How to rebuild yourself when you lose the job that was defining your identity

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In these turbulent times, many of us, of you, are facing personal uncertainty, generating stress, doubt, fear. They will lose their job — a job that had become an identity. How to make sense of what is happening to you? How to build resilience? How to rebuild an identity?

“What the hell am I doing here?” Radiohead

I came across an HBR article by Jenna Koretz about burn out that immediately resonated a lot with me. This great piece deals with burn out in high-powered professional, and tells about “What Happens When Your Career Becomes Your Whole Identity”. How to see it coming and how to deal with it. In essence, there has been an increasing number of hi-potential executive who run themselves to a psychological ditch, and start to be haunted by a key question, “what the hell am I doing here?”. She describes beautifully how successful executives had become addicted to the idea of success as defined by others. However they might not manage anymore to internalize this success as a form of achievement, completion, or satisfaction. Something like “all inputs are right, but the output is wrong”. In a sense, many become “entrapped”, “enmeshed” as she puts it into a place where there is no place for their self.

“What it takes is one decision” Placebo

I was really fortunate enough to have avoided burn-out — or at least I believe I did. I am passionate — I have been extremely committed, hard working, relentless business traveler and known to take long phone calls at unpractical hours. I went 13 times to China and 10 times to Europe from the US in 2 years. I would plan life around business commitments. I was in a plane less than a months after each of our kids were born. I have always lived as if the business life depended on my contribution — although realizing through many job rotation that life goes on when you move on, and that you do your best but you are not alone or irreplaceable.

That said, I have kept some things with a higher priority, and devoted just as much energy to living my life as supporting the company worked for. I have made myself a long distance runner and ironman triathlete (out of an obese teenager and a couch potato). I have embarked into many creative journeys. I have travelled the world. I have loved as much as could my wife, and my kids. I am spending everyday the right amount of quality time with the ones who matter to me. I have been open to the 15 minutes for my kids as Shonda Rhymes described. Also at work and outside, spent the time talking, questioning and coaching people, learning from their questions — and questioning myself, always. To find my self.

I think it is this constant questioning that kept me honest. I was am grateful to have a fantastic wife to talk about this at length, and she helped me realize where I was. She understands all of that very well, as she is working for that same company I have been working for 23 years. She helped me realize that I could do more by leaving, than staying longer. She helped me firm up the confidence that I had built great experience of business and people management, that I could leverage outside of the constraints of a rigid corporation… in pursuit of goals matching better my values — sustainability and circularity, making the world a better place for my kids and others.

“The hardest part” Coldplay

That said, it’s not because leaving was planned a long time ago, and there were 4 months between my resignation earlier2020 and my farewell in a Zoom meeting that any of that is easy. I was fearing — rightfully — the “withdrawal syndrome” that one can sense any time you leave a system that has fed you with goodies all along. It took me time to balance in the end the fact that while I was losing some parts of “instant gratification” such as consideration by management, positive feedback, colleagues networking and support, I was also becoming freer. Free of the constraints of where I would have taken the business I was the CEO, free of the jealousy that you can feel when some one gets a promotion, and you think it’s not deserved or you deserved it more. What matters now in my journey is what I do, what I achieve, and I set the standard for it. But letting go of office gossips and “general gratification” is not an easy task.

“The end of the world as we know it” R.E.M.

I felt the need to share this as many of my friends, colleagues, connections, are facing what is probably their biggest existential crisis, after 10 years of incredible economic growth. Many people in their 40’s and 50’s, Y generations marked by the seal of fear and “own” as a coping mechanism for that fear had a career planned like a clockwork will experience derailment.

- Rebuild your network. That’s where it has to start. Since I have left my company I worked on redefining my “career project”, and I have augmented exponentially my network, in quantity and diversity. In levels of reach. You should do the same, and start as soon as you can. Your network needs to change in nature… it’s not people you know and work with that could in the past contribute to internal progression… you have to develop an appetite for diversity of contacts, that can help you find a job, or help you understand what you are worth, what are your strength, what you want to develop in a much broader sense that during these 10, 20 or 30 last years. You will have to get out of your comfort zone, learn how to make “cold calls” to reach out to new people, who will help and guide you. One of Covid-19 silver lining might be to have level the playing field in this area — everyone in the world is a Zoom call away. I am still humbled by how many people can help and guide you — and I am trying to contribute too. Your newly built external network helps building an image of yourself independently of your job titles.

- Think about what you value. This is important. Finding a new job is not only about replying randomly to Linked In offers. It is about building your own project, and determine what you want. I have seen head hunters complaining about the fact that experienced people come to them, not really knowing what they would like to do… and I understand — for many years, especially in large organization, it is easy to let someone else be in charge of your progression. Take this as a fantastic opportunity to focus for the future on what you really value, and what you want to experience the next stage of your life. It has to be a 360 degrees work on yourself — your place in your family, the society, the work, the location, how much travel you want etc…

- Look beyond job titles. You need to rebuild your resume. And think about the fact this has to be intelligible from the outside. When you have been in company for many years, you know what is behind a job title. But if you put yourself in the shoes of the recruiter, what they are after are the skills you have developed, your contributions and what you have learned. And you would be surprised after this exercise that some of the jobs that you were internally very proud about, because they were offering opportunities for exposure and recognition by senior management, or because they were part of a well know “path” to take you to some places might not mean much to anyone. You might find that it is easier to explain the usefulness and importance of a Sales job, how much you liked it and how much you had done there, compared to a job of “advisor to strategy development” that was mostly a way for you to meet and chat with the president of the company and be known for the next round of promotions — but did not add any new strings to your bow.

based on the learnings of the journey I have chosen, to many of you might have to do it, I would recommend something easy, as a new start. It takes some effort to stay focused on all the steps that you need to take to rebuild yourself, once the structure of the job is gone.

So what you can do is plan a learning plan. Use the time you are given to avidly learn and build your knowledge of the world.

You might have things that you never had time to explore, and that could help you fine tune what your own project could be. Working for a long time in a great company means sometimes developing a tunnel vision. There are many many MOOC these days, free or virtually free, that can help you become better individuals and more employable professional.

I would conclude on a Chinese saying from one of my good friends. “Outside the box, there are lots of colors”.

Hemka, Singapore, November 2nd 2020.

Husband and dad. Engineering a better world. Putting things on paper.

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