Can or should I be a professional phoenix?
December 12, 2012 5:15 AM   Subscribe

I've been in my professional field for about a decade. For the first five years of that, I was a bit of an alcoholic. I shudder when I think back to some of the unprofessional ways I behaved. I'm worried that I now have a reputation of being flaky within my rather small professional community. Short of changing fields, is there anything I can do?

What did I do, you wonder? Well, I was in my early twenties when I got hired here, and still mired in that early-twenties partying/drinking/who the hell am I?/work sucks mentality. Within a month of getting hired, I showed up at work so hungover that I had to go home sick (after moodily not talking to anyone in the car we were taking to a meeting). I spent entire days and weeks just surfing the internet and screwing up projects as a result. I've also always had this weird resentment towards my professional field, and towards work in general, that I now recognize is really immature and unhelpful given that one has to earn a living somehow (even if it's not rescuing baby pandas or something).

I'm still not the world's greatest in my particular field, but with all this experience I do now feel relatively competent from day to day. I've made strenuous efforts to stop idly screwing around all day and to be responsive to coworkers. It's an ok field to be in, in that my coworkers are genuinely good people for the most part. I've been thinking about changing careers, but my current employer offers many generous benefits that would be hard to find elsewhere. And hell, the economy sucks, I'm lucky to have held onto a job.

Part of the problem is that, due to family obligations, I'm stuck in the same city for the foreseeable future. I suppose if I were to move across the country and begin anew, none of this would matter. But given that everyone seems to know everyone else in the small pool of professionals in this field and geographic area, I worry that my reputation may be somewhat tarnished.

Is there anything I can do?? Put my nose down and get to work? I don't think telling people I used to be an alcoholic is very practical.
posted by silly me to Work & Money (16 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Just do a good job from here on out. People who are screwups in their early 20s and reliable people a decade later are seen as having grown and matured. Don't sweat what you did the first month of employment a decade ago, it's the most ancient of histories. Do the best you can do with work, people, and life today, and when you get up tomorrow, do the best you can do tomorrow.
posted by headnsouth at 5:20 AM on December 12, 2012 [9 favorites]

Thinking about people in my own field, I would say that professional reputation is pretty strongly weighted to recent work. If you are now producing solid work and you keep that up for a year or two, people will recognise that you've changed. The only other thing I can think of would be whether there is a professional qualification you could take to mark the fact that you are now taking yourself seriously as a member of that professional community?
posted by crocomancer at 5:21 AM on December 12, 2012 [3 favorites]

I did a variant of this too - many bad decisions about happy hour drinks with coworkers in my early 20s. I still work at the same location, with those coworkers, and am highly regarded (now, anyway). I dont think situations like this are uncommon for younger professionals.

Keep your head up, move forward, and kick ass from here on out, and your past will be of little consequence.
posted by Fig at 5:57 AM on December 12, 2012

Time is the only thing that will help.

Well, time and doing kick ass work. If anyone brings up the past, just smile, and talk about how you're glad you outgrew that.
posted by DigDoug at 6:14 AM on December 12, 2012

First: get sober. Do whatever you have to do. The best way of proving to your colleagues that you no longer have a problem with alcohol is to stop having a problem with alcohol. You don't have to flaunt this around, but when the opportunity comes up to have a drink, pass. People will notice.

Second: do a good job. You can't have been doing a truly terrible job or you would probably have been fired by now. But if you have been acting unprofessionally, start acting professionally. Again, people will notice.
posted by valkyryn at 6:16 AM on December 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

I should have mentioned that I have been sober for five years, but it's only recently that I've started to lose my begrudging attitude towards work.
posted by silly me at 6:25 AM on December 12, 2012

Either you're an alcoholic or you're not. Don't even think of using that word as an explanation unless you're prepared for the baggage it carries. If you say "I used to be a bit of an alcoholic", you run the risk of insulting people who actually have problems with alcohol. If you want to say anything at all, maybe "In the early part of my career, I wasn't always as prudent about my alcohol consumption."
posted by disconnect at 6:27 AM on December 12, 2012

Sorry, and also meant to say that the advice to just work hard and put it behind me is well taken. I've always thought that people's reputations were pretty ironclad, though, and difficult to shed. I am actively trying to be a better employee now.

On preview: I'm sorry if my attempt to minimize my drinking came across as insulting--I genuinely didn't mean it that way! Yes, I was an alcoholic.
posted by silly me at 6:29 AM on December 12, 2012

Did you get sober through a 12 step program? Because there's always step 9: making amends.
posted by elsietheeel at 6:42 AM on December 12, 2012

Write a memoir. It's the American way.

No seriously, very few of us survive long into our professional careers without accumulating some embarrassments, some enemies, and some history we wish we could erase. God knows I have my own. Luckily, I'm in a profession where eccentricity and occasional acting out is a bit tolerated. I'd never have made it in straight business with my tongue.

You put it behind you by being better than you used to be, with everyone, over a long time. You learn from those mistakes, you become a source of wisdom and support for other people who are busy making their own, you become a wise old lion who's seen it all and underneath the sometimes prickly exterior can be counted on to do the right thing and be generous of spirit.

No shortcuts to it. As I turn into an old geezer/elder/whatever, and watch younger people go through the same steps I did, I feel wiser than I did when I was younger, and actually less cynical. People are people. They are going to struggle. Addiction problems are not character flaws a priori, and most of us have seen them and a lot of us have dealt with them. If you dealt with it personally and effectively, it shows good character, which is what counts in the long run for your reputation. Think of the long run, and keep your head on straight.
posted by spitbull at 6:59 AM on December 12, 2012

And yes, make (private) amends where it will help, where there is an ongoing relationship that is still strained, and where you can still fix the broken parts. But don't obsess over it. Most people don't want to rehash bad stuff, and certainly not if the point is mostly to make you feel better about yourself. You really make amends by being a better person from here on out.

Goddamn it took me forever to figure this out. Still working on it.
posted by spitbull at 7:02 AM on December 12, 2012

I'm sad to say that there are enough people out there who really hold onto impressions of years past. I have a coworker who used to have a bit of an anger issue (yelling a bit, hitting his computer, not being the nicest to work with, ...) and though he isn't that person anymore, or really at all in the past 7 years he notes that it took him a long long time before people forgot about that feature of his personality, or those people just moved on to other companies and thus were no longer around to spread that knowledge.

There are also plenty of people who don't hold grudges and just judge people on their recent (one year) work and work ethics.

You WILL run into both types of people, so a "head down and do good work" approach I actually feel is a bad way to go about things, IF your industry allows you that freedom. The problem is that if you put your head down and just do good work then the only people that will actually notice the change will be those that directly see the result of your work and nobody else. I actually suggest for you to do what you can to actually interact with more people on a weekly basis, whether those people are on your team, upper management, etc... The more you make a point to have people's recent interactions with you be ones be positive ones then there is less chance people will always just remember your "young and dumb" attitude

good luck!
posted by zombieApoc at 7:05 AM on December 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Let go of the notion that "people" are in any way a monolith. Concentrate on making honest individual connections, be kind, work smart. Be aware that you might now be obsessing over things that nobody else remembers.
posted by bonobothegreat at 7:50 AM on December 12, 2012

Even in a small community, everyone isn't going around forming a group opinion of you. Some people probably think you're an asshole. Some other people didn't notice. Maybe even some other people remember you as a fun guy to party with, who knows?

Just focus on being professional and competent and making connections with the ones that don't think you're an asshole.
posted by empath at 8:28 AM on December 12, 2012

I also partied hard when I entered my field and my co-workers and bosses knew it. I still delivered and have somehow managed to make it to the top. So I agree with those who say that you're as good as your most recent work.

Has anything happened recently to make you think your professional reputation has been tarnished by your past? If not, why are you sweating those details now?
posted by Milau at 8:33 AM on December 12, 2012

Just reread my post (and your followup), and my apologies for sounding as harsh as I did. If you really were an alcoholic, then you're aware of what saying that will mean (and if anyone tries to take you to task for saying it, you'll be prepared to stand your ground). I don't think it's anything to really be ashamed of any more than any other mental illness; you had a problem, you recognized it, you're dealing with it. That, combined with more regular work attendance etc. is far more meaningful than erasing your past.

Even if you never really had problems with alcohol, you may have done stupid things in your past as a result of too much drinking. Passing it off as an excuse can make you sound flaky. Making it an explanation combined with more conscientious behavior and a better recent track record is a lot better.
posted by disconnect at 11:24 AM on December 12, 2012

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