Over lunch a few weeks ago, one of my learning professional friends agreed to share her story (anonymously) through email. She's one of the many people I've talked to who is who is expressing her resilience by developing a small business with multiple income streams. She is a resilient entrepreneur. Here's her story:
A story of career resilience, or “I’m the greatest star…”
We are, in many ways, the stories we tell about ourselves. So when Michele asked me to share my story of career resilience, I hesitated. The career story I tell is not one of resilience or triumph over adversity; it’s one of choice and deliberate action. I don’t generally share the harsh details and existential pain I encountered along the way, but I instead stick with a narrative – also true – of a satisfying and successful career built on self-reflection and deep knowledge and skill building.
I decided to tell my story anonymously because I don’t necessarily want to be seen as a resilient person; I prefer to be judged on my current skills and accomplishments. But for this purpose, I’ll tell some of the parts of the story that are balled up and tossed in the wastebasket – not forgotten, but not in the story either.
In a 30-year career that has also been marked with accomplishments, I have encountered just about every set-back you might name. I have been fired, laid off, reorganized out of a job, demoted, and pushed into “retirement” in a role shuffle. I have had to keep “proving myself” for new bosses even though I kept the same job.
I can clearly remember tears of despair and frustration during some commutes, and I can still feel the sting and shock of surprisingly negative performance reviews. I have wrestled with the hard questions… How did I get here? How could this happen to me? What do I do now?
Here’s the main thing. I’m still standing, and currently enjoying the work I do every day. (It’s a shame how few people can say that.) Moreover, I have a solid reputation in my field (on a national level) and people who I deeply respect also deeply respect me. I have worked very hard to ensure that set-backs don’t keep me down for long, and I have refused to let others define me. Along the way, I have indeed relied on – and had opportunity to fine tune – my career resilience.
When Michele discussed her career resilience patterns with me, they resonated on many levels. I am happy to share some stories to underscore how these patterns can help others gain some resilience as well.
The most rewarding step I’ve taken in my career is to get very clear on what my talents are and what I want to be contributing in my work life. By analyzing what makes me energized and what brings me down, I have been able to gain perspective on my skills and come to a deep understanding of the ways I might apply them in how I make my living. I know what kind of work gets me in the “flow” state – and I know the strengths that I contribute to that work as well as the weak areas that I need to mitigate along the way.
Another critical, mental-health-supporting bit of clarifying is that I have developed my own standard of excellence. I know my field very well, and can define what quality work looks like – and so I am much better able to respond when others might try to tear me down. I certainly listen carefully to constructive feedback, but I am also able to recognize when those giving direction don’t share my standards and perspective – which puts their feedback in a different light.
Being an introvert, this pattern is actually tricky for me. But I have learned to initiate invitations for lunch, to plan ways to start conversations, and to reach out to those with whom I think I might have a mutually beneficial relationship. I have to set goals for myself so that I don’t let too much time go by without expanding my network and staying in touch with contacts.
The best advice I’ve gotten in this regard is to be generous. I don’t worry so much about how a relationship with another person might benefit me – I try to do what I can to help others – to listen, to share resources, to offer advice, and to make connections if possible. You don’t have to believe in karma to endorse this as a good strategy– studies show that helping others does come back around in a positive way.
Like Michele, I think we have to get better at creating jobs for ourselves. In the last turn of events, I took a HUGE risk to go out on my own because I knew deep in my heart the kind of work I wanted to be doing, and I knew that I could best be doing that work in my own consulting practice.
It’s not the first time I’ve invented my own job. I created the department that I worked in for ten years, and the role was very unique – I don’t expect to ever find it on a job board. For a time, I was also able to create a “portfolio career” – a combination of part time jobs that added up to the right balance of different kinds of work that I wanted to pursue. These things don’t always last though; either the organization changes, or my own needs change. So I try to keep myself open and ready to create new opportunities along the way. Even now, I have my mind and heart open for new possibilities.
I have also tried to create a rich and complete life that works for me… family time, work hours, leisure time, vacations, community involvement, spiritual practices, exercise, and so on. We have a tendency to think of “work life” and “personal life” as if we have two lives to live… and we have just the one. I’ve learned it’s important to take time to craft a way of living that suits me.
I imagine my standard coping mechanisms are much the same as other people, although I am an introvert so they tend to be more sedate strategies. I escape into reading books, and can sit for hours absorbed in a good story. I love walking – especially at the beach, along the riverfront, or around the paths of a local park. Walking clears my head, and I try to get out almost every day. I love spending time with my family and friends, and getting out of the house (and home office) to see other people and recharge my batteries.I have to say, though, that when my resilience is really being tested, I cope best with Barbra Streisand blaring on my car radio. Sing along with me: “I’m the greatest star. I am by far, but no one knows it…” “Nobody, no nobody is going to rain on my parade.” “Why settle for just a piece of sky?” Seriously, having those small snatches of lyrics playing in my mind has gotten me through many a dark day. They injected just that small bit of mental fortitude that made clarifying, connecting, and creating possible.