Reframing a “Crisis of Relevance”

One of the reasons I write a blog is to share my thoughts on tough issues faced by physicians who are in career transition for any number of reasons including, but not limited to, retirement (voluntary or otherwise), physical disability, burnout, family issues, or new life priorities. As 2018 begins, I am facing down the fact that my corporate career ended last June; perhaps a little earlier than I had anticipated (and not really by my choice), and I am looking forward to new possibilities this year. My executive career over the last seven years was definitely different from my clinical neurosurgery career (nothing quite as relevant in the corporate world as facing down a brain tumor that you have “almost” completely removed, and the last bit is “stuck” to a major brain blood vessel…that circumstance screams “relevance” and has your total attention).

When I talk about career transition, some of what I am going to say may seem pretty specific to physicians. However, the general concepts may be applicable to anyone who defines themselves, at least to some extent, by the work that they do. Every professional career has a beginning, middle and end. I have watched friends and colleagues follow a prescriptive career plan that included staged progression with well-executed transitions to their version of “retirement” seemingly without any angst or difficulty. I have also witnessed senior physicians unwilling to recognize that their clinical skillset was not what it once was, and though they are not competent to directly care for patients any longer, they had nothing else to do in their life that gives them the personal satisfaction that they experienced during their clinical career. Any change, for whatever reason, can be associated with a sense of loss.

A talented leadership coach and friend of mine teaches Adaptive Leadership in healthcare executive training courses, and her words still resonate for me: “change is loss”. I wasn’t really sure if she was right about that, but even if you control all of the variables, and you have meticulously planned to change careers, there will still be a sense of loss. I know that now. Those who successfully transition seem to find a defining purpose or develop new interest that gives them a feeling of continued relevance. They have a good sense of the evolving boundary between their former professional role and their new sense of self.

So how do you “reframe” your relevance when you finally step away from your “important” vocational role? For me, I realized that I was not going to be particularly relevant anymore as a neurosurgeon or as an executive, but I could be relevant to myself (self-care), my family and friends (re-connection), and to others that might value my prior experience and knowledge in a purposeful “engagement” rather than full employment. It doesn’t happen overnight, but you can move forward to new experiences that are relevant to you and others close to you that may bring a surprising level enjoyment and satisfaction with your “new” life. My Dad has a lot of good “one-liners” that he uses in a teachable moment. One time, as I was pontificating on and on about my “important role” as a physician executive, he said, “Steve, the graveyards are full of indispensable people, and the rest of us just keep on living”. Wise perspective…