How Living a Sober Life Helped Me Develop the Qualities of a Good Employee


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I’m going to do something a little different this week and get real with you guys — I’m going to talk about my recovery, the sober life I lead today, and how I had to develop the qualities of a good employee before I could ever hope to be employed.

While today I am a functional member of society and can write some words about content marketing and SEO that aren’t completely terrible, it wasn’t always that way.

For the worse part of 10 years, I was about as far from sober as you can get.

Sober life was not something I could even think about, much less make a reality, and equally far from reality was the idea of being a good employee.

Not only did I severely lack in the qualities that make a good employee (or even the qualities of an employee that you don’t feel compelled to fire immediately), but I was so bad I could barely hold jobs in gas stations or grocery stores for more than a few months before they completely fell apart.

Living a sober life was the only way I could develop the qualities of a good employee, like the one pictured here typing on his computer at his desk

You can listen to me discuss the gritty details of my story of addiction and recovery here, but the reality was simply this: I was completely dysfunctional, totally unemployable, and absolutely insane.

Today, I’m a relatively well adjusted human being (I like to think) with a house, a significant other, bills, and a bunch of other common things most people don’t think twice about having — including a job.

The job thing is huge, but unlike many sober people, I didn’t become employed right away. In fact, it almost took me 2 years of sober life before someone would finally hire me.

I was about as far from sober as you can get

But I genuinely believe that was a good thing, because I think, even though I was physically sober, I had a long way to go toward developing those qualities we think of when we think of good employees, and I don’t think I was employable until I had begun to develop them.

Living a sober life and taking action to change those negative qualities that were holding me back was the only way for me to develop the qualities of a good employee so that I might actually become one.

Before I Could Become a Good Employee, I Had to Learn What the Qualities of a Good Employee Actually Were

Before I could really become a good employee, or even someone who was simply employable, I had to develop the qualities of a good employee, namely:

  1. The ability to take direction without thinking I know better
  2. The ability to be trusted to do quality work independently
  3. The ability to ask for help when I need it
  4. The ability to work well with others
  5. The ability to have a positive attitude and to handle concerns or disagreements appropriately
  6. The ability to be consistent and committed without someone pushing me to do so
  7. The ability to put aside what I think I know when opportunity or necessity requires change

Now of course, there are other qualities of good writers or good SEOs that don’t fall into these categories, but I consistently found, before getting sober, that what I knew (or, more often, what I thought I knew) and the abilities I may or may not have had paled in comparison to these foundational qualities.

A good employee, I learned, is more than someone who’s smart and can produce (though I could rarely even do that).

A good employee is someone who is a part of a team, someone who adds to the group (rather than bringing the team down), who is trustworthy, who is hard working, who can put personal issues to the side and focus on the greater good.

These are the qualities of a good employee, but when I wasn’t living a sober life, these things were impossible, and as it turns out, just living a sober life without working on the negative qualities that made me a terrible employee in the past didn’t magically make me a good employee.

A good employee, I learned, is more than someone who’s smart and can produce

As Fate deemed it necessary that I would go almost two years without employment, I had ample time to work on those negative qualities and become someone who could be a good employee.

Or maybe it’s like this: Fate waited until I became employable before it started sending jobs my way.

To start changing myself, I had to be humbled. Ruining my life through alcohol and drugs wasn’t enough to humble me — I had to experience failure in sobriety to really get the point driven home.

I Couldn’t Just Live a Sober Life — I Had to Change Who and What I Was

During my first 6 months of sobriety, after almost 9 straight years of being absent from reality, it took a while just to get oriented.

I was given a map of how to live from people who had gotten sober before me, and I had the help of my family, but ultimately, the onus was on me to admit and change those negative qualities that were keeping me from being a good employee.

Fate waited until I became employable before it started sending jobs my way

And change, as it turns out, is really damn hard. I had to admit that I wasn’t just an addict, but that I was lazy and arrogant, a know-it-all who didn’t know much of anything, an untrustworthy, negative person who had no business working any job at all.

Despite all this, I tried, very hard, to get a job during those first two years, and I failed. In the face of that failure, it became clear (in my finally clear mind) that the problem wasn’t everyone else, as I’d always thought it was, and that I wasn’t a victim of capitalism or circumstance.

The problem was me. I had to change who and what I was. I couldn’t just live a sober life — I had to find true humility and admit that not only was I flawed, but that growth was essential to survival.

Change, as it turns out, is really damn hard

Being physically sober, I hoped that perhaps these things would just magically change on their own, but after 6 months and still no job (mostly due to the untold damaged I’d done to my education and work history and legal history), I began to despair.

I called a close friend, and he said to me: “When I got sober, I hadn’t been a father in my daughter’s life, and I didn’t know how to be one, so I started asking myself, ‘What would a good dad do?’ and then I did that.”

The problem was me

It took me a second, but I got it: If I wanted to be a good employee, I had to start acting like one.

How humbling it was to have to resort to such a simple tactic, to admit that I didn’t have the faintest clue to do something most people seemed to do without second thought — get a job and support themselves financially.

Still, I had to start somewhere, and together with my friend, we identified the problems I had that were keeping me from being a productive, functional member of society in spite of my new-found sober life, and we set to work fixing them.

I started acting like a good employee, even though I wasn’t one just yet.

Whaddya Know — When I Stopped Being a Jerk, I Started Getting Jobs

At close to two years sober, I got my first job. I was paid $8 an hour — a fortune to a man who had been relying on others to stay alive for many years.

I had to start somewhere

The job started early, and I was able to practice not sleeping in all day. The Work was hard, and I got to practice admitting I needed help. I found my stupid brain disagreeing with the boss, so I got to learn how to keep my mouth shut, how to remind myself that I actually know very little.

I made a lot of mistakes, but I tried my best to learn from those too. I had to apologize to my boss several times for my behavior, but oh how much better that was than simply quitting or getting fired (as had always been the case in the past).

That job led to another, where I had slightly more responsibility and still made mistakes. I’ve had talks with every boss I’ve had in sobriety about my behavior and have had to apologize for my mistakes and change.

Those first two years of sober life made me just barely employable, but each job, in its own way, allowed me to practice the things my friend and I had identified as problem areas for me.

I am forever grateful to my string of bosses, the people who all gave me chances, even when I made mistakes.

I know there are other people out there who can start their own businesses and do things on their own in sobriety and don’t need to have people set over them, telling them what to do, but I learned that I am not one of those people, and further, I learned that this is OK.

I made a lot of mistakes

Turns out, I’m one of those people who really needs someone to tell them what to do for a while, and even today, when I have learned how to do things independently and how to take on increasing levels of trust and responsibility, it’s good for me to remember that I’m not the boss, that I’m not in charge, and that I don’t know everything.

My disease wants to convince me otherwise, and I know where those lies lead.

Being a Good Employee Allows Me to Live a Sober Life That’s Actually Worth Living

I don’t know why I am the way that I am, why I was drawn to drink and drugs, why being not-sober was so attractive, but I learned years ago that questioning these things is meaningless.

It doesn’t matter why I was born this way. It doesn’t matter why, in my natural state, I have problems with authority, why I get resentful and bitter easily, why I can’t get along with people and believe that not only do I know better, but that I am better than everyone else (despite mountains of evidence to the contrary).

It doesn’t matter why I’m arrogant or self absorbed, why, at my core, I am a profoundly delusional person who has to work very hard just to be able to perceive reality for what it is.

My job is not just a job — it’s a career, and it enriches my sober life

The whys behind all that don’t matter — what matters is that, if I don’t change those things, I will gradually lose everything that matters to me, and for better or for worse, my career and my job are core pieces of this life I live today.

After almost 7 years of sober life, I can see that a strange reversal has taken place. I needed to work very hard to become employable in the beginning, to develop the qualities of a good employee, and that required living a sober life, but now, a large part of living a sober life is being that good employee.

If I want to support myself and my family, if I want to be a functional member of society (and today, I do want those things), then I need not just a job, but a career. I need coworkers who are awesome and work that’s fulfilling.

My job is not just a job — it’s a career, and it enriches my sober life in ways I never thought possible.

I thought I just needed money, in the beginning, and surely I needed some, but being a good employee gives me more than that — it gives me friends, it gives me colleagues, it gives me a feeling of usefulness, and it allows me to practice those qualities of a good employee, allows me to practice being humble, being respectful, being positive, being trustworthy, being a hard worker.

I still make mistakes, and I’m sure I always will — all of us get stuck sometimes — but I’m confident those principles I learned in the early days of sober life will carry me through.

If I can do it, anyone can.

Adam Fout

Adam might be a little crazy, but we love him anyway.   Weaving beautiful paragraph-baskets into blog posts ain’t easy, but we couldn’t think of a better job for a recovering tech writer.   Follow him on Twitter @adamfout2, LinkedIn, Facebook, or our blog if you like valuable information accompanied by snarky simplifications of complex subjects. If you're feeling adventurous, check out Adam's fiction and poetry on his author website at

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