Image credit: Entrepreneur
In the work I do now, I engage with a lot of people and organizations in transition—many of whom frankly did not expect to be in transition a year ago. In some cases, people have found themselves out of work, often after decades of steady employment. In other cases, they are still employed, but find themselves in organizations in the middle of existential crisis and upheaval. A commonality in both situations is that a lot of folks suddenly find themselves face to face with some very complicated feelings about where they’ve been, where they are, and where they’re going.
For people who’ve lost jobs, the first reaction is usually, “I need to get another job.” But in most cases, that is followed by, something along the lines of, “I’ve made a lot of compromises and sacrifices over the years that, in retrospect, didn’t work out that great for me, and I’m tired of working myself silly for other peoples’ agendas, equity, goals (fill in the blank).” What’s also quite common is the extent to which people, decades into their careers, realize that they’ve also spent a lot of time in environments and with people whose values don’t align with their own. It can be very painful to realize that a lot of our hard work, although well-intentioned, was ultimately for things that don’t matter that much in the long run and that certainly didn’t nurture us along the way.
And the long-term psychic price for that can be really, really high, even devastating. Many of us have dedicated entire careers to a traditional definition of professionalism which is based on utterly unsustainable and even irrational things like working to exhaustion, never saying no, being “busy” at all costs, and focusing more on performance metrics or status than on human relationships.
As I work with both people and organizations in transition, one of the shifts I’ve made in my own approach is to ask some very probing questions about the extent to which they just want to get back in the saddle with what they’ve always done vs. the extent to which, as individuals, they see the current situation as an opportunity to change how they actually live their lives and contribute to something bigger than themselves, and as organizations, the extent to which they are willing to think transformationally rather than just getting through the current crisis. The number of people and organizations that are suddenly thinking about purpose, making a positive difference, wellbeing, transformation, etc. is dramatically different than it was even a year ago. As it relates to individuals in transition, and often distress, the psychic and spiritual dissonance runs pretty deep.
I’m a recovering executive and educator myself who gratefully came face to face with a life-changing crisis that forced me to reevaluate and reprioritize what really matters—not what we’re socialized to believe matters—but what, at the end of the very last day, we would like to be the basis of our own legacy. As hard as it is to lose a job or wake up one day and realize that you’ve given the best of yourself to something that didn’t fulfill you or make a meaningful difference in the world, crisis can clarify the thinking and provide a sense of liberation that frees us to make choices and revisit priorities that we generally don’t do while chugging along in the status quo.
So, what important takeaways am I seeing?
First, as brutal as 2020 and the pandemic have been, there are some silver linings. I see many people who’ve found empathy and compassion, for themselves and others. I’ve seen people and organizations forced to a place in which significant, even transformative change is possible in ways it wasn’t before. And I’ve been personally inspired by people who’ve made profound choices (and sacrifices) to rearrange their lives, prioritizing time and relationships over money and status; trusting their gut, embracing risk, and becoming entrepreneurs, doing what they want to do, for themselves and others. Some folks are changing careers and taking “lower” positions than previously held, even for less, and sometimes much less money, in return for sane work schedules, time, a sense of purpose, doing what they enjoy, and other reasons that free them from the dissonance of their previous jobs.
Second, there are a lot of people out there for whom 2020 has caused deep challenges, financially, emotionally, professionally, etc. Many find themselves in the most vulnerable and fragile place in their lives, often, tragically not understanding how common their plight is and how many other people are in the same place. As with the absurd traditional definition of professionalism that has hurt many people (and the organizations they work in), many of us have also bought into the equally absurd and dangerous notion that vulnerability is weakness, that regardless of what challenges we’re facing, we’re just supposed to “buck up” and push through it. I think the breadth and depth of the overwhelming challenges of the last year has lessened the stigma around mental health and asking for help, which may be another silver lining.
The good news is that for folks who find themselves questioning some of their previous professional choices, whether or not they’re currently in transition, the many years and often decades of previous work still provide tremendous experience and insights. Regardless of whether or not we were dedicated to “things that matter” or benefitted from an alignment in values, that prior experience provides judgment and skills and perspective that can support whatever we do going forward as employees, leaders, entrepreneurs, etc. As for organizations, many are still stuck in old, transactional, short term ways of thinking, but there is an analogue with individuals which is that crisis has provided permission to do things that were believed to be impossible even a year ago. And in unique cases, there are organizations that have the required leadership to support running daily operations, managing through disruption, and building the future, all simultaneously. It is those kinds of organizations that I strive to work with!