One of the participants in Charlie and Edie Seashore’s course at the Cape Cod Institute last week spoke of a particularly entrenched dynamic in her life and concluded with a sigh, "It is what it is."
"Or is it?" Edie replied, to much laughter.
It was a reminder of how easily we fall back into seeing our circumstances in habitual ways that don't serve us well.
I didn't realize just how much I needed it until the course ended and the very next day the full weight of summer descended upon me—tourist gridlock in the grocery store, a calendar complicated by trying to juggle family visits and client sessions, my own competing desires to get things done and still have enough time and energy left over to enjoy summer.
During the first week of spring, the temperature dipped into the twenties, the daffodils lay prostrate on the walk, and I devoted an entire day to cleaning out my files.
I usually purge them in January to get a fresh start on the year, but I had failed to do so, not only this past January, but also in January of 2011.
So it was time—past time. Too much paper never sorts itself out. The trivial and the important were jammed together, both in the cabinet and in my head.
I soon realized that my neglect to use organization as a strategic planning tool (see Wildly Organized) was symbolic of an ambivalence about where I am in my professional life.
Long ago, I vowed never to write another column about resumes, but something a client said to me a few weeks after being laid off by the Fortune 200 company where she had worked for over fifteen years changed my mind.
"I don’t want anymore black hole resumes," she said emphatically.
For her to be able to speak with such clarity, even while recovering from the shock of being let go, was a cause for celebration. It was a huge step forward because in taking it she was rejecting the idea of another job in favor of work, as a consultant, free agent, business owner.
Every event or conversation that upsets or displeases us is made up of two components: what actually happens in real time, and what our head does with it afterwards. We have little or no control over many of the difficult things which occur in our lives, but we can change our response to them.
A good starting point in keeping our minds from spinning out of control is to learn how to "drop the shock and awe." We do this by making a choice not to be surprised—once again—by behavior that we know from past experience is consistent with a particular person.
Because we already know what to expect, we can eliminate, or at least shorten, the time we spend trying to build a case for why we find another person's thinking, words or actions unacceptable.
I’ve been aware for some time now that what causes my clients the most pain in their professional lives is not the weight of their responsibilities, the heavier workload due to the economic downturn.
What leads to frustration, sometimes despair, are those difficult or even hostile exchanges with specific people in the work environment, often the boss. These interactions play out in predictable patterns which one of my clients recently described in great detail.
The scene was all-too-familiar: her boss kept calling her again and again, each time with a new demand, neither asking nor caring how the interruption would affect what she was currently working on, expecting her to be able to shift gears immediately, insisting that everything was urgent. It was making her numb.
I regularly work with clients who have creative goals—making pottery, writing poetry, actually using the sketch pad they've purchased or been given as a gift. Sometimes these aspirations come up almost apologetically: "Of course, it's not practical and I have so little time, but what I'd really like to be doing is—"
Frequently they come to light in an exercise where clients write stories about experiences in their lives which gave them a deep sense of personal satisfaction, e.g., this description of a drawing class written by a woman who manages construction projects: “I loved how I felt when I was doing these drawings. There was a connection between my soul and the paper.”
Occasionally, the need to put hands to clay or pen to paper has become so important to a client that the failure to be able to do it become the focal point of our discussion. This is always exciting to me because it is an unconscious recognition of the link between the artistic urge and transforming a work life.
In my clients' frustration I hear the struggle to claim the creative space which is essential to a genuine transition. The challenge for them (and for me) is to actuate these seemingly non-productive, impractical pursuits to serve the longer term goal of professional fulfillment.
Whenever the same question comes up more than once in a short period of time, it gets my attention, so when feedback from a program I did for an agency which helps women in transition mirrored a recent comment on my blog from a career coach who works with low income people, I accepted the invitation to re-examine my thinking.
Both comments expressed the concern that people at the lower end of the employment spectrum would not be capable of grasping and utilizing an entrepreneurial approach to work-search, nor would they be likely to benefit from it if they did. They suggested that my thinking about the entrepreneurial mindset was all very well and good for some people but not for those with very few resources and a lot going on in their lives.
After the holiday break, I was not surprised to start 2011 with a full inbox, but what has been startling is the number of emails I have received from people over 50 who have been laid off and can't find work.
For months, in some cases years, these people have carried on discouraging job-search campaigns directed toward securing the kind of work they did before "the bottom fell out" of their professional lives.
They have reached the point where they feel they "can't buy a job" and are at their wits end as to what to do next.
At first I wondered, what do I say to these people? But then I noticed that none of them mentioned doing anything to create something new.
Because October's post spoke to so many readers about the need for renewal, and because the upcoming holiday season offers the opportunity for time off to regroup for the new year, I have decided to share my takeaways from this year's trip to Skaneateles sooner than I had originally planned.
My time at the lake this year was about being in the here and now. I try to do this at home, but being away frames it differently.
There's the packing and the unpacking, the seven hour trip there and back, the joy of arriving and the sadness of leaving. Going to the same place every year has sharpened my awareness of these dichotomies, and I know the alternating rhythm well enough that sway with it immediately.
Sitting across the table from me is a very bright, articulate, mature woman with an underutilized law degree.
She has a vision—a family law practice to serve an ethnic community with which she has a shared heritage, and for whom she has been a volunteer advocate for years.
She is at a point in her life where she wants to claim her professional status in ways which honor her social consciousness, but the opinions of others have stopped her in her tracks.
"There are so few encouraging voices," she says. Her head droops and she begins a litany of the dispiriting comments she's heard from people with whom she has shared her goal—the economy is awful, you'll be competing with young attorneys right out of law school who will work for nothing, immigration law is very complicated, etc.
Building upon this foundation of negativity, she adds obstacles of her own: "Maybe I don't have the skills, the experience, or the stamina ...."
I have a strong urge to jump in and remind her of her many positive attributes, but I keep quiet and let her finish. When I speak I don’t argue with anything she has said, but softly observe, "It's all about working the process. When we make a choice to pursue a particular goal, our task is simply to do our very best to stay in the process of working toward it, which includes not abandoning it prematurely because of what ‘they’—whoever they happen to be—have to say.”