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The Upside of Hard Times

Music suggestion: Hard Times, Woody Guthrie Drink suggestion: Prohibition Ale, Speakeasy Ales & Lagers

I first published this essay in 2009 through the INSEAD Knowledge series (hence, the references to that year). I thought it was worth a reprint, given the employment challenges with which many of us continue to grapple despite the economic recovery supposedly underway.

This could be the best year of your life; a year of discovery, correction, clearance, and enlightenment. 2009 could be the year that started all wrong and ended so right. Twenty years from now, when sharing life’s lessons over a bottle of wine with friends, you might reflect on 2009 as your year of real change; that barrier year between who you were and who you became.

Yes, we are talking about the same 2009. The year of global recession and record unemployment. The year of depressing retirement account balances and even more distressing home foreclosures. The year your cushy job disappeared, leaving you in dismay and wondering who would cover the mortgage. The one you proudly flaunted like a scar among sailors – “so you think your monthly is big?” – but is now costing you twice the swooning value of the home. It is only March, but the year looks frightening.

With savings melting faster than the Larsen ice shelf, this could be the year your kids learn the name of the neighbourhood public or state school; the year you learn to use a metro pass. With that generous company expense tab gone, you may have to forgo “business” dinners (with your still-employed friends) and the inevitable $100 charges; damn that French wine. 2009 will be a memorable year.

This is a time of upheaval for many of us. But whether it is constructive upheaval or devastating chaos is your choice; fully 100 per cent your choice. Consider a home knocked from its foundation by an earthquake, its frame askew and doors queerly misaligned. Leaving it crippled on the lot is not an option. Do you restore to its former condition, or do you pull it down, given a valid excuse to rebuild to a better blueprint? This year you may indeed have that choice. You may have been avoiding this unwelcome decision. In 2009 the choice may find you.

But all is not lost, nothing is inevitable, and hopelessness need not reign. Consider, if you will, the world of physics. Momentum is a key and indispensible force in the physical world. It carries a five-ounce baseball speeding over the plate and helps a 4,000 tonne train down the tracks. Barry Bonds could reverse that momentum in a single crushing swing, but even Superman struggled to slow the lumbering train. And the man of steel was impotent against the momentum of life, wrestling with the demands of his calling. That was his true kryptonite, the bonds of predestination that would never break.

We, fortunately, have no such binds locking us down. It may feel that way, however. How does one change a career, fix or flee a marriage, chart a new course? With the wind at your back, why ask tough questions? With dead air in your face, the questions may become painfully persistent and unavoidable. There may no longer be a job to lose or a relationship to save.

Money and motion can be numbing and their absence can be sobering. Under the bare light of a quiet day, in the absence of tense adrenalin from work commitments, festering annoyances that have been endured through distraction suddenly become untenable. In your unemployed calm, a greater sense of import and urgency over these irritations may surface. The outcome may be confrontation, but also resolution.

Seek liberation in this upheaval. Before instinctively sending out your resume in a blast mailing and chasing down every lead that looks remotely interesting, take one step back. Get in touch with your true Mission. What were you put on earth to contribute? Each of us can do at least one thing better than anyone else on the planet. The blend of our genetic gifts and formative experiences yield a unique cocktail. For Mozart or Einstein or Michael Jordan the gifts were obvious. For the rest of us it may not be so clear, but is no less true. Deep down we each understand our talents and passions. Marry the two and you will set the world ablaze.

Now is the time to get right with yourself. A transition year is ripe for big questions and interesting answers. But getting right with yourself demands first a simple, but possibly unsettling, realisation: This Is Your Life. Your conception was a miracle. Your Mission is unique and precious. It must be revered and protected. Your Mission is not surrendered to someone else’s journey; not those of your spouse or boss. You have permission to deny the expectations of friends, co-workers, and neighbours. On your deathbed – and there is one on order – you will answer only to yourself. It will be wholly unfair and highly unsatisfying on that day to assign blame to others for your regrets.

If any of this is finding resonance, I offer three simple steps that may help you gain perspective on where you are and where you want to go.

Step 1: Find a quiet place, take a deep breath, relax, and imagine your golden role: the role that best exploits your strengths and passions; your Mission. This can be challenging when stressed by immediate concerns over job loss and bills. But it is exactly at this time that the exercise is most valuable. Take a day or a week if necessary, and contemplate the perfect work/life situation at age 50 or 60. If you are close to 60, then project out 10 more years. In this economy, no one is retiring, right? Imagine what are you doing professionally, where are you living, and who is with you. Stay rooted in reality – you won’t become a professional boxer or world-class soprano – but avoid compromising the options. Think outside the box and let your ambitions stretch.

Step 2: Sketch your career arc from now until that golden role. What two or three interim steps are required to get there from a professional prospective? What additional education, training, and experiences are needed? Again, do not constrain the options, but think credibly. It is critical to draft a plan that is immune to the inertia of your career and personal decisions to date; one that is void of concerns over feelings or unexpected consequences. Dangerous thinking, yes? But with little to lose, don’t be timid, be a pirate.

Step 3: Take an inventory of all major people and objects of gravity in your life. When navigating across your career arc to the golden role, these will be either anchors or sails. Your home, cars, spouse, lover, club memberships, designer wardrobe, wine collection, time share, sailboat, and everything else that orbits your world today as massive planets, consuming your energy to stay in motion. Anchors or sails? Some categorisations are easy; others may be painful and perilous. But it’s a good year for unsettling considerations. If not now, when?

The rest should be obvious. Once you understand your Mission and hold the map for navigation, outfit the vessel with your best sails and jettison the rest. Simple, right? No, for most of us life is more complicated. But I find this exercise highly illuminating, uplifting, and energising. It is a structure for positive reflection and provides a sense of control over an unruly situation. You may be caught up in the perfect storm, but at least you are at the helm. And the possibility of popping out on the other side of this economic vortex with a clearer head, a lighter load, and a better direction is exhilarating. This could be a very good year; the best year of your life. Let’s toast to that.

Bill Magill Aix-en-Provence

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