Archive | Work

Tips for Adulthood: Five Tips for Managing Your Workload

deadlines

deadlines“Do as I say, not as I do.”

So goes the famous saying uttered round the world by everyone who’s ever been a parent. Lately, however, I’ve also been finding its relevance to my role as a teacher.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’m currently teaching a course entitled “Life Skills for Offices” to a bunch of Masters students in the statistics department at the LSE. I’m having loads of fun with the course, where we cover everything from interviewing skills and project management to teamwork and cross-cultural communication.

But after a recent workshop in which I introduced the students to assorted strategies for managing their workload, I realized that I was not practicing what I preached. I’ve had an incredibly busy month, waking at 5 am to get a jump on my day more times than I’d care to mention. I’ve also worked straight through the last three weekends.

It all came to a head yesterday, when I was meeting with one of the members of my personal board of directors and I confessed to her that I was struggling with work-life balance. She reminded me that being my own boss enables me to control the balance in my life; I do not report to anyone anymore.

It was a good wake up call. So, today, in an effort to align my message with my behaviour, I am sharing five tips for managing your workload so that you don’t get overwhelmed:

a. Use an Eisenhower matrix. One of the tools I introduced my students too for prioritizing their workloads is the so-called Eisenhower Matrix. This deceptively simply tool builds from a speech in which former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower once famously said, “I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.” Eisenhower apparently used these two dimensions to organise his own workload, and they have since morphed into a matrix in which all tasks can be sorted into four categories, each with its own decision rule: urgent and important (Do!); important but not urgent (Plan!); urgent but not important (Delegate or postpone!) and neither urgent nor important (Delete!) The matrix is particularly useful for calling attention to how much time you spend doing things that are urgent but not really important (e.g., email). It also forces you to see how little time you allow in your schedule for things that really matter, but aren’t pressing and thus slip off the radar until they ultimately come back to bit you in the rear end. This technique empowered me to ignore a bunch of stuff sitting in my inbox and focus instead on what really needed to get done (e.g., business development for generating new clients).

b. Deep work. But even if you recognize those super-important items on your To Do list that aren’t urgent but await execution, you still need to set aside time to tackle these “biggies.” Here, I advised the students to engage in deep work, a strategy that allegedly explains the productivity of everyone from Albert Einstein to Bill Gates to Toni Morrison. Deep work simply means setting aside large chunks of uninterrupted time to do those important but time- and labor-intensive pieces of work that require intent focus. According to productivity gurus, chunking your work day in this way enables you to allocate your energy where it’s most needed, while leaving the rest of the day for the less important tasks that need to happen but don’t require as much concentration (e.g. meetings/email.) In my last office job, I mastered this strategy to the point where I was able to dump all meetings into three days, leaving two full days for the deep work of editing. I need to remember how great it felt to be on top of my workload.

c. Work backwards from your deadline. This one is so obvious that I shouldn’t need to remind myself of it. But when I recently found myself staring at five, 2-3 hour workshops I’d somehow managed to commit myself to delivering over one week in February, I realised that I needed my own refresher course in project management 101. The basic idea here is quite simple:  as soon as you have a deadline, work backwards so that you know exactly how much time you need allocate to that project each month/week/day etc. to hit that deadline on time. As I told my students, there are two important corollaries to this old time management chestnut: 1.) First, be sure to factor all non-work obligations into your planning, such as public holidays, vacations, conferences, doctor’s appointments, etc; and 2.) Second, be sure that you actually block out your calendar to prepare for these deadlines so that you don’t commit time you don’t have to other projects (See b, above). Oh yes, and get thee to a Gantt chart.

d. Schedule virtual coffees. This was a suggestion from my fellow kitchen cabinet member during our catch-up yesterday. I was complaining that there were so many coffees I wanted to schedule – whether for networking purposes or just socially – but that I really didn’t have time right now to spend half a day schlepping up and back from central London to make them happen.  So she suggested that – as she and I had just done – I begin scheduling virtual coffees. You still get the caffeine fix, you still get the stimulation and face-time, but you don’t lose all those precious hours (and pounds/dollars/name your currency…) commuting. I’ve got my first one next week. I’ll let you know how it goes.

e. Just say no. Really, just say it once in a while, both to work requests you don’t realistically have time for and to social requests you really don’t really have energy for. It will add hours to your day. And it feels great.

How about you? How do you get your workload under control? Share your secrets in the comments section!

Image: Deadline by Geralt via Pixabay

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How I Finally Came To Enjoy Work In Middle Age

molting

moltingI’ve got a confession to make:  For the first time in my life, I’m enjoying work.

I realize that’s not exactly a shocking admission for those out there who find their work to be fulfilling.

But I’m well into middle age and have been working for the better part of three decades. And it’s only in the past few months that I wake up and truly look forward to the day ahead.

 

Wearing a Costume to Work

It’s not that I haven’t enjoyed the various jobs I’ve held over the years. I feel privileged to have worked across multiple sectors:  academia, the government, the media, non-profits. Each job I’ve held has been an enormous learning experience, not to mention the source of life-long friendships.

But I never felt 100% myself in any of those jobs. It was always as if I were wearing a costume to work. And waiting for someone – possibly myself? – to rip off the mask and reveal the real me cowering underneath.

Taking time off for self-discovery

So after I was laid off from my last job, I made a determined effort to sort out this whole work thing for once and for all. To do this, I formed a sort of chrysalis around myself. Much like the butterfly, who needs to form a hardened, outer shell so that it can finish growing before it emerges, fully formed, into the world, so too did I feel that in order to properly check in with myself, I needed to check out with others.

So I stopped talking to other people about what I wanted to do with my life and spent more time pursuing a range of activities designed to help me gain clarity on my professional future. (I even uploaded the image of a chrysalis to my Facebook page to be sure people knew where I was “at” psychologically.)

It worked. One of the many things I did last year was to spend time as a visiting fellow at a local university. Mostly, this meant writing my book in a different environment. But it also meant attending seminars around campus on topics I was interested in, blogging here and there, (as well as fantasizing that I’d been cast in a remake of Brideshead Revisited…)

But the more I began attending workshops by assorted academics around campus, the more I would find myself subconsciously re-structuring these talks in my head. Why didn’t she start with that slide? I’d wonder. Or: Wow. This is a potentially interesting topic but I’ve been sitting here for ten minutes and I still don’t know why I’m here.

The same thing happened with blogs I would read by academics read that were written by academics from all over the UK. The content would be brilliant. But the blog would read more like a short essay or – worse – an academic article, footnotes and all. Somehow, all these great ideas weren’t translating into engaging content.

One day, sitting in back of a lecture hall, I realized I could help.

Back to the Future

Last spring, I launched my own communications consultancy . The goal is to help people write, speak and lead more effectively. To do this, I offer a combination of personal coaching and group workshops. So far, I’ve worked mainly with the higher education sector, although I’m beginning to branch out into the private sector as well.

It is, in many ways, a perfection combination of the assorted skills I’ve honed over a lifetime:  writing, editing, coaching, and public speaking, with a bit of improvisation tossed in for good measure. But my new business also draws heavily on all that social science training I got back in the day – the side of my brain that craves order, logic and coherence.

There’s nothing weird here at all except that  if you had told me 20 years ago when I left the higher education sector that I would be back teaching at the university level – and enjoying it – I’d have laughed you out of the room.  And yet, here I am, going to the library and preparing lecture notes and helping students of all ages improve their writing and communication skills.

More importantly – and to come back to the beginning of this post – it’s fun!

Molting into the Integrated Self

So maybe the punchline here – if I can beat the butterfly metaphor into the ground – is that molting in adulthood doesn’t have to be about a radical break with the past.

I thought that professional reinvention meant doing something I’d never done before.

It never occurred to me – although it should have – that for me to be happy at work, I’d need to do something that was not only authentic, but integrated. That the secret to professional fulfilment lay in integrating my manager and maker selves; to incorporating, as the saying goes, “something old and something new.”

One thing’s for certain: I’m no longer wearing any costume.

Image: Cocoon butterfly insect by GLady via Pixabay

On Valuing Teaching as a Helping Profession

teacher

teacherMy fourteen year-old came home from school recently having taken one of those personality tests that assigns you a type. (Yes, I’m afraid it runs in the family…) She proudly announced that although she had been given the label “campaigner,” she didn’t see herself as a cause-oriented person. Rather, she felt that it was the skills involved in campaigning – public speaking, persuasiveness, etc. – that made her a good fit for this type.

I could relate. Some of my closest friends do noble things like counselling victims of domestic violence and teaching acting to jail inmates. But I never imagined that I would end up in a “helping profession.” To me, helping professions were things like social work or nursing:  careers defined – first and foremost – by an emphasis on addressing someone’s physical, psychological, or spiritual well-being.

Until I started teaching again. And now I’ve changed my mind.

I’m sure a lot of teachers out there feel like they’re doing God’s work. And they are. But when you teach at the university level, you can quickly lose the feeling that you’re there primarily to help people. Because you’re not. When you train for a PhD, teaching is often an afterthought. You’re there to do cutting-edge research, make a name for yourself, and advance knowledge and understanding. If you keep at it long enough, you might eventually influence policy. But teaching – as one of my own graduate profs once explained it to me cynically – “is about collecting a paycheck.”

That doesn’t mean there aren’t any college professors out there who care about teaching or who invest in it. I know of plenty personally – starting with my husband. I simply mean that it’s not usually the reason people get PhDs.

In my own case, I’m still not entirely sure why I chose to get a PhD in political science. But I do know that it had absolutely zero to do with wanting to help anyone better themselves.

What a difference 20 years makes. I see my role utterly differently now. That’s partly because I’m not on a research track anymore (or any track, for that matter; I’m a paid consultant who’s brought in on to teach at assorted universities on an ad hoc basis.) But I think my change of mind is mostly down to the fact that, unlike my first jobs out of graduate school when I was teaching political science, I’m now teaching something I really believe in passionately – how to communicate better. This also an area where I feel I can bring some added value – a “special sauce” – as it were.

I know that I’m helping people as I pore over materials at my desk, homing in on the most important lessons to impart about how to do a successful job interview, for example. Or when I stumble across an exercise that can help people demystify the process of writing blog. Or when I’m in the classroom and witness the “aha” moment when someone is finally able to distil her 300-page thesis down to 50 words.

Turns out, all those things people say about teaching elementary and secondary school children really are true: It is rewarding. It is meaningful. It is inspiring. I’m aware that this might sound cheesy. “Tis’ better to give than to receive,” and all that good stuff.  But sometimes clichés are true.

Shame it only took me 20 years to figure that out…

Image: Teacher female college student by JerryKimbrell10 via Pixabay

Life Skills for Offices

office

officeI was listening to a podcast the other day when I took off my headphones and announced to my husband, “I should have been an organizational psychologist.”

The podcast was Eat, Sleep, Work, Repeat, a business podcast that provides “bite-sized ways of improving your job.”  In this particular episode, the host, Bruce Daisley, was interviewing the amazing Adam Grant about his thoughts on everything from organizational culture to performance reviews to employee motivation. (Grant is an organizational psychologist and as far as I can tell, he has the coolest job on earth.)

I’ve always been fascinated by people’s relationship to their work. Why do people choose the career paths they do? What makes some personality types succeed at certain jobs but not at others? How does an understanding of one’s own values influence one’s leadership style?

Sadly, it’s too late for me to retrain as an organizational psychologist (or any of the other alternative professions I’ve fantasized about.)

Luckily, I’m going to get my own chance to test these waters tomorrow when I start teaching a course at the London School of Economics (LSE) entitled “Life Skills for Offices.” The course is part of my new business as a communications consultant. (More on that another time…)

Most of my work right now involves training people in the higher education sector how to write, speak and lead more effectively. To do this, I draw on my background as both an academic and a journalist.

But I was approached by the LSE to help address a very specific problem. As part of its training, one of the departments at the School will be sending a bunch of Master’s students out into the world to do a nine-month job placement at a company. The catch? None of these people has ever worked before. So they asked me if I would be interested in designing a course that would help prepare people to work in an office.

“Yes, please,” I answered.

If you think about it, this makes a great deal of sense. After all, the very first day you enter a new job, you’re expected to do all sorts of things that you’ve never actually studied. And while some of us might be relatively better or worse at, say, creative problem-solving, it’s not something you are taught directly in university.

This strikes me as precisely the sort of thing we ought to be teaching as we prepare young people for adulthood.

I’m terribly excited. We’re going to be covering a lot of ground in the soft skills space – things like how to prioritise your workload, how to “manage up,” and how to work effectively in a team. And because it’s a workshop, we’ll be doing a lot of exercises, including drawing on my improvisation training.

I’m thinking of giving this course the tag line: “Everything you wanted to know about offices, but were afraid to ask.”

So tell me, because I’d really love your input. What do you know now about working in an office that you wish you’d learned when you first started out?

Please share in the comments section.

Image: Office Boardroom by Jo_Johnston via Pixabay

 

 

Tips For Adulthood: The Art of the Cold Call

networking

networkingOn occasional Wednesdays, I offer tips for adulthood.

We all know the gospel of job-hunting. You don’t get jobs by applying for them; you get them by knowing someone. Some put the number of jobs obtained through networking — as opposed to answering an ad — at as high as 85%.

The corollary to this truism of the job market is that job-hunting is all about connections. Once you decide on a direction for your career, you need to start by talking to people in your immediate network — even if they aren’t all that close to what you want to do — and gradually work outwards, through them, into people working in the sector of your choice.

It’s true. People are more likely to answer your email/phone call if you’ve been referred by someone they know.

But does that mean that you should abandon the cold call entirely? Should you never just get in touch with someone doing work that interests you and see if they’ll let you speak to them?

It takes a lot of chutzpah, but it can work if done properly. I recently did it, and was offered part-time work. Here’s how:

Don’t assume you need to be an extrovert

Sure, extroverts have an easier time approaching strangers out of the blue. But that doesn’t mean they are necessarily better at talking to them.

Quartz recently ran an interesting article arguing that introverts might actually be much better at networking than extroverts because they can focus and listen. And people appreciate that.

(Click here for a list of networking tips if you self-identify as an introvert.)

Do your homework about the company

You should obviously go to any interview — cold call or not — knowing a fair bit about both the person you’re interviewing and the company they work for. But when you’re doing a cold call, this preparation has to come before you even draft your initial email approach.

When I did this recently, I made a point of telling the person I targeted (truthfully) that I’d been following her newsletter and her blog for a years. I also made reference to something specific on her website. Sure, a bit of flattery is always a good thing. But I also really wanted her to know that I hadn’t just wandered in off of the street.

You’re contacting them because you’ve decided you want to work there and/or think they could help you get closer to your dream job. You want them to talk to you, but they have plenty of reasons not to. You need to be sure it’s clear from the get-go that they won’t be wasting their time.

Identify a problem to be solved

People are much more likely to respond positively to a cold call if you can convince them that you can help them solve a problem. That doesn’t mean that you should suggest that they hire you in your initial email because you are God’s Gift to X. Far from it. Humility goes a long way.

For example, if you notice that the company is doing a lot of marketing in trade magazines, but nothing online, ask about that. If it’s a business school, perhaps note: “I see that you offer a lot of courses on management training, but there’s nothing on team-building. Why is that?”

I’ve found that questions about gaps often prompt the person being interviewed to reflect on their own blind spots, and might even get them thinking about hiring someone to pilot an investigation into a new area. That person could be you.

Reveal your USP

You never want to go into a meeting — unless it’s a job interview! — and tell someone why they should hire you. Instead, you want to ask smart questions that impress them.

In particular, you want to pose those questions in a way that reveals what is unique about you that could really add to the team. (Some call this your Unique Selling Point, or USP.)

Lately, I’ve been targeting the higher education sector in my job search, offering communication training. I explain to everyone I meet that I “think like a social scientist, but communicate like a journalist.” This is shorthand for saying that I have a PhD, but don’t sound like I do. That’s an unusual skill set, at least in this sector. I play it up because I know it’s what makes me distinctive.

Be willing to hear the word “no”

You can’t cold call people if you’re not willing to hear the word “no.” When I first moved to the UK twelve years ago, I volunteered to run the Christmas Raffle at my then-five-year-old’s new school. This amounted to walking around the local village and asking every single shop person I met if they’d be willing to donate a prize to the raffle.

Guess what? A lot of people said some version of “no.” But a surprising number said “yes.” What I learned from that experience was that I didn’t really care if people said “no” to me.

Develop this skill and you’ll find the whole process a lot easier. (Here’s an inspirational story of one woman’s perseverance to get the job she wanted.)

How about you? Have you ever done a successful cold call? Why did it work?

Note: This article was originally posted on the Ellevate Medium page.

Image: Ghozt Tramp – Business Communication Duplicat Model via Wikimedia Commons

21st Century Skills For Older Workers

Older Worker

Older WorkerIn an era where people in the West are living longer and healthier lives, older workers  not only can – but often choose – to remain in the workforce longer or return to work post-retirement.

The numbers speak for themselves. In the UK, over 50s now make up nearly one third (31%) of the entire workforce, up from around one in five (21%) in the early 1990s. In the US, two age groups – 65 to 74 years old and 75 and older – are projected to have faster annual rates of labor force growth than that of any others.

A consensus is emerging that if we are to benefit from the value that older workers can bring to the workforce, businesses will need to adjust their hiring practices and rethink their commitment to things like flexible hours and re-training programmes.  So too will our concept of education need to evolve, to place even greater emphasis on life-long learning and multi-generational classrooms.

But to do this, we we will also need to rethink the sorts of skills these workers need if they are to remain “fit for purpose” in this changing workforce..and how to obtain them.

Read the rest of this post over at the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing blog

Image: Man sitting on chair beside table by Bruce Mars via Pexels

The Ups and Downs of Working At Home

working from home

working from home I had coffee with a friend the other day at a swank café by St. James Park in London. I’d known her back in Chicago where we’d both worked as journalists. She arrived a bit late, Blackberry in hand, dressed in a smart, tailored suit.

“Sorry,” she apologized breathlessly, glancing at her cell phone as she took her seat. “Meeting ran late.”

As I listened to her describe her job, I felt more than one pang of nostalgia. I think it was her reference to people “scurrying back to their offices” that really got me. Until recently, I, too, worked in an office. Now I work from home as a freelance writer, where I can at best manage a saunter from the bathroom to my desk.

She also mentioned her office’s Wednesday lunches and how they made her feel part of a team. In my current set up, I’m lucky if I can catch the mailman’s eye and bond with him over my utility bill.

It’s only natural that working at home induces a certain discomfort. After all, when you say, “I work,” the logical follow-up is “Where?” And when the answer is “home,” it does sound less legitimate.

Read the rest of this post over on Kuel Life….

Image: Apartment Comfortable Contemporary Couch via Pexels

Nourish Your Inner Project Manager Through Cooking

cooking

cooking

I spent a week at my 86 year-old mother’s house recently. I was there to help her to clear out her home in preparation for an imminent move to an independent living facility.

The visit invariably entailed a lot of emotional moments: looking at old photos of my (deceased) father…throwing out 3/4 of her Christmas tree ornaments because she’ll no longer have a full-sized tree…realizing that at her age, the risk of tripping on a Turkish rug far outweighs its aesthetic appeal.

I could go on.

But I was also reminded of a fundamental truth about my nature: I am a born project manager. Whether it was driving to the local, jumbo-sized American liquor store to pick up boxes, sorting through old clothing to donate to the Vietnam Veterans of America, or interviewing potential moving companies for estimates, I was completely in my element.

Best of all, I had a deadline: we had to have the entire house de-cluttered in advance of an open-house scheduled a week after I arrived. So I spent seven days doing nothing but running around making lists, checking items off, and assigning duties to my three siblings for the next six weeks before I return for the actual move.

Manager vs. Maker

I once wrote a blog post with a short quiz to help people figure out if they are fundamentally “managers” or “makers.” (Conceptual hat tip: Paul Graham)

A manager is someone who divides their day into tiny bite-sized chunks and for whom meetings – even spontaneous ones – constitute the essence of their job.

A maker is someone who needs large blocks of time to carry out tasks – i.e. computer programmers, writers, artists – and who find meetings onerous and inefficient because they cut into their productivity.

Most people clearly sort into one or the other category. I, unfortunately, have one foot in both camps: I relish large blocks of time to do any sort of writing or editing. But equally, I feel like I will die if I don’t organize someone or something at least once a day (frequently a member of my family…).

The Problem with Being a Creative

Back when I was working, this problem solved itself. My last job encompassed both halves of my personality, such that I spent about 50% of my time writing and editing and 50% of my time managing projects, budgets and people.

It was, in that very specific sense, a perfect job for me.

But now that I’ve been made redundant, I am really struggling to keep that balance in my life. I now have vast swathes of free time, and although I am prioritizing my book project, there are only so many hours in the day one can write.

While there are any number of books out there offering advice on how to develop your inner artist, you don’t hear all that much about how creative types can nurture their inner swim coach.

Cooking as Project Management

One thing I’ve started doing to feed (no pun intended!) my inner project manager is cooking.

Let me confess that I’ve never been much of a foodie. My husband loves food, many of my friends love food, but, until recently, about the only foodstuff I ever really paid any attention to was beer. My sister loves to quote the time I commented, as an 11 year-old: “It was there. So I ate it.” Food had no allure in and of itself.

Nor did cooking. Cooking has always just something practical I did in order to ensure that my family was healthy. But as an activity unto itself, it was completely joyless.

Lately, however, I find myself really getting into making recipes. There is something deeply soothing about listing all the ingredients, tracking them down – especially the rare ones (Ras El-Hanout, anyone?) – and then carefully orchestrating the production of the meal so that it all comes out on time. There is also, invariably, that dreaded terror when (just as when you’re in the office), you fear that you might actually miss that deadline…and then the utter relief when you don’t.

I’m a huge dessert fan, so cakes loom large in my repertoire. But someone also gave me a Persian cook book for my birthday last year and that has been a great source of inspiration.

Of course, there are other ways to exercize your inner project manager if you’re immersed in something creative – volunteering or joining a board is another way to go.

But for me, cooking seems to work just fine, at least for now.

I guess once my mother moves into her new place, I’ll need to start working on some recipes for her…

Image: Food. Pot. Kitchen. Cooking via Pexels.com

Why I Hate Being In Between Jobs

desk

deskI had a singularly unpleasant experience this week. Both of my children, separately,  told me that I needed to get a job. And not (primarily) for financial reasons.

Ouch.

The worst part of it was that neither of them was trying to be mean. They were merely observing that as a person who is currently in between jobs and writing a book that isn’t (yet) under contract – I needed to find somewhere to direct my considerable energy.

They had a point. I’m one of those weird, hybrid people who relishes large blocks of time to do anything creative, like  writing or editing. But equally, I feel like I will die if I don’t organize someone or something at least once a day (frequently, a member of my family…).

Not surprisingly, my son has told me lately that I need to stop “fussing” over his taking his asthma medicine and getting to school on time. My daughter has put it more bluntly on more than one occasion: “Stop nudging me!” she’ll shout and then slam the door to her room. (I tried ironing. I really did. It helped, sort of.)

But it wasn’t just they’d both correctly identified my inner swim coach rearing its ugly head.  It’s that they were tapping into my greatest fear: that I am not legitimate.

I think all struggling writers – and maybe even some of the commercially successful ones – fear that without the formal trappings of an office – e.g., business cards, a regular paycheck, a door (!), it’s often hard to feel “legitimate” in your chosen profession.

In my case, however, in addition to devoting large chunks of time to a creative project, I am also devoting large chunks of time to identifying exactly how I want to spend the next phase of my professional future.  But how do you tell a 13 year-old that you’re working on “constructing your evolving narrative”? (Even though that is what precisely what I’m doing, and it’s coming along quite nicely, thank you very much.)

At lunch last week with a friend, himself a successful consultant transitioning into an as-yet-to-be-defined but hopefully more fulfilling new career path, I confessed to these feelings of illegitimacy that were plaguing me.

“Delia!” he exclaimed. “I am an intelligent person and I’m telling you that you are legitimate!”

But it fell on deaf ears.

I’d like to tell you that I’ve mastered all this stuff and am completely inner-directed, such that I don’t need some sort of tangible, external signal to validate the way I’m spending my time right now.

But that would be a lie.

I know that because I’m shortly to start a (non-paying) visiting position at a local university, developing a project connected to my interest in aging and adulthood.

That alone ought to be enough for me. And I am genuinely excited about it.

But when they wrote to tell me that as part of the position, I would also have a computer and an office, I was inexplicably elated.

Wow! A computer and an office!,” I thought to myself, a mere two and a half months since the last time I had both of those things. “I am a person again!

Phew.

Image: Desk by Pexels via Pixabay.com

How To Redefine Yourself When You Are Made Redundant

pale ale

pale aleI’m about to lose my job. It’s a long story, but the Reader’s Digest version is that I work for a large, British NGO in London that just lost a big chunk of its government funding.

As a result of that decision, my entire department is being shut down at the end of July.

The Upside of Starting Over

I’m actually really happy about this state of affairs – not for my organisation, but for me personally. I’ve already changed careers a couple of times, so I’m all about the “episodic career.”

As we all know, starting over professionally in mid-life doesn’t need to be a negative thing. Indeed, it can be the start of something really exciting and rewarding. I’ve been thinking hard about what was coming next for me for a while now and relish the prospect of trying something new.

Plus, the prospect of collecting a nice severance package sweetens the deal even further. I mean, seriously, how often are you paid to go hunt for a new job?

So why, then, am I feeling so lousy?

Being Made “Redundant”

I think it’s the terminology they use over here to describe this state of affairs. In the UK, it’s called “being made redundant.”

Say what you will about the term “layoff,” but it’s a heckuva lot better than “redundancy.” For me, anyway, getting “laid off” connotes something restful – you’ve been given leave to hang up your cleats and exit the sports field gracefully. You can now kick back with a low-alcohol Pale Ale in the back yard and read The New Yorker to your heart’s content. (Not your fantasy? Feel free to substitute in your personal set of unemployment-induced indulgences…)

But it’s temporary: you’re just hitting the snooze button. Normal life resumes shortly.

In contrast, being told that you are being made “redundant” conjures up images being – at best, burdensome – and at worst, completely unnecessary. In the dictionary, “redundant” is defined as “No longer needed. Superfluous.”

And that depresses me.

The Fear of Slowing Down

I’m a do-er you see. I’m always on the go, from 6 am to 10 pm. For God’s sake, I use a wheelie suitcase as a briefcase! I am a living and breathing metaphor for purposefulness in motion.

So the idea of slowing down terrifies me. Some of that’s about legitimacy – the normal sorts of professional identity issues one struggles with when he or she is unemployed.

But in my own case, there’s a much deeper cause to my uneasiness: the worry that I won’t re-start. That there will be nothing left to do. No more mountains to climb, to borrow a phrase from the Reverend Mother in The Sound of Music. And who am I without constant movement?

So to be labelled by my society as inert and unproductive is quite possibly the worst thing you can do to me. It taps into my worst fears: that the game of life is over and there’s just…me. It’s like a form of dying. Or at least that’s how I experience it.

Redundancy vs. Renewal

I know this is all very silly and superficial. There’s no reason that I have to define my new professional status by the dictionary definition of redundant. As Shakespeare once memorably asked: “What’s in a name?”

I also know that, deep down,it won’t be long before I’m back in the saddle, throwing myself into the next big thing. Indeed, the biggest challenge for me will be remembering to savor “slow living” before I resume the race.

But if you happen to see me before then, whether on the street or in cyber-space, please do me a favor. Try not to mention the word “redundancy” in my presence.

I prefer the word “rebirth.”

Which, according to the dictionary, means “A period of new life, growth or activity. A revival.”

Amen.

Image: Coopers Pale Ale from Adelaide Australia in the Bier Garden Saigon Vietnam JAN 2012 via Wikimedia Commons