Seasons in Your Work Life - Purpose and Meaning in your work
Autumn came late but strong here in East Tennessee. Well into mid-October the temperatures hovered into the high eighties, then fall came in with all of the sound and furry of a Shakespeare play. It was a welcome change.
The changing of the seasons is something all of us inherently look forward to. Whether you’re my wife and long for spring and summer from the onset of autumn or you simply enjoy the changes each season brings in our lives, the transitions in temperature, light, and the growth or dwindling of nature remind us of fundamental truths that permeate life. Seasons of renewal and growth, seasons of harvest, seasons of diminishment, and seasons of loss and even death are a part of our world and our lives. The transitions between these mark our lives, so we celebrate holidays and occasions that point toward each season.
How odd, then, that we rarely think of our careers or work lives in terms of seasons. We rarely stop to consider what season we’re in; whether we are in a time of growth, diminishment, or maybe lying fallow before new growth emerges. So often we eagerly hope that every season will be a time for harvest, though we seldom consider the related requirement that we would be continuously planting, tending and growing the things (usually money) we want to gather in abundance.
This week gave me a rare opportunity to consider the seasons of a vocational life.
I am, for lack of a better word, stuck between the difficult seasons of initiating and diminishing in the lives of my son and my father. My son is an intelligent, talented, articulate guy who happens to be smarter than his dad. He graduated from college about two years ago and took a “gap year” to work as an intern for a ministry he loves – Young Life. After that year he moved to Nashville, the current Mecca for southeastern 20-somethings, and has been looking for a full time job ever since. Because he’s a responsible person he’s works almost full-time and covers all of his living expenses, he’s never been lazy or lax in his approach to school or work. I like him a lot.
His job-seeking experiences have been hard on him. He finished school with straight A’s in a major that’s solid enough, but his lack of practical experience is preventing him from getting his foot in the door of a “real job.” Most of our father-son conversations revolve around job seeking strategies and my efforts to help him determine what makes the most since in a career for him. At this point he’s been passed over for positions enough times that it’s taking a toll on his sense of competence.
Although the economy is currently growing, his experiences are relatively common for young college graduates who obtain a generalist degree. It’s something I often see in my practice – the disconnect between a 4-year degree program from a reputable university and the substantial experience employers are actually looking for in their new hires. I anticipate that eventually he will enroll in some type of entry-level role or internship where he can develop the applicable skills employers are seeking.
The other side of my seasonal sandwich is my father.
Like many seniors, my dad enjoyed work and never thought of retirement in a stereotypical way of simply not working the day after he turned 65, but rather as a gradual transition from full time employment to full time retirement over a decade or two. After 3 months of increasing difficulties with his memory and movement his doctor informed him he has Parkinson’s disease. Within six months he went from full employment and regular physical activity to retirement and impaired mobility. It was a devastating transition that continues some 4 years later.
I think it actually surprised him when I asked if he might be depressed somewhere in that first year. “Why should I be depressed”, he asked me. I responded that in less than a year everything he had unknowingly relied on for his sense of purpose and identity had been stripped away – his ability to think without impairment, his ability to move, his independence, his ability to interact in conversation - all had been dramatically reduced. Since then we’ve often talked about the basis for a substantial and unwavering sense of self and why his life matters, even if his ability to “do” is severely limited.
Recently I recognized that I, too, was in the midst of a season in my career. Although my parent’s health has slowly but consistently deteriorated over the past few years, it’s taken quite a dive in more recent months. Dad’s been hospitalized a couple of times and the toll of full-time caregiving has worn on mom. We’re currently in the middle of securing some in-home assistance for the two of them. In the meantime, as a self-employed human services professional, it makes the most sense for me to help them until we get other services in place. As a result I’ve had less time to serve clients and often have had “less brain” to devote to the other things that grow or sustain a business like mine. It seems that “parent care” is the season I’m in, so I might as well make peace with it.
Whatever “season” of vocational life you may be in, it’s probably worthwhile to consider its place in the circle of seasons that mark human existence. I’ve counseled so many people in their 20s and 30s who are so eager to have their careers established and humming along. So often they (wrongly) believe that there is something substantially wrong with them because career success (or the vague notions of financial stability and peace they thought career success would bring) hasn’t come to them yet. I know hundreds of middle-aged people who’ve fallen for the illusion of dramatic life changes, such as a career transition or leaving a marriage, because they couldn’t tolerate the seeming monotony of their lives. And I’ve actually had dozens of nearly-senior clients who’ve come to me gripped in the fear of how they would lead meaningful, productive lives when they exit full time employment.
In almost every one of these, the woman or man I counseled had no understanding that their experience was situational – that it was a season of their life and not some indication of what their entire life would be. The challenge then, is to understand the larger meaning of your particular season is, as it applies to you and your story. That doesn’t necessarily mean you should simply acquiesce and give in to your circumstances but, rather, that you should understand whether it’s a time for rest, replenishing yourself, getting a new start, letting an inauthentic aspiration die, or finding a new, better, more genuine vision to pursue.
I can hear my dad snoring in his bedroom down the hall. It’s 3:30 and he’s in the middle of his afternoon nap. He’s had a great run in his career. He managed to love his wife well, raise and put 3 sons through college, and has had a profound influence on hundreds and maybe thousands of people he met in the decades he was in sales. It’s my earnest hope that he can enjoy this season he’s in, even if it’s not what he wanted. Maybe someone higher and wiser knew he’d never stop to reflect on what he’s done unless he was first forced to stop and look backward. If that’s the case, then this season, no matter how hard, is actually a gift.