Do what you love, be who you are

It’s hard for me to believe, but it’s been a year since I had the rug pulled out from under me professionally. It’s been a year since I was laid off. (Happy Holidays and don’t let the door hit you on the way out!)

I was one of thousands – hundreds of thousands – that lost their jobs in the fourth quarter of 2008, so my story is hardly a unique one. And the loss of that job was driven first and foremost by financial concerns and needs.

Being laid off challenged me and made me re-examine my goals, so perhaps I should say “thank you” to my former employer (instead of the other two words I’ve been muttering) for this learning experience. But it’s hard not to absorb the initial shock of such an event – and it’s even harder not to take it personally.

For me, that process was compounded by the fact that, after a lot of work and a great deal of time and effort, I’d finally landed in a professional arena (writing/media/marketing) that I’d been working to get to for over a decade. Losing that job made me question my professional identity. It also brought on an onslaught of feelings: I was hurt. I was sad.

And for a long, long time, I was pissed. Really, really pissed.

I’ve been back at work now for a few months, which has done a great deal to restore my equilibrium. But I’ve also been lucky to gain some perspective on what happened.

Paddy in the early 90s

Last week (for Music Monday) I posted about the band Prefab Sprout and its leader, Paddy McAloon. I raved about their music. But I have a new respect for Mr. McAloon, because the story of his professional life over the last decade or so helped me to get perspective on my own.

You truly are / a truly gifted kid / But you’re only as good as / The last great thing you did

Paddy McAloon is so talented that he really should have been a household name. People in the UK know who he is, but he’s virtually unknown in America. He and his band are hardly the first musical acts to try and gain a foothold in America without success. That, in and of itself, had to be deeply disappointing to him.

But Paddy had two tremendous roadblocks thrown in his way. They played havoc with his professional life and his personal life as well.

About ten years ago, he started to develop a degenerative eye condition. The fluid in his eyes started to leak out, which played havoc with his retina. Though he’s not blind, his eyesight is reduced – and constantly in jeopardy of disappearing all together.

Then in 2006, he started to experience severe tinnitus, a hearing disorder. Let me give you the Wikipedia definition: it is the “perception of sound within the human ear in the absence of corresponding external sound.” You know how your ears ring after you’re at a concert? Now imagine that ringing sound takes forms – maybe musical notes, or any kind of ambient sound you can imagine.

I don’t mean to paint this focused, vibrant man as some sort of tragic figure or target of pity. But the hand he was dealt? It sucks, on an epic scale of epic fail. Whether you’re a data entry operator, a copy machine service technician, or even a barista at the local cafe, think about how diminished sight and hearing would affect YOUR job.

Paddy in 2009

It’s the wonders I perform / Pulling rabbits out of hats / When sometimes I’d prefer / Simply to wear them

Of course, it plays significant havoc if your occupation is rock and roll star. No more bright lights. And no more reverb, or 100 decibel speakers. A concert would probably drive Paddy to madness; even loud speaking voices bring him pain.

So you’re this guy. You’ve invested time and energy and sweat and tears and big chunks of your life and your whole heart into your career, and through no fault of your own, big chunks of it disappear and fly away. You can be hurt, be angry, and be pissed.

If it’s uphill all the way / You should be used to it and say / My back is strong enough, sir, to take the strain

But what do you do when you’re forced to change paths? Paddy’s choice was profound in its simplicity.

And that is: he’s changed nothing.

He’s still a songwriter, and an artist. He still creates words and music. He may not have the channels of communication he once did to share that music with others, but that doesn’t make him any less of an artist.

Because doing what you love, and being who you are, is a choice we can all make professionally. Whether you have a dozen clients, or a million fans….whether you can work for eighteen hours straight, or a half an hour at a time, success is going to work every day to do something that you love. Professional success, in my eyes, is having a career doing something that gets you out of bed in the morning, something that motivates you to new places, new ideas and new challenges.

And success is understanding and knowing who you are and what your strengths are.

I’m happy for this new job, and thankful for the new perspective. It’s washed away a lot of the negativity I had about being laid off.

Because this is who I am: I’m a writer. I love to tell other people’s stories (and occasionally, my own). I love to lend clarity and structure to ideas and concepts. I’m an expert at communication, and a great storyteller. (Mom always said I was a bullshit artist; little did she know I’d be paid for it one day!)

Yes, my former employer may have taken away my wide-reaching platform to inform and entertain. They may have taken away my name plate and marched me out of the building on a perp walk past dozens of other employees. They may have played havoc with my professional goals and my creative trajectory.

But they can never, EVER take away who I am and what I do. They can never erase my accomplishments, or the things I believe in and care about. Knowing that lifted a huge weight of anger and frustration from my shoulders.

Me? I’m a writer, a communicator, and an artist. The question for you is: Do you know who you are professionally? And if you’re doing something you don’t love, is there a balance somewhere in your life where you can spend time doing something that means something to you?

(NOTE: Lyrics in italics are from Prefab Sprout’s song “Moving the River.”)
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