Some years ago I heard about a home for abused women that taught them various skills to help them find jobs. The article quoted Andrea, who had become a Spanish-English interpreter in the courts for women who had suffered domestic violence.
Andrea was passionate about her work. She was charged with energy, her strength apparent to all who knew her. “I am an advocate now,” she said happily, “not a victim.” It was as if her job had turned her into a different person.
I remembered Andrea recently when I was seeing Leah, a fifth grader whose parents brought her to me because she worried too much.
Leah didn’t just stew about doing well in school or having friends. At age eleven she worried that she wouldn’t get into college or find work after earning a degree. She also imagined that she wouldn’t find a husband or be able to have a family. Although her grades were good, she was afraid of being held back at year’s end. She became so anxious that she couldn’t hear what the teacher was saying.
But there was one odd feature of Leah’s school day. If a computer or television malfunctioned in her classroom, the teacher called on Leah. She could almost always fix the problem. She had an instinctive understanding of electronics and technology.
One day Leah told me her teacher had said she could become an engineer if she wanted, that she had a natural gift. Leah’s eyes sparkled with pride. Her talent had become a reliable source of joy.
Leah’s attitude shifted. She began to see herself as having enviable expertise. She stopped feeling inept and inadequate. As with Andrea, her new persona hinted at a desirable future.
Our careers and professions provide us with badges. One of the first questions we ask each other in social settings is, “What do you do?” Our work becomes in large measure who we are.
In America the pressure on adults to earn a living and stay productive is social and not just financial. Our work organizes us in important ways. When we are laid off or fired, our identities take a hit. Suddenly we feel marginalized, useless, like outcasts or exiles.
Also bad, though less so, is having nothing to do at work, being forced to sit idle for hours on end. We need to feel productive. Our work must align with our values and our sense of self. People who hate their jobs are at war with themselves.
Alicia was a case in point. At age forty she was attending law school to oblige her father, who was footing the bill, imagining that he was equipping her financially for her retirement.
But Alicia hated the law. She saw lawyers as people who picked fights and imposed rules on others. Not everyone would share this view, of course. Some lawyers are crusaders, championing the rights of the disadvantaged or working to see that people in general are treated fairly.
Alicia’s problem wasn’t really with the legal profession. She just couldn’t imagine herself as a lawyer.
How do you see yourself in your job? Does your work in the world feel meaningful? If not, try reconfiguring your skills and your experience. You can transform yourself by finding something else to do.
When our jobs pinch like a bad pair of shoes, we often forget that we have all we need to reinvent ourselves. It’s a matter of finding not just a new job but a new persona, as Andrea and Leah did. The opportunity is always present, ready to be discovered at any point in our lives.
Work is only part of our persona, obviously. Whether or not we pursue a new career, the aging process involves us in continuous gradual transformation.
Even when we aren’t thinking about it, we are all constantly reassessing the ways in which the past gave rise to the present. We are quietly (or not so quietly) retelling our stories.
With conscious reflection we may find that our journey through time wasn’t what we expected it to be. Maybe you and I didn’t do or become what we thought we should and could.
Still, our accomplishments, even those that were unforeseen, often include hidden feats of which we can feel proud. Different features of our experience can emerge when we reframe it, changing the context.
Denise, a woman in her fifties, spoke sadly of wanting in childhood to become a famous artist. She felt bitter about the many chances she had missed to reach for this dream. Years passed before she could look back and see what she had done rather than merely what she had failed to do.
She had not spent her youth painting or sculpting. She had worked first as an art teacher and later in special education classrooms. Reviewing the path her life had taken, she finally realized that her preoccupation with fame had vanished. Now, in late middle age, she worried about showing children how to find their way.
None of us learns new things by choice. We learn only when we must. In our troubled times one of the things that are changing is how people survive. We are all learning, according to the economists and psychologists, to reinvent ourselves. It’s a matter of economic and also psychological survival.
Today many people who qualify for Medicare still have good health and abundant energy. Those who can’t afford a playful retirement are setting new goals and engaging in rewarding new forms of work to supplement their Social Security. Enjoying both wisdom and energy in the Medicare years, these older people are hungry for ways to give of themselves as long as they can.
The marketing guru Brendon Burchard has succinctly phrased the end-of-life questions. Did I live? Did I love? Did I matter? How you tell your story will determine what meaning you find in it. Your life, willy-nilly, has a beginning, a middle, and an end. You shape it in the telling.
You select your persona when you pick the high points and the low. The opportunity to do so is never lost. And the tale always culminates in the present moment.
Not sure how to make choices for yourself? Get healthy to exercise your best judgment. Address all nine areas of well-being. (Not sure what these are? Download my favorite resources here, along with a checklist.) Align your values and your goals with your daily life. Be alert to all the messages your body sends you about what you love and what feels good.
Most important, have faith in yourself. Believe that you will find within yourself and in the world at large the resources you need to handle any challenge that comes your way. Let this be the face you present to the world.
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