I struggled with writing this piece. The ideas seem to swirl around in my head without actually forming. They tantalize, but, when it comes to pinning them down on paper, they morph and flit away. I’m not sure why. Maybe it feels a bit disloyal or ungrateful to question whether or not what you did for a living for over 33 years really made a whit of difference in the general scheme of things.
Recently, I was speaking with a friend of mine who is still working. She was feeling a bit down in the dumps because of the way things were going on the job. She despaired because she was working as hard as she could, but there didn’t really seem to be any progress or, for that matter, any goal. She put out fires every day. She knew, on some level, that she was doing something important. What she didn’t know was whether anyone in her organization knew or cared what it was that she did. One of the points she cited as evidence was the fact that she was still called by a title that had been obsolete for over a year.
It may seem somewhat trivial to angst over a title. However, the title issue begged a bigger question. To my friend, the fact that the agency did not recognize that the title was incorrect made her wonder about her duties, responsibilities, and accomplishments. Was the time and energy she was expending being invested in the right things? What was she really supposed to be accomplishing? Did the organization recognize and value what she had simply adopted as her new role, without benefit of direction, once the job originally associated with her obsolete title was done? How was she to get support and championship for what she believed needed to be done on an organizational level, based on what she saw from her perspective? And the biggest question…. could her considerable efforts result in any “big picture” change for the greater good?
I tried to be supportive and the conversation made me realize that I have undergone a huge metamorphosis since leaving the world of employment. Yes, I have navigated probably hundreds of everyday changes in my life as I’ve transitioned into the retirement world. However, as I explained to my friend, there is actually one change that dwarfs all of the rest of them. My perspective of my job has undergone a massive overhaul. I think, when some people retire, they tend to see the job they left behind through rosier lenses than what reality would suggest. In my case, it was exactly the opposite. In my rearview mirror, the job was considerably less important than I believed it was when I was occupying it.
It isn’t that I think what I did was unimportant. I do believe that I helped a lot of customers and employees. I think, because of my understanding, technical expertise, and leadership, most of the people in my limited sphere of influence had a better experience in life than they would have had if I had not been there, at least for a little while. I can recall some of my efforts that had relatively big, tangible, positive impact on a few specific people. That is enough to make me feel great about what I accomplished in my career.
On the other hand, I think much of what I did was largely symbolic. I am as big a believer in symbolic victory as the next person, but I do like to think that symbolic victories open the door and pave the way for more substantive triumphs. I don’t completely dismiss the possibility that there are one or two people out there who may have truly benefited, in a very real way, from my employment. However, I think most of my value was in listening, talking to people in a respectful way, and framing ideas so that they made sense to the other person based on his or her mindset. I do believe all that is important in that it keeps the world turning a little smoother, but, let’s face it…. It doesn’t really change the price of tea in China. From a big picture standpoint, I was basically irrelevant.
When I think of the tears I shed, the nights I didn’t sleep, and the harshness with which I chastised myself as I went through my career, I am now amazed. What I have learned since retiring is…. It isn’t that big a deal. Shocking, I know.
When I was working at my job, my brain knew that there were many more important things in life than whether I was a career star. There were more important things than having terrific office metrics. There were more important things than getting a refund to a customer a few days faster than it would happen without my intervention. There were more important things than supporting the career and personal growth of my employees. It wasn’t difficult for me to name some of those more important things… faith, ethics, family, relationships. Still, at some gut-wrenching, adrenaline-producing, crazy-making level, there was an undeniable force that drove my every action, emotion, and response during my work life. It was that force that propelled me close to despair when I was not successful, even momentarily, in any of the “not so important” things.
Yes, being good at my job was very important. It was critical that I be good enough at it to keep it and make a living. It was also essential, from an ethical and self-respect standpoint, that I did my best. It was important that I justify the trust my leaders put in me and the salary that the people of the United States were paying me. However, meeting or exceeding every person’s every expectation of me truly was not that important. First of all, it isn’t even possible to go through life without disappointing someone once in a while. Second, sometimes people asked me for things that were not legal or ethical or reasonable. Third, and it has taken me some time to realize this, some of those people didn’t even expect me to meet those stated expectations. People were sometimes communicating what they wanted in an ideal world, but knew that what they were requesting was not realistic in any world in which we all live. Somehow, I internalized all those requests as a sacred mandate. I felt actual shame when I had to tell someone I had not achieved what they wanted.
I tried to explain this revelation to my friend, hoping that it would help her deal with her current work crisis. She, of course, agreed with everything I was saying. Intellectually, we all know these basic truths. Hearing me say them didn’t make any difference to my friend. It wouldn’t have made any difference to me when I was working, either.
Why is it that it is so hard to put things in proper perspective when we are still working? When we are in the midst of the fray, it is as if there is some biological imperative to do what we are being asked to do that somehow overwhelms the good sense with which we were born. We surrender our brains to the mercy of an overheated sympathetic nervous system. Some people are able to wrangle those adrenaline responses. They are able to balance those biological “fight or flight” reactions with the power of their innate reasoning ability. Passion versus dispassion. I wish I could have mastered that skill. I might still be working today, if I had.
People often think that I am a fairly cool customer. I come across as a logical, reasonable individual. I think things through, probably to a fault. I plan and strategize. I tackle things one step at a time. I used to say “hope is not a strategy” and relied on an abundance of hard work rather than talent to succeed. I believed I would meet my goals if I, like Dory, “just keep on swimmin’.” I was always more of a plow horse than a race horse. I don’t think I ever really saw myself as passionate in my career life.
As I write this, it dawns on me that maybe I was more passionate about my job than I realized. Maybe the reason I have had trouble making this blog piece sit still is because I miss my job a little more than I thought I did. Or maybe not. Passion does exact a price.
What do you think? For those of you who are retired, what do you miss about your work? If you are considering retirement, what do you think you will miss the most? Please share your perspective by leaving a comment. In the alternative, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Have a wonderful day!