Bill Long 11/15/08
Thinking about Professional Life
I suppose a better subtitle for this essay would be, "Helping people think about change in their professional lives," but I will leave it as it is, since I don't want to confine what I do just to people who are going through "professional transitions." I will focus on three things: (1) helping people put their ideas into written form; (2) helping people face job change; (3) helping people making dramatic professional changes (i.e., more than simply a "job change").
My "qualifications" for doing these things well are that I have written multiple books, and I have either left or been asked to leave so many jobs in so many sectors of our economy that I have seen "up close" what professional transition means. Let's begin with helping people put their ideas on paper.
Ideas--from the Mind to the Paper
Writing essays and books comes "naturally" to me. Indeed, when I hear a person give an address or talk, I can conclude fairly quickly whether the person "has a "book" in them. What is a challenge to me is, while they are speaking, not simply to decide if the person has a book in them, but also to come up with the title and the leading "sections" or "parts" of the book before the person ends his/her talk. For example, I heard a keynoter at a conference a few days ago speak about the need to "reinvent" or "rediscover" the notion of "social capital" or "the public square" in our society. After listening to him for 40 minutes and talking for a few minutes with him, I realized he had two books in him. We sat down for five minutes, and I ran through the ideas (believe me, I didn't "push myself" on him...). His eyes grew wide, and I could tell that he was weighing my comments over against the tons of things that were on his plate as he lived his daily life. He is an "activist," and so doesn't have much time to sit down and write. But he was rapt by my words. Finally, all he could say was, "Please don't tell my wife.." (why? because his wife had been saying the same general thing to him, and he had been putting her off!). I don't think we have seen the last of each other.
A different type of person from the one I just mentioned is one who has an idea and either has already put it on paper or would like to be able to put it on paper. In the former case, the person often needs guidance on how to string ideas together in a way that will tell a compelling story and attract readers; in the latter, the person needs assistance on how to take the ideas which are screaming around in the mind and put them in a coherent framework. I help both types of people. I know the "rush" of having a book of your own come out. I know the sense of satisfaction when someone reads my book and tells me that it had ideas in it that touched them deeply.
I also know how to "build" a case as well as how to add facts and perspective that takes a potential reader from complete ignorance of a subject in a step-by-step fashion until they have mature understanding.
Job Change and Life Transition
What can I say to this? I would estimate that people are either in significant job/life transition or wish they could be doing something else about 20% of the time. And this isn't just the occasional daydream or the wish that they could be a great athlete or rock star. People want change in their lives but often don't know how to go about changing jobs or careers or even dropping out of the work force altogether. We have "responsibilities." Our self image is often tied to how we have performed in a job or what title or position we have in the workplace. Better to be a king/queen of a small operation than to be a 'nothing' "out there." We are controlled by fears and pride, and therefore don't or are slow to change. Some people don't go to the doctor until they are just about ready to die; others don't explore other working or life possibilities until the mental torment is so great that they just about burst. Sometimes it is because people are forced out of a situation either through layoffs or other termination that they don't face the fear of the future.
But it isn't simply fear that keeps us from exploring life's rich possibilities in work. We also are kept where we are because of pride. After all, we all instinctively realize that the more major the change, the more "status" we generally lose. If your job move is a "lateral" or an "upward" transition, of course there often is little difficulty, but if you "descend" in the economic or "honor" scale of work, you have issues that go right to the heart of how you understand yourself. The central issue is the extent to which we need the approval of others in certain predictable and traditional ways in order to live well. Do we need the "strokes" of the paycheck? The secretaries (or others) welcoming us each day? The "clout" or honor that comes with the job position we have? When I was in private legal practice in Portland, OR, I worked for what almost all in law would say was the "most prestigious" firm in Portland. If I mentioned the two word name of the firm, people would turn their heads. People stopped me on the street when I was wearing a vest with the firm's logo on it. The firm's cap got lots of attention. It was easy to see how one could get sucked into this lifestyle, especially if you were good at what you did. When I left that position, I suffered a precipitate decline in "status," but I had made so many "status-lowering" moves in my life before that move in Jan. 2003 that I figured that if status was the major focus of my life, then I had miscalculated almost completely the nature of my career.
But since I have gone through six careers and still am "only" 56, and because I now have no bitterness about any of the job losses along the way (or other "missed" opportunities), I have a lot to say to people who are facing the fears (and pride) of possible change in their working careers. I ask questions fearlessly; I try to draw out how honestly they are facing the changes they envision.
Working With Groups
I am just about out of space for this essay, but I will continue my thoughts in the next essay. In the last five years or so I have spent a lot of time helping groups of people think through what they would like to become and do. Groups are more than collections of individuals, and therefore they provide different challenges from working with individuals, but they are also simpler than individuals because the number of issues is a bit more limited. That is, boards or groups of people with whom I work normally exist under some law or with a certain understanding of the scope of their responsibilities. Thus, unlike an individual, they don't face some of the myriad problems of individuals. But since one of the major dynamics in a board or group of people is the way they "mesh," you need to have special competence and awareness of the factors at work when people get together for a task.
I help groups in doing three things: (1) to understand their identity; (2) to develop their process so that it maximizes the skills of all the members; and (3) to pull off or accomplish particular tasks. Let's turn to each of those in the next essay.