When one association executive found herself out of a job, she turned to her personal network for support and to some age-old advice from her parents to keep her focused while she reoriented her career. Here are some lessons she learned along the way. (Titled "Stretch Yourself" in the print edition.)
I am not the most flexible person on the planet. You'll never hear anyone rave about how open I am to change, whether it's as simple as changing a dinner reservation or as complex as redesigning a publication. But sometimes plans change whether you like it or not. I never planned to be among the 14 million Americans unemployed at the height of the economic recession. Yet, almost two years ago, I found myself negotiating that very scenario.
For the first time in 15 years, I had no association acronym to include when I introduced myself: "Hi, I'm Apryl Motley, CAE, editor at (blank)." At first, that blank really bothered me. Perhaps this is true of other professions as well, but for association executives, where they work usually becomes very much a part of who they are.
This strong need for affiliation made it difficult for me for to accept some of the best advice I got after losing my job: "Be flexible." This was the constant drumbeat at the local professional outplacement center where I attended monthly workshops and networking events. If I hadn't heard and eventually followed this advice, I might have remained stuck in my "blank" and missed some important opportunities to stretch myself and grow both professionally and personally.
It was against this backdrop of becoming more flexible that I learned some key strategies for making the most of any life-changing experience. Whether you find yourself at crossroads because of job loss or some other big life event, you might find them helpful, too.
Go someplace and sit down. My parents first gave me this great advice when I was five years old, wandering around the house and getting into mischief. When you're not sure what to do, the tendency is to just do anything for fear of doing nothing. I've found this to be true of most people, even association professionals who understand the merits of strategic thinking and planning. In the midst of change, we have to remind ourselves that the best course of action may be to sit and think before reacting.
Stay involved and network. I made it a goal to attend at least two educational programs or networking events per month. When faced with challenges, you need to get out of your house or office and interact with other people. Chances are someone has been through a similar experience and may be able to offer a different perspective. Even better, you may be able to use your expertise and skills to help someone else. In my case, I volunteered to proofread resumes and cover letters for people that I met while attending career workshops. I also remained active in ASAE and Association Media & Publishing. Making contributions to your chosen field or specialty area while you're in transition—or in crisis—is a wonderful morale booster.
Try something new. As cliché as it sounds, we really do need to try new things. One month after my last official day of work, I started playing a weight-loss and fitness game called Game On with the women at my gym. It was a great experience because I am very competitive (Yes, my team took first place!) and also because it emphasized forming new, good habits and breaking bad ones. At the end of the game, I still thought chocolate was a recommended food group, but I was a few pounds lighter and a little neater, since clutter was my bad habit to be broken.
I also tried working on a political campaign and taking pole-dancing classes at a women's fitness center, neither of which is a second career in the making. In the meantime, I am enjoying the flexibility of working full time as a communications consultant. I would have said all of this was a real stretch if you had asked me two years ago.
Each person's life journey is different, but I can attest to the fact that sitting quietly, staying engaged, and doing something outside your comfort zone will make all the difference between merely surviving a situation and thriving in it.
Apryl Motley, CAE, is a writer, editor, and communications consultant based in Columbia, Maryland, and a past editor of several association publications. Email: email@example.com