The person next to Paul smiled broadly and as said her name she extended her hand. “I own a real estate company,” she said. “And what do you do?” Paul felt his throat constrict as he drew a quick breath.
“I’m….” He hesitated. “I work for a manufacturing firm.” She continued, “I’m really looking forward to the speaker tonight, aren’t you?” Paul nodded, feeling slightly disoriented as he excused himself and looked for a table in the back of the room.
As Paul's mentor I'd challenged him to go to the event and meet people just like he normally would do, only this time I challenged him to not reveal any credentials such as being a chief executive officer, company president or the like.
Paul had been remarkably successful in his industry and had become quite recognizable within his normal circles. He had come to chat with me because he was wise enough to understand that he was (at least secretly) struggling with the realization that he couldn’t be at the helm of the company forever. Letting the succession of power unfold wasn’t as easy as he thought it was going to be.
He felt quite certain that he had all the right people in place, so he found himself asking, “What's the issue?” For Paul, the issue was as fundamental as it comes. The need to put a succession plan in place caused the deep-seated question of identity to rise in the depths of his being.
Imagine for a moment that you are at the height of your career and someone asks you who you are. There’s a very good chance that like most of us, you would respond by telling them your name and what you do. But when you think about it your name is not who you are. It is merely a label that was given to you at birth. Just as surely, what you do is not who you are (no matter how attached you might be to your success and or title) either.
When we attach our identity to our career and the time comes for us to move on, it’s easy to think that our moment, our hour, our day in the sun has passed because we are no longer “someone.” That’s when many industry leaders like Paul are forced to face that most difficult question -- “Who am I?” This question is particularly challenging when, just a short time ago, the answer seemed so certain and now we secretly struggle to find any kind of certainty in an answer. The way we had seen ourselves -- indeed our very identity -- is no longer readily apparent. Making the shift from being able to say who we “are” to saying who we “were” often gives rise to the instant cold sweat of knowing that who we were then is not the truth of who we are now.
We live in an ever-accelerating, technologically-advancing time where what was new becomes old at hyper speed. As British philosopher Alan Watts once shared, “We live in a time of unusual uncertainty.” (Shockingly, he said that back in 1951). All our new technology impacts not only the way we do business, but also the way we see our usefulness (or lack thereof) in the world. This of course can leave us with a feeling of growing uncertainty.
Is there life after success(ion)?
Having made your mark in the world and having received the accolades and recognition that goes along with doing so is a pretty wonderful achievement, and creates an exhilarating feeling. However, when we are no longer in that position and the accolades and recognition are going to someone else, it’s easy to feel like we have lost ourselves. When we no longer stand in the spotlight, it’s easy to feel like we have somehow become invisible. And worthless.
Make no mistake. How we see ourselves has profound impact on how effective we are in the world. When our identity is no longer as solid as it once was, the impact can be devastating to our self-esteem, self-worth, our finances, and our relationships. It can lead us to wonder if life is even worth living after success(ion). Let me assure you that it is. Here’s the most important part. Discovering who you are beyond the identity of who you were is what can and will (if you embrace it) make you a true leader, winner and a champion, both in your own life and in the lives you touch.
To do so, however, means taking three bold steps:
- Step 1: Remember, acknowledge and accept. What this means is that you will need to remember that what likely made you successful was your ability to recognize, acknowledge, accept, and quickly adapt to change.
- Step 2: Think about the gas lanterns on your street. What, you mean there aren’t any? Nope, not a single one. In fact, when electric streetlights replaced gas lanterns many people became afraid and even violently smashed the new electric lights. Was this disruptive? Of course. Did it stop the progress? Well, I think you know the answer to that one. Just because your position (career identity) has changed doesn't mean you are finished.
- Step 3: Let go and reinvent. When we let go of the labels we had taken on and even incorporated into our identity, we become free to reinvent ourselves as something even greater. You can't control the fact that things, including your identity have changed, but you can control whether that change lifts you up or tears you down.
I know it's shocking but, who you were isn’t who you are. However, there is great leverage in your history. Your job is to leverage that history into your present time mission, purpose and commitment and lead from where you are rather than where you were. Your life, its ups, its downs, its trials and glory have shaped you, but they have not defined you (unless you have allowed them to). So who are you really? Be willing to answer that and a whole new adventure awaits.