What do you do when it all falls apart? I was talking last weekend with someone who just got fired. She spent the first ten years of her career with the same company and was so dedicated to its success that it had become her entire identity. It's where her friends know how to find her. It's where she bought all her clothes. She'd moved through four states following jobs up the management chain. And now, suddenly, all that is gone.
What does work mean to us at this point in human history? We have always been known to one another by the role we play in society, and work is one of the primary ways that we contribute to one another's lives--whether as hunters, gatherers, bakers, millers, or children of that guy who ran the town. It determines where we live, what we think about, and who we spend our time with. When our job situation changes, so does the rest of our world.
Yet job loss is also an opportunity to redefine your profession outside of your actual job title. By this, I don't mean a fanciful, radical redefinition that has nothing to do with the reality of your life experience, like deciding to leave marketing for a career as a salsa dancer before taking your first lesson. I mean the process of digging deeper into yourself to understand who you really are as a professional.
To do this, there are three simple extractions everyone has to perform:
1) Separate your skills from your job title.
What do you actually do? Perhaps you were a retail store manager, but what you really did was train your staff to be awesome salespeople, keep operations running smoothly, and predict which products would sell best in your local market - because you're truly skilled in figuring out what people want to buy. That's a far bigger thing than "Manager II, Store CA-5."
2) Separate your industry from your employer.
Who can you help? Your employer might have been a community college, but you're really a fund manager in the education industry. There's a whole world of organizations out there that could take advantage of your skills.
3) Separate your knowledge from your job.
What do you need to learn? Maybe it was "your job" to lobby legislators, but you were good at it because you knew the ins and outs of environmental policy. If you want to do something similar for a different employer, you need more than the skills--you need to know when, where, and how to apply them.
Ultimately, we are all more than our jobs, and it's healthy not to be defined by them 100%. (Trust me, no employer is searching LinkedIn for self-described "visionaries" or reading cover letters that start with a reflection on how this job fulfills every deep desire of your being!) But our jobs are a big part of who we are, and at one point or another, they change. When that happens, there's nothing better than having a self-description that is both true and leaves room for us to grow.