defeat.
So how do we proceed? As an answer to that, imagine a four-box grid that charts the ways that you can move forward, now that you've found your way around the elephant.
Grow Up. It's an extreme message that a lot of people badly need to hear. The pie-in-the-sky factor was simply out of control during the boom years. When writing business plans became as fashionable as writing coming-of-age novels, and when every dumb idea seemed to make a millionaire of the guy next door, overnight success seemed not just easily obtained, but also like some kind of divine right. Years of sacrifice? Nah. We all wanted to hit a home run our first time up at bat, then retire before age 35, and then launch a second career as a dabbling, high-dollar consultant. Did such things happen? For a handful, yes. Does that mean that anybody can do it? No. Is it fair that some of those who cashed in before the music stopped were bozos? Of course it isn't fair. Get over it!
Adjust Your Expectations. Once you've accepted that other people's past success means little to your future, you can return to the pre-good-old-days model of goal setting. Stop measuring your own progress against the hype. If your only definition of success is starting $3 billion companies, you're in trouble. So take a lesson from Wall Street and adjust your expectations: If your goals are aggressive but grounded in reality, then you can meet or beat them. If they're dependent on smoke and mirrors, you'll miss them. Maybe you can put off the bad news for a few quarters — but as the Wall Streeters have learned, that only makes for a harder fall. Recalibrate now.
Restart. Start from scratch. Once you've cleared away the never-never-land fantasies that end with the movie of your life airing on HBO, you'll have a better idea of what really lies ahead. Instead of worrying about your third startup, for example, you can get back to focusing on the one that you actually run (or hope to). Or you can just clearly define your goals within somebody else's company: Instead of trying to be the first middle manager to achieve rock-star fame, start simply being a great middle manager — the best in your department, your company, or your industry.
Don't Grow Up. The possibility of restarting sounded almost optimistic, which brings us to the last stop — your final choice of fixes. By now, you've cleared all of the pixie dust out of your eyes, but that doesn't mean you should curl up in the corner of your cubicle and start reading Dilbert books until someone tracks you down and cans you. Yes, the odds are against your becoming a wild, breakout success, celebrated in story and song. But guess what? That's the way it's always been. The business world's most revered figures, from Bill Gates on down, almost invariably overcame overwhelming odds to get where they are. They didn't surf easily to the top on a big societal wave of applause. In fact, they spent most of their pre-success years being shouted down by naysayers. Yet they persisted. It was incredibly hard, and that's the whole point: The elephant isn't just telling you that it's not as easy to succeed as it used to be. He's telling you that it never was.
Rob Walker (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a writer based in New Orleans.
A version of this article appeared in the February 2003 issue of Fast Company magazine.