Thursday, February 14, 2013

The 'After' Life

Last summer I was asked to speak as part of a panel on the topic of "Staying Ahead of the Curve: How to stay relevant in an ever-changing World". Each of the five panelists was an example of successful accomplishments in their respective areas. I took the point of view of personal relevance outside of the title bestowed upon you at your job and the challenges of staying relevant when that title does not exist, either through retirement, or downsizing or other circumstances. Most of us when we meet others will begin the conversation with a general, "So, what do you do?". Much like "How are you", the person asking the question already has an expectation of what the response will be and is unprepared for an atypical response. "How are you?"demands the response "I am good!" (though technically it should be I am well but that is another post). Any other response, however honest it is, leaves the questioner wishing they had not asked the question. Because in reality, we seldom really want to know how the person is, we are simply using the question to open dialog into a space where both parties will be comfortable spending some time in conversation. "What do you do" is a similar question, though the asker's expectation of a response is of a more general note: the respondent will state their title/responsibilities at the place that provides them their income. This is because the impetus behind the question is less about wanting to really know what occupies the person's time and more about placing them in a context which allows the questioner to evaluation the respondent's relevance. So back to the panel discussion of last summer. I spoke about the need to be more that what you do for a living, about being able to answer the 'what do you do' question with a litany of what makes you who you are: playing the violin, volunteering for charities, etc. Because not only will it jolt the questioner and enable you to stick in their minds as an interesting if unique person but because by not answering with your occupation, you start the process of seeing value in yourself beyond your job. I stand by my thinking on the topic although having gone through the loss of my job recently, I have come to realize that I only addressed one side of the challenge of personal relevance in a changing world. My company recently changed direction and closed the businesses in which I was involved. For me, it presents an exciting opportunity to take a new path in life and I have fully embraced this new status. There are so many things I can do aside from simply getting another job exactly like the one I just left and to figure out which ones are right for me, I have termed the short term phase my "Sabbatical". Not a vacation but a time of research and exploration with the goal of delivering myself to a new space that challenges me, enables me to contribute my talents and skills in a meaningful way and which rewards me in whatever way makes the most sense for me. But telling people that I am on sabbatical has elicited unexpected responses. At a recent cocktail reception for up-and-coming business professionals, several people who heard my response clearly did not get the answer they needed (the one that gave me context for them) so they tried again: "What are you taking a sabbatical from?" and that is where the conversation fell apart. Because they wanted the title and company information so critical to their ability to process me and I had none to provide to them. And rather than seeing the opportunity to ask what I was researching (a very natural question for someone on sabbatical), they simply turned away. It would be easy for me to fault them and to some degree there is a fault there. As I reflected on those interactions, however, I realize that while I am okay with no longer having an easy answer to "What to do you", I need to do a better job of reading my audience and choosing my words in a way that enables them to more easily associate with my response. While personally I do not believe I retired from XYZ Inc., telling someone that I recently retired and am now giving myself a sabbatical is probably a better response because it satisfies the other person's need for context (Oh, she was a successful person in a big company, she is credible). And steering away from the phrases associated with victim status (I was downsized) ensures I am not creating a polarizing situation.

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