I read an article that resonated with me last year written by my friend Paul Sohn, author of Quarter-Life Calling, a book aimed primarily at millennials. Strangely, I've found that I relate to millennials in lots of ways, and refuse to accept my age, especially now that I am closer to meeting my half-life. I was strolling through the grocery store recently, when I heard a high schoolish clerk say, "This job's only temporary, I don't plan on being here for long." That got me thinking about Paul's article "Why I Fired Myself before I Got Fired by Someone Else." Paul quit his dream job with a Fortune 50 company soon after he realized it really wasn't his dream. That article got me thinking about life and career choices, how people end up where they are, why they stay, and why they go, and the legacy they leave behind.
Now, I've never been the one to do the shopping in our household. I work out-of-town and so most of my grocery shopping is limited to picking up milk, bread, sour cream or some other random, forgotten ingredient on my drive home. These last-minute items are often perishables stamped with random dates or phrases, like "best used by", "sell by" or "expiration". I'll also admit I never really understood what any of that meant, and so I'd just do my best to reach into the coolers and pull out those with the most recent dates.
It wasn't until recently I was schooled on the meanings behind those random phrases, and most of it boils down to freshness or quality. "Expired", according to my expert, is pretty self-explanatory and typically means "no longer of use". Though there are those who may debate that depending on what the intended use might be.
"Sell by" is a phrase directed at the retailers or outlets selling the product. It doesn't necessarily mean that the product is no longer unfit for consumption but that after the listed date it may be necessary and prudent to remove it from the shelves, as the quality for consumption will go downhill quickly thereafter.
"Best used by" on the other hand is a pointed issue of quality, and simply means that for the best freshness, or very best taste, or to get the best use of the product's intended purpose, it's prime usage is any time before that "Best Used By" date.
Carrying a jug of milk to the register, I wondered if perhaps careers might need similar dates. I have many friends and family who are miserable in their decent or even well-paying jobs and some who may not be miserable but are longing to do something else.
So what if careers had a shelf life? How fresh is your passion? Below are some tips to knowing your own personal freshness level. Check out the tips to knowing whether you're still within your "best used by" date or whether you may be inching closer to expiration.
Freshness: Remember the excitement you felt after your graduation from high school or college? Do you recall how it felt when you accepted your first job and you were ready to show the world what you could do and own it? Those were more likely to be during that period when you received recognition for first years on the job, or your five year pin. The mistakes you made were rookie like, never purposeful, and more likely part of a learning process. You remember. You were fresh, and your outlook was fresh!
Best Used By: You can be confident you're still within "best used by" range if you're still excited about your work, you're passionate about the mission, and you're conscientious about the quality of your work. You're at your career best, when you're still driven toward successes, continued professional growth, and excellence. You're consistent and steady, and rarely irked when things don't go your way. Given the opportunity you still volunteer when a need is presented. You still proudly display all of your tokens of recognition, and now there are more of them. Oh there are still some bad days, but overall there are a lot more good days!
Reaching Expiration or Completely Expired (Only you know): You're slowly losing your passion. You question the purpose of everything you're doing. You're feeling increasingly more stressed, anxious or unhappy in your position. You're showing more signs of declining physical or emotional well-being directly related to your job. When you think about going to work you have an overwhelming feeling of dread, and when you're there you just want to go home. When you're home you avoid talk or anything having to do with work, and when you wake up in the mornings, you pray it's still the weekend. You're valuing work relationships less and less, and you respect your supervisors much less and less. While the quality of your work may still be excellent, you rarely go above and beyond unless it's solely on your terms. It's possible you've become "that disgruntled person" complaining about every little thing, and your work output is deteriorating if not already rotten or dismal.
When faced with change, new projects or deadlines "spoiled seniority syndrome" sets in and you question why you should be forced to do any of this because you've been here or been doing this
longer. This leads you to perpetual job search. Monster.com, Indeed, LinkedIn job search, and other employment sites are book-marked and visited regularly, and you find anything to do but what you should be doing. You constantly bargain with yourself about how much longer you can hang on. (Heads up, there's a lot of research and debate out there about mortality and retirement. Some believe if you wait too long, you just may wind up dead sooner than you think! I don't know if that's true but it's a lot to think about. According to them, the longer you put off retirement the less time you'll have to enjoy it. None of that may be true, but is it worth it to hang on miserably for an extra 50 bucks a month?
People whose careers have fully expired are no longer positive contributors to the mission, instead they become inflexible inhibitors of innovation and creativity, and for the most part they act like they're dead already.
Remember that old saying, "Aspire to inspire before you expire"? How about we Aspire to inspire then retire then inspire some more, and THEN expire." I know it's longer and lacks the same flowy appeal but why not?
All is not lost.
My wife and I made a pact when we married. We are both educators and we are both administrators. When we entered education, we agreed that if we ever lost our passion, or lost sight of our purpose, or if we were making students miserable, we would retire no matter what age we were, and we'd fully support each other in our next careers. She'll likely work at a flower shop, and I will likely work at a coffee shop (Ok maybe I'll just hang at the coffee shop. Who knows?). The bottom line is it's not fair to our employers, our colleagues, students or our mission for us to hang on for no other reason than to retire at some random date. In other words, when we've passed our "Best Used By" period, we promise to move on.
It's not uncommon to become nostalgic and ask ourselves if we've fulfilled all we've ever dreamed of. Maybe we lived our dream, and maybe we didn't. But we still have choices. It's actually more common today to move on to second or third careers, or to become an innovator, entrepreneur, writer, or even dare I say, a blogger?
One of the best questions we can ask ourselves is if we're still teachable. Once we become unteachable, we're about to reach career expiration.
In the end, when you pack your boxes and move on whether to retirement or your next gig, you want to leave things better than how you found them, and if we truly care about our original purpose or the original mission we committed to, we're not going to do anything to harm it. Sometimes it's not only about us, it's about the people who come after us and the legacy we're leaving behind.