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Reflections on Transitions: Things I Have Learned

By Jessica Thaler

Have you ever felt as though you are having a bad day, bad week, bad month, bad year, bad decade? I found myself having all of the above simultaneously. I was unhappy at my job, going through a bunch of personal struggles and feeling very alone, estranged, disregarded, unsatisfied and lost. I was in my mid-30s, single and living in New York City, one of the most exciting and wonderful and lonely places you could possibly inhabit. I had a constant internal struggle between what I was "supposed" to be doing and how I was "supposed" to be living at that stage of my life, and disliking what I was doing and how I was living. I felt like I was constantly in an uphill battle with The Abominable Snow Monster of the North, who was constantly hurling meteor-sized snowballs at me.

"Work is just a means to live" was the motto my father said my grandfather lived by. As wonderful and enlightened as it sounds, in this day and age, with the advent of the computer, the Internet, the cell phone, Citrix, video conferencing, the Treo, the BlackBerry, the iPhone, email, cloud computing, virtual conference rooms, Skype and more, there is no longer a distinction between work time and family time. My grandfather was a hard worker. He came out of the Depression, working and building a very healthy nest egg for his wife and children despite his lack of formal education. (He got his high school diploma the year before I did, his pride hiding that fact from his children and grandchildren - only my grandmother knew the truth.) But his workday was early morning until early evening, not 48-hour stints in the office. His workweek was generally five days, not back-to-back weekends making one week flow undetected into the next. It was not awful if a person did not love what he or she did because work could be compartmentalized, as people knew there was an end to each workday and each workweek. Work as a means to an end was not a daunting statement.

The Plunge

At the time my father shared these words with me, I was struggling to find purpose in what I was doing and to find happiness and satisfaction professionally. I kept hearing my grandfather's words; I understood them intellectually, but they were not bringing me comfort or helping me get through the day. I wanted more out of my job and my career. I wanted to enjoy what I was doing each day because I was spending far too much time working not to. It was 2008. I left the firm I was working for to pursue my dream, but my timing was off. My expertise and client relationships were in banking and finance, an industry that was the heavy stone pulling the economy down, so, like many others, I found myself looking for a new job. Like many others finding themselves in transition, I found myself feeling like I was alone.

Every situation is different. Some people have money saved. Some have spouses or other life partners who can help alleviate some of the financial pressures or provide the needed emotional support. Some choose to move home. Some pretend the transition is not happening. Some have a great deal of education. Some have little. Some are very senior level. Some are very junior. Some will choose to grab their passports and take off on trips to restore the soul. Some will not be comfortable taking even one day off until they have found something. Some will become hermits and speak to no one. Some will go to therapy or turn to religion for guidance. Some will speak to anyone willing to lend an ear. Some will spend their days working out. Some will spend them goofing off. Some will focus on all the home projects they had been meaning to do for years. Some will wake each morning and spend hour upon hour searching through websites for jobs. Some will attend conferences. Some will fill their schedules each day with coffee, lunch and drink dates - all in the name of networking. Some will have supportive family and friends. Some will want to divorce themselves from their family and friends. Some will become sleepless, get stomachaches and have their TMJ act up. Some will breathe deeply for the first time in years. Some will cry. Some will be angry. Some will look at it as a blessing. Some as a curse. For me, I was able to identify with and directly relate to many, if not most, of these people at some point during my transition.

Working Within and Without

Transition is discouraging. It can be very hard to stay positive. I have been in transition for a while now and, during that time, set up my own firm. I get an unsteady flow of work from clients and other small and solo firms and have obtained a full-time contracting position for which I am grateful, especially when the ebb and flow of my practice starts to weigh on me. I have made it work. I have struggled, failed, fallen down and been scraped off the floor. I have spent hours talking to many people. I discovered that, upon first hearing that a person is in a job search, people are generally very sympathetic, offering drinks, hugs, advice, contacts and more. It is not that sympathy wanes as the months of searching go on, but rather that people just do not know what more to say.

I have read countless books and attended numerous seminars trying to figure it all out. I do not have all the answers but I have made great strides in my outlook, which has significantly improved my access to opportuĀ¬nities, personal and professional relationships, as well as my physical and mental well-being.

When I first started to look for a position, I was in a very negative place, the victim, fighting for control over things I would never have control over, looking for answers and explanations where there were none. I have learned many things about control (or the lack thereof), about how things work (and do not work), about people and about myself. Someone recently commented that I appeared much calmer, happier, at peace and, after we spoke about what had changed in my life and my outlook, he smiled and asked, "So, you have finally accepted your situation?" I thought about it and answered, with a grin, "No, I have surrendered to it."

Whether characterized as surrender or acceptance, I have come to realize that the key is understanding that I can actually control only a small part of my transition. I can control what I do, how I present myself and how I take care of myself. I have little to no control over how I am perceived, even when I put my best foot forward, what assumptions people may make, what is going on with the economy, how many people I am competing against, the decisions a business makes concerning its hiring needs or the candidates it chooses. All I can do is to understand that a large part of the process is luck. In the interim, while I keep pushing, applying, interviewing and getting rejections, I need to take care of myself.

I have had many leads. I have had offers that I turned down and some that were reneged due to a change of financial circumstances of the company. I have quadrupled my already large network. I have joined every jobsite and every social networking site. I have gotten contract work. I have started my own business. I have spent multiple hours per day making calls; attending meetings; emailing; writing and rewriting my resume, my cover letter and my biography. Not being a coffee drinker, I have never visited as many different Starbucks as I have during this time of transition. I went from never having a cup of coffee to having a few each week. Despite being someone who does not enjoy working out, I have become a regular at the gym, if only to get out of the house for an hour or so each day. I have taken up drawing and painting again after not picking up a brush in more than 14 years. I have learned to enjoy a quiet night at home and stopped filling my evening calendar to the brim. I have come to appreciate the day away from the City with "away" being the suburbs, as opposed to an alternative continent. I have spent the day with the TV on from 7:00 a.m. until midnight without knowing what I watched, as it was on only to provide the companionship and background noise I used to get by being in an office surrounded by others. I have started to learn that asking for help is okay. I have learned how to just say "thank you" when someone offers to pick up the tab, whether for a cup of coffee or for a meal, and not to feel guilty about it. I have gotten further involved with volunteer work - Make a Wish, the Red Cross, my alumni associations and more - figuring if I cannot feel fulfilled while making money, I will seek that fulfillment through doing good for others.

Fullness of Transition

Transition is a word I have used much more frequently since 2008, and I have recognized that it has many meanings. With regard to a career transition, it may mean a person is looking for a position after a layoff, after raising a family or after some other hiatus from working, generally; starting his or her own firm or business, or leaving one or the other; shifting to a different industry focus or type of organization or role; or entering or exiting from a profession. No matter the form transition takes, I have come to realize the experiences and emotions and methods for managing, prevailing or coping in the face of those experiences and emotions have many commonalities. It is scary, exciting, daunting, fun, frustrating, fulfilling and stimulating all at one time. What has gotten me through this process so far?

Accepting, or surrendering to, my circumstances. I have come to understand and embrace the reality that there is an element completely in the hands of the universe, the almighty, faith, karma, luck, or however else the unknown can be characterized, and it plays a large role in reaching the end goal of this transition process. I do need to take control of the things that I do have control over and take comfort in that fact. If I do everything I can actually do that I have control over, the only thing left to do is become comfortable with the fact that there is nothing more I can do other than wait for the stars to come into alignment. (If only I could control the stars.)

Allowing myself to feel down. This is not a call for martyrdom but rather a knowledge that transition is hard, very hard, and there will be good and bad days in the process. Both the good and the bad are to be expected. I try to remember that I am not made of steel, as much as that was a hard reality to grasp, having always prided myself and presented myself as someone who can handle anything thrown at me. However, accepting my vulnerability was liberating. It allowed me to say it is okay not to plan six meetings in a single day, to take a few days off from submitting job applications, to spend a few hours or a full day on the couch watching mindless TV, crying off and on, not answering the phone, to let my friends and family see my fears and then allow them to take care of me.

Forgiving people who do not know what to say to or do. People want to help. They care for me. But, not knowing what to say, they will often try to provide a pep talk or words of wisdom and inspiration. Although these words often feel empty, obvious and annoying, they do come from a good place, normally. I also have come to understand that they can stem from the other person's fear that he or she may end up in the same position and that they do not know how to tackle that fear or how they would possibly get through what I am managing my way through. If nothing else, these words often do work great as screensavers. Once I had compiled a list of proverbs so long that I was able to ensure the ability to change them monthly for the next three to four years, how did I avoid an unintended feeling of resentment for and frustration with these well-intended friends, family members and colleagues? I worked up the courage to tell people what I needed, whether it is meeting me at Starbucks, for a quick lunch, a movie or just a hug. They do want to help. Most will be very grateful to know how they can help and be supportive.

Getting - even more - involved. Once people come to know of you as doer, as someone looking for networking opportunities, for ways to enhance your resume, you will be asked time and again to do one more thing, join one more committee, plan one more event, write one more article or speak on one more panel. With all the positives of this predicament, it did often leave me struggling to balance my sanity with what I thought I "should" do and trying to come through for everyone. I tried to set up rules as to how many things I would take on, meetings I would agree to and activities I would participate in daily, monthly and weekly, but I have found that nothing in my job search has been more beneficial than the volunteer work I have done, whether with professional organizations, nonprofits or otherwise. As a result, I quickly gave up on those rules. When I feel at my most overwhelmed and find myself struggling to prepare for, or even just get dressed for, yet another meeting, I remind myself that "you never know from where the next great opportunity will come." It has proven true time and again.

Realizing that I am not alone. Although misery does love company, although we have all had the nights commiserating with colleagues and friends, and although the occasional evening of venting can help me to feel better, I have learned that a "woe is me" mentality not kept in check will throw me quickly, and with added velocity, down Alice's rabbit hole, nothing to grab onto, walls too slippery to brace against, no cushion identifiable below, in the dark, hearing scary noises (sounding very much like insults) emanating from the abyss. I found the best thing to do is talk with people who are transitioning but who are also being proactive and those who have recently successfully transitioned. Those compatriots can provide a knowing nod and sympathetic smile when I am describing the latest sleepless night, my frustration that an opportunity fell through, my exasperation with feeling like my resume is in the void somewhere and my fear of an interviewer's unexplained silence. They will be less likely to walk me so close that I find myself teetering on the edge of the rabbit hole and more likely to ask why, exactly, it is that I am even looking into that hole again. They will help me see that hole ahead, recognize it is there, understand why it is appearing, and help me to steer in another direction. They will also understand the bumps and bruises I have after a recent fall and may have a trick for alleviating the lingering pain and discomfort.

Knowing that I am, and my situation is, not unique. It is not as harsh as it sounds. Despite always being praised for and encouraged to be unique, and in many ways I am very much my own person, and although my specific situation differs in degrees, the commonality I share with others in transition is just that - being in a state of transition. That process brings about uncertainty, vulnerability, stress and fear. As much as acceptance of this lack of distinction was a blow to my ego, when I finally accepted it, I was able to take a deep breath, recognize that there are others similarly situated who have survived this before, will survive it again and, because I also possess many of the same skills, education, resources, resilience, strength, perseverance, power, spirit, desire and drive, I too will survive. Not only will I survive -- I will succeed in my transition.

There Just Will Be Bad Days

Despite all the good, hard work and having a great screensaver, there are still those days that are just bad. The days when I decide I will never work again. I will never be successful. I am a failure. I never deserved to get where I was prior to this transition. For me, those days tend to happen when a job opportunity falls through, whether after one or more interviews or, sometimes, after finding out it has been filled before even having had the opportunity to interview. It is the day when I am told "you're too senior" and "we need someone to hit the ground running" during two separate conversations regarding two similar positions at two different companies. It is when I am heading to a wedding, a baby or bridal shower or a birthday and want to get a gift, knowing I would have gotten a "better" gift if I were in a different financial position. Those days also happen after having a great meeting or interview, when I become so fearful of getting my hopes up, I begin convincing myself that it will not happen before the BlackBerry can even reset itself and start receiving the emails and texts that came through while on the interview.

I have to work hard to get myself through those days. I battle my demons. I know I will not get through every day unscathed. I am learning to have compassion for myself. I am figuring out what I need to feel safe and supported and to seek it out, to take care of myself, to put myself first when I need to, to allow myself to feel and to just be, and to know, at risk of using one of much dreaded proverbs, "this too shall pass."

Moving From Negative to Positive

I truly believe that this will pass and that this period of my life, although challenging in many ways, is part of the cycles that we all must go through in our lives. I believe that, at some point, having had the courage to go out on my own to build a practice, the ability and expertise to acquire and service clients of various sizes and structures in a multitude of industries, the resourcefulness and fortitude to find and maintain a full-time (and now very long-term) contract position that adds to my experience and supplements my income, the altruism and ambition to volunteer for (and often take a leadership role in) professional, philanthropic and other organizations, the initiative and sociability to expand both my personal and professional networks and the great appreciation for and the good fortune to have people in my life who have advised, supported, mentored, listened, assisted, comforted, encouraged and even just hugged me, will all work collectively not only to allow me to find a new job but also to permit me to find professional and personal satisfaction and fulfillment in and through that new job. Like Rudolph who turned his bad experience with The Abominable Snow Monster of the North into friendship, I know that I will look back at this time of transition with the knowledge that I embraced that which scared and challenged me, and transformed my experience into a positive one.

JESSICA THALER is a lawyer in New York City, practicing as a corporate-transactional generalist, counseling clients in connection with various types of corporate transactions including lending and finance, mergers and acquisitions, development and cooperation, services, real property and licensing, in the fields of sports, media, telecommunications, biopharmaceuticals, video games and virtual worlds, entertainment, environmental, mobile advertising, technology and construction, among others. She is also a member of the New York State Bar Association and serves as the Chair of NYSBA's Committee on Lawyers in Transition, as Co-Chair of Membership of its Entertainment, Art and Sports Law Section and as an active member of the Sports Lawyers Association. Ms. Thaler is a graduate of UCLA, cum laude, and Fordham University School of Law. A version of this piece originally appeared in the September 2012 issue of the New York State Bar Association Journal, Vol. 86, No. 7.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on March 1, 2013 9:11 AM.

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