4012 – Are You Lost In The Career Wilderness?

The foggy wilderness of career loss or change

Recently, while watching a segment on 60 Minutes Sports, I realized I know people who are experiencing the same thing as retiring NFL players – THE WILDERNESS. In December, 2013 the NFL launched The Trust, an arm of the league designed to help players transition from being players to real human beings like the rest of us. According to an article published by MMQB (Monday Morning QuarterBack), a Sports Illustrated property…

Launched last month, The Trust is an arm of the NFLPA that offers free amenities to former players in areas of health and nutrition, career transition and financial education. The $22 million a year budget (which will increase by five percent annually) was procured from the 2011 collective bargaining agreement with the league. “A big part of our negotiations had little to do with dollars or the salary cap,” says Kevin Mawae, the former NFLPA president who stepped down in 2012 . “It was about benefits and post-career options. So this was a huge victory for us.”

Retired NFL players interviewed in the 60 Minutes Sports piece commonly refer to leaving their playing days behind and entering into “the wilderness.” It’s a place that’s foreign to them. They’ve played football for as long as they can remember. Now, they’re not playing and many of them are lost. A few – seemingly, far too few (hence the need for the creation of The Trust) – think seriously about crafting a future beyond the game while they’re still playing. According to an article written last year, 78% of retired NFL players will file bankruptcy within 5 years. The article cites 5 reasons why professional athletes go broke, but there are many more. And it’s not just about money. It’s about sense of purpose. It’s about confidence. It’s about figuring things out and finding your way. Mostly, it’s about finding your way out of THE WILDERNESS.

Have You Lost Your Job – Your Career?

We don’t need a recession like the ginormous one that hit in 2008 to cause job losses. Jobs are lost even in good times. They’re lost when employees haven’t a clue, too. Jack Stack is known as the father of open-book management. In 1983, while serving as the plant manager of an International Harvester facility in Springfield, Missouri, Jack got word the plant would be closing. That meant 119 people would be out of work. The problem was, he thought they were doing well. Truth was, they were – so far as they knew. The problem was, they didn’t know what they didn’t know. They didn’t see the big picture in the game of business. Sparked by knowing they could lose their entire plant because they didn’t have the whole picture, Jack opened up the books. Literally. He shared financial information with the people. The employees began to take on a much greater sense of ownership as they could now relate their specific jobs to the overall financial welfare of the company. Productivity and profitability soared, along with Jack Stack’s celebrity in business circles. Today, The Great Game of Business is not only a book that Jack wrote, but it’s an entire training system conducted by SRM Holdings. They help people find their way out of the wilderness, even if they don’t know they’re lost. Jack is still pretty motivated to help people avoid facing the disastrous and unexpected news of plant closings, department shutdowns and other financial woes that hit the unsuspecting. Maybe you’ve experienced the same frustration and consternation that Jack felt back in the early 80’s. Maybe you’ve walked out of a place where you worked for years with nothing more than a cardboard box. Welcome to THE WILDERNESS.

Have You Lost Your Identity?

People commonly talk of not knowing who they are any more. That NFL player who has known nothing other than playing football since grade school suddenly isn’t playing any more. Now what? The question that rings inside his head nags at him,

Who am I?”

One day he knew. Just the other day. He was a professional football player. Today, he’s not. Now he’s outside. He’s not part of the locker room any more. That team logo is no longer a part of his present life, but his past. And it’s not the exclusive domain of retired professional athletes. It’s also the domain of the laid off worker, the downsized employee, the business owner who is struggling to survive and the middle-aged guy struggling to reinvent himself.*

Welcome To The Jungle?

Axl Rose sure looks like he’s lost, doesn’t he? He was welcomed to the jungle in the winter of 1987. I’m not sure if he fully emerged, but I’ll let you judge that. I was welcomed – partially – into the wilderness (aka “the jungle”) in the spring of 2009, just shy of turning 52.

For about 20 years I had been in a major leadership role of a business, in an industry that was about all I knew since I was a teenager. I know what it feels like to be thrust into the wilderness. I didn’t just slowly slip into the jungle. BAM! I got launched like a rocket sled into it.

Here’s the thing about the wilderness. You have no way of knowing if you’re 1000 miles, 100 miles or 1 mile deep because it all looks the same. Drop a person into the woods at night and in the morning light they can’t tell how far into the woods they are unless there are signs of civilization. If there are no signs, they’re clueless. That’s the big pitfall of the wilderness…you have no idea how far away from clarity (finding your way out) you are.

The retiring NFL player may wander around for months, or years, or decades. So it is with the rest of us, too.

Clarity is tough work. Truth is, it’s some of the toughest work on the planet. My own journey may help you. I’d love to tell you I’m free and clear of the wilderness, but I’m not. Today, I still wonder how deep I am. I’d like to think I’m closer to escaping than I was in 2009, or 2011, but as with all journeys…time will tell.

Contentment is my current curse, but I’ve worked a lifetime to get it so I’m reluctant to loosen my grip.

• Passion is the key? No, it’s not. At least it’s not for me.
• I’m not indifferent, but I don’t have a strong preference.
• Confidence may not lead to success, but try being successful without it.
• Maybe being deluded is like ignorance, bliss!
• Transferring skills and applying experience to new situations isn’t easy.
• Being too old to be young and being too young to be old.
• Too many Baby Boomers have gone bust.
• Goals of middle-age are wildly different than when you’re a 20, 30 or 40 something.
• Listening for clarity when the whole world is creating so much racket
• Finding success in survival and growing complacent

So What Do We Do?

Well, I’ll tell you what I’m doing. I think it’s the right path out of the woods, but one can never be sure until you make it out. It dawned on me not all that long ago that if I merely succeed in surviving the wilderness I’m not really succeeding at all. After years of staying in the woods, surviving on the bare minimum to get by, I started thinking about alternatives. Mainly, I began to consider the prospect that it’s far more difficult to survive the wilderness than to work toward escaping. I’ve never lived in a third world country. Nor have I ever had to forage for food or water. But as much as a modern man in a modern free society can relate, I guess I can relate when it comes to career and business.

Annually, I’ve been foraging for survival for over 4 years. The cycle is pretty well established by now. Q1 is spent hustling and trying to figure some things out. Lots of chasing and not a lot of catching. Q2 is usually where I begin to find enough berries and water to get by. Q3 is more of the same and Q4 starts out the same. Then, at the end of Q4, almost on cue, the berries and water run out. Then, I enter Q1 of the next year and begin the cycle all over again. It’s freelance survival and I’m thankful for it (it beats death I suppose, but there are many days that I’m not sure).

However, wilderness survival has an enormous downside. A person (namely me) can become fixated on staying put and maintaining the status quo. As with most changes in behavior, things have to get bad before they’ll get better. That is to say, circumstances have to worsen before you’ll make up your mind to chase freedom and try to make your circumstances better. It’s the proverbial rock bottom that catapults a person to try something different so they can dig out.

The conclusion I reached – finally – is that if I’m just going to survive the wilderness, it’s really not much of a life. I’d just soon die and get it over with. And if I’m going to die in the wilderness, I may as well try to venture out to escape. What’s the downside? I can’t think of any. If I survive by staying put, that’s as bad as it gets. If I move, even a short distance inside the wilderness, I still find more berries and more water insuring my survival. The upside of moving is that I may be closer to escape the clutches of the foggy woods. If not, then what difference does it make? I’m at least getting to see new areas of the wilderness where I’ve not yet been. So it’s all good. Well, to be honest, it’s better.

I’ll let you know when it gets good. And stop feeling lonely because no matter how much money you’ve made, or how successful you’ve been in the past…you’re not immune from being lost in the wilderness. Just last Thursday, an incredibly wealthy, successful and accomplished comedian entered the wilderness with the rest of us. Jay Leno.


* Me and many others

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