Repeat After Me: I Am Not My Job

8267517_2473f2a2b3Photo by Erix

On Monday, I talked about the five stages of grief as they relate to a job loss.  I’ve had a large number of friends and colleagues lose their jobs recently, and I’m surprised at how well some are handling it…and how poorly others are doing.  Why are some people able to take a job loss in stride, when others are crushed by the blow?

There are lots of reasons, certainly, like how prepared people were, or how much money they had in the bank, or how close they were to foreclosure before they got that pink slip.  One thing, though, that seems to be a huge variable is the degree to which their identity was wrapped up in their job.

I lost my job last summer.  I loved the company and the people there, and I still liked the type of work I was doing.  But I’d been thinking nonstop about two things:  staying home with my kids, and changing careers.  I’ve enjoyed my run in HR, but I never envisioned doing this—or anything else—for 40 years straight.  I can’t imagine talking about hostile applicants or boob-popping candidates or outsourcing weenies for that long.  I’d lose my mind.

As a result, my husband and I had already started to talk about how we could restructure things so I could stay home with the kids until they’re in school, and beyond that, what I’d do next.  We were not at all ready to actually DO this when I lost my job, but the fact that I’d begun to think of myself apart from my profession helped me tremendously when the ax fell, because I’d already shifted my identity away from what I did for a living.  I still ha a little trouble adjusting to saying, “I’m a stay-at-home mom,” or “I do a little freelance work” when people asked, because you get a very different reaction when you say those things instead of “I’m the head of HR for an airline.”  But the head start helped.  We’d also begun getting our budget in order, so that helped too.  When the economy crumbled last fall, we’d already switched to prepaid cell phones, cut back on the dinners out and trips to Starbuck’s, and switched to Target brand diapers (which are actually better anyway, at least on my kid, who apparently has a Target-shaped butt).  We started being cheap before it was cool.  It’s the first time we’ve been cutting edge since, well, ever.

I have a couple of friends, though, who have been particularly flattened by the process of losing their jobs.  In both cases, they were fairly high-level HR people, and they are having a very, very hard time figuring out who or what they are now.  It’s not just the loss of income, although for people used to living high on the hog, that’s a tough blow in itself.  The loss of identity seems to be the real source of angst.  Without a title, they don’t seem to know what to call themselves.  To be honest, I have a hard time identifying with that, since I never was all that corporate to begin with…but from the outside looking in, it sure looks painful.

Whether you’re employed or not, I think it’s a huge mistake to identify too much with your job.  As we’ve all seen in the past few months, jobs are not permanent.   Those contents are guaranteed to shift during flight.  One of the lessons from this downturn seems to be that we need to find ourselves outside our offices and cubicles.  Few of us will do the same thing for our entire careers anyway (and who would want to, really?).  Some people see the uncertainty as a scary thing, but I think it’s freeing.  It means we can survive changes without so much grief.

In earthquake country, they build skyscrapers on these special rollers, which allow the building to move and sway when the ground shifts, without falling down.  The more rollers you can build underneath you, the happier you’re going to be, in any economy.

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