By Jeff Boarini
Recently, some little folks visited and brought along a copy of The Lego Movie which we all watched. The message of the film could not escape me, as the theme song was repeatedly drilled deeper and deeper into my consciousness: “Everything is awesome. Everything is cool when you’re part of a team.”
True enough. And what if you’re no longer part of a team? What if you’ve “opted out” or been cut and left behind? Is “awesome” no longer an option?
I’m in the process of sorting that out right now. My history will be familiar to many who work in corporate media. I have a degree in Radio & TV production. I worked for several years as a writer/producer in the Bell System and ABDick company — both long gone. I spent a couple more years at CF Industries and then formed my own company, Media Ink, specializing in writing for video and also providing production and consultation services. One of my clients was McDonald’s Corporation. During the 10 years I ran my own business, this was the only client for whom I had considered working as an employee. When they offered me a position, I jumped to be a part of the team.
Twenty years later, as the Operations Resource Director, I helped to restructure and trim the department. So I was not surprised when I was notified that my job had been terminated. McDonald’s treated me well, I left on good terms and I welcomed the change.
After working for so long, I felt a strong urge to maintain momentum. I thought I needed to find and get to the next thing. Yet some interesting discussions helped me realize that I was sniffing at opportunities I knew were not what I wanted and would not be successful in; they were just close at hand. That’s when I decided to step away, take a long break and enjoy the summer.
There are shelves of books and thousands of articles on how to sort through your options and refocus your career. Through instinct, I stumbled across an almost universal step: Take time, take a break, take stock. With distance comes perspective, and the further I get from that last day of work, the more deliberate I feel about making smart choices. I am very glad I did not just jump at a convenient opportunity.
So, what have I discovered? First, when pulled out of the workflow, my email slowed to a drip. That felt like a gift for a while but quickly became a reminder that I was not “in the know” and that, for my former work, I no longer mattered. Well, that ship has sailed on and I’m now very comfortable with this. For me, it’s impossible to move forward without letting go of the past. I wish them well.
A great discovery was how much I value my time. While I was previously busy all day every working day, I managed to squeeze in errands, tasks and appointments at night and on weekends. Suddenly I had an abundance of flexible time available. I find that I guard that time more zealously than when I had so little. I think that’s because it now feels like my time. I commit it only to what I think are essential and important uses, and this feels like a much more valuable use of the time. Honestly, it feels great.
I’ve also discovered that defining what I want to do is hard work. It’s much easier to say what I don’t want to do. But, as a place to start, that’s good enough. Most importantly, I’ve relearned that this isn’t just about me. Each of us has other commitments and responsibilities to our families and communities. Once I stopped thinking about my career, I was able to see and articulate these better. Many articles cover finding and following your passion. I wish all of us great success in that quest. But whether you wish to climb a mountain, join the circus or just grow tomatoes, these wishes don’t stand alone. For me, these need to work in concert with the other demands in my life. I want to craft a future with more balance. And, ironically, embracing this approach has been more freeing in determining my future.
Until I get to finances. Can I afford not to work? For how long? My confidence here rises and falls like the market, but oddly, not with the market. We have a family budget and this now feels much more restrictive and inflexible than any department budget I ever managed.
Finally, there is no perfect, convenient word for my current status. It is not retirement. Is it shifting gears? Taking stock? Introspection? My wife uses the term “pretirement.” It doesn’t matter really, but the frequently asked question of “How’s retirement?” has become an irritation.
So, at this point, here’s what I know for certain — There are plenty of resources to help with how to begin crafting a life after corporate. The what of that life is up to each of us and can best be determined by doing some deep looking inside. My recommendation is to not rush this part of the process and to take as long as necessary. I’m sure that if I were to write this article two months from now my perspective will have further evolved.
In the meantime, I will keep mining for inspiration and I know it will come. If not, maybe The Lego Movie sequel will provide an answer. I’ll be happy to share any breakthroughs I make along the way.
Jeff is a creative and management consultant in Evanston, Illinois. Formerly a director of Creative Services for McDonald’s Corporation, he began his career as a writer/producer, and has been involved in communications, consulting and media production for more than 35 years, both as an independent business owner and on-staff with several Chicago area companies.
He is also a co-chair of the Board for the Center for Independent Futures, an Evanston based non-profit dedicated to helping young adults with disabilities lead full lives.
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