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Finding identity in small things

posted 7 Apr 2020, 03:31 by Michelle Stewart   [ updated 7 Apr 2020, 03:38 ]

I am what I do

Last Monday after uploading the previous article in this series, ‘Decision-making under pressure’ Michelle, our Office Manager and I, packed up our office and handed in the keys.   More than a month ago I could see where the pandemic was headed. We needed to get our costs down fast and rent was our largest fixed cost after wages.   By 3.30pm I’d packed the last boxes into my car. I took a deep breath, allowed myself to feel the wave of emotion that welled up, and drove home. Many people here and overseas far worse off than me of course, but I felt quite raw. For 20 years The Leading Partnership had an office in North Sydney. We were not operating out of home or holding meetings in a coffee shop; we had a place of business to call our own. I’ve come to understand the degree to which having a commercial office defined me and defined our business. I suspect I am not the only one at this time who is coming to a new realisation of how much my self-image is tied up in what I do, or don’t do, professionally. Formerly busy people are sitting idle; compulsive travellers are staring at the walls and plotting their escape; University students who once had jobs to cover their living costs suddenly have no income and are moving back in with their parents; sports people who train their bodies for clashes with other teams or competitors are now pumping iron for what? Parents who don’t see themselves as teachers are upskilling in the national curriculum, while teachers who never wanted to work for the School of the Air are doing just – without even applying for the job!

It is so easy to go into default mode and find our meaning and identity in what we do, particularly if society sees what we do as important and valuable. When that is taken away, or new challenges intrude into our lives over which we have no control, who are we? What is our identity? What value do we have?

I do what I am

The opposite to defining ourselves by what we do professionally, is allowing who we are as people to guide our priorities and activities. I do what I am, rather than I am what I do.

In the late 1990s, when considering making the transition from regular employment to becoming a consultant and business owner, I spent many hours thinking about my personal purpose, what I felt I was put on earth to do. I actually have my own statement of purpose. In January each year I sit down and review my annual plan, which is based on that purpose, and set new goals and foci for the coming 12 months. It’s a well organised ritual.

The word ‘purpose’ has as its root a Latin term meaning ‘object in view’, ‘intention’, ‘aim’, or ‘by design.’  Purpose is the reason we are called into being - the design for which we are intended, the way we make meaning in our lives. There are individual, organisational and community benefits to be had from setting aside time to discover, explore, challenge and deepen one’s personal and collective sense of purpose. Firstly, operating from a deep sense of purpose is energising and engaging – human beings want to lead meaningful lives. Those functioning ‘on purpose’ are typically more focused, more open to possibility, and less concerned with barriers and blockages.  Secondly, the developmental experience of living out and journeying towards our personal purpose brings us closer to friends, colleagues and family.  Finally, purpose connects us to that which is beyond ourselves and the everyday world – it puts our lives in perspective and invites each one of us to serve some greater idea, principle or end.

Over the past decade or so discussions around purpose and meaning are re-entering professional bounds.  We are overcoming stigmas that considered such conversations as vaguely religious and therefore out of bounds amongst well brought up adults.

Despite having thought about purpose for two decades, despite carefully structuring my priorities and activities so as to act from my core life purpose, the past weeks have destabilised my sense of self. I am now pretty much through it – at least for the time being.   Writing about this process helps.

Finding identity in small things

At a time when major industries such as tourism and airlines are on economic life support, and the arts and sports sectors have shuttered up, society is functioning off the backs of some of our less recognised and poorly paid citizens.   We now have the eyes to see some of the invisible people in our midst.   Shops are open because shop assistants and shelf stackers, who are on or close to the minimum wage, keep going to work.   Aged care facilities continue to be manned by an underpaid, often immigrant workforce who care for our elderly and frail despite legitimate fears of Covid-19 having a disproportionate impact in aged-care facilities.   Buses, trains and ferries provide ongoing public transport for those who need it because key staff keep turning up.   Parents are speaking with new-found wonder of the skills and dedication of teachers who have worked 12-hour days getting lessons on-line.   Fresh from supervising home classrooms for a couple of weeks, some parents have even come to recognise that their kids are as ratty as their teacher said they were!   Nurses and doctors are working long hours under high pressure while in some countries, retired health workers are volunteering to come back to their jobs during the pandemic  - talk about operating from a deep sense of purpose…

Leaving aside the toilet-paper wars and other petty nasties, in the midst of an unwanted crisis we are carving out a new-found sense of community and collaboration. Governments and Unions are partnering with employers to solve massive, unforeseen problems while political ideologies have been unceremoniously ditched because they are useless in the face of a pandemic. A National Cabinet is moving quickly to ensure state, territory and national interests are as aligned as they can be. Nothing is perfect, mistakes have and will be made, but remarkably, we are not falling apart.

In all of this, there are opportunities to find identity and meaning in small things: a kind word, a thank you to a person whose work we’ve never before noticed, a phone call to a friend, a Zoom meeting between grandparents and grandkids, reading a book for an hour in the late afternoon or the opportunity just to stop and smell the roses. What a wonderful autumn Sydney is having, for example, it’s just beautiful!

The ‘small people’ of our society – the poorly paid, the unemployed, the elderly, immigrants, the disabled and those who care of them, the pay cheque to pay cheque households where there is never a dollar to spare – are used to finding their meaning and identity in small things. They often have little choice. For many of us - the professionals, the newsmakers, the well remunerated, the much-travelled -  finding meaning in small things is best seen as a work in progress.

Let’s keep working on it.

Philip Pogson FAICD

April 6 2020.

Philip has been a company director, Chair and business owner for more than 20 years. He consults and advises on strategy and governance across a range of business sectors.