Why do we cling to our job titles? How do we truly unravel ourselves from our jobs, knowing where one ends and the other begins?
A former client of mine who supervised 45 people at the time, learned her prestigious job will disappear within the month. In her new role she was to only supervise just six. She worried she would be marginalized, that people will see her on her way out the door, one step closer to retirement. But was she?
Unlike in Europe and elsewhere, so many Americans define themselves by their jobs. At a cocktail party our first question is, “What do you DO?” If we’re not our jobs, who are we? That was the question we explored today. Even though my client wanted to leave this job for many months, she clung to it as if it were her own Linus security blanket (the blanket the Peanuts character carries forever).
Her current job was tattered and worn, and she was worn out from doing it. As it’s taken away, she felt she was losing a part of herself, as well. As she ventured to her new assignment, she would need to keep her bearings and perspective. It was not thinking about the man taking over her job after lying in wait, preparing to pounce. Rather, it wa time to pass the baton to another person. It was not thinking of her new job as less important but seeing it new opportunities for her to grow.
Since there was no ritual in her company for moving through this change, she decided to create a variety of rituals for herself and others to help her mark the change with dignity. As her advocate and coach, I found it difficult to stand by her side and see her so torn up about this. I saw opportunity in this move for her, providing so much of what she yearned for. Yet it’s up to her to see this, to turn the corner and see the opportunities ahead. I wondered if it was so necessary for her to experience this job change with such angst.
A speaker I heard characterized today’s workers needing to be like lava lamps, ever in the flow and ready to shape shift at a moment’s notice. These are the people who will survive in organizations of the 21st century, he says. How many of us are truly ready to be so malleable? Often it’s helpful to have an extreme example to prove a point. When a family member recently was having a challenging time at work, I recommended A Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankel. It also prompted me to listen to an audio recording of the book.
Frankel, if you remember, was a prestigious Austrian psychologist swept up in the Holocaust. His book is part autobiography and part textbook, serving as his introduction to his unique form of psychotherapy, Logo therapy. He tells the tale as vividly as one can imagine, of being stripped of everything upon entry into a concentration camp, even his hair. To survive, he knew he had to find a perspective that would maintain his sanity.
My client’s experience paled in comparison. But Frankel’s suggestions can be useful for anyone losing an identity so many years in the making. Frankel learned the Nazis could not take away his very essence, no matter how hard they tried. Everything beyond that was superfluous. Everything beyond his skin, bones and very being could be reconstructed. More precious to him than anything else was his being. He understood that couldn’t be taken away, unless he let it happen.
In a changing workplace, we must resist the temptation to cling to the situation that has passed. We need to be open to finding opportunities inherent in the new situation. Remember how much we cared about every school grade, what showed up on the transcript? For anyone out of school for any length of time, a transcript is apt to be a distant memory—a once embarrassing grade hasn’t shown up on the radar screen for years.
It’s important to take the same perspective about a job and its title. A job title is transient. Years down the road, you’ll wonder what all the fuss has been about. Be patient and remember what is really important.
You can find ways to put your personal stamp on any job, no matter what the title. Don’t let someone else define you. Remember, no matter your title or how many people you supervise, you still are you. You can find the good in your new circumstance, but only if you look for it.
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