Six or so months ago I had dinner with a close friend in the midst of a career transition. The company he'd been working for in X industry went through a round of lay-offs giving him the push he needed to pursue the next thing. The problem was that there wasn't a next thing. A. no one was hiring, and B. even if they had been, he didn't know where he wanted to be hired. Sound familiar?
He was frustrated about the uncertainty around his next move, frustrated with himself for not knowing what he wanted and frustrated with the world for making most careers so black and white, but that wasn't what he talked about most over the second most incredible pizza I had from October to December of last year.
(ed. note..if this were a magazine and I was its editor: for a brief period of time in late 2009 I attempted to try all 20 of the then Top 20 ranked New York City pizzas. I made it to two, specifically numbers 1 and 2, which I felt were appropriately ranked until it was pointed out that I was going about the process backwards. I gave up after that because one of my OCDs is doing things in order from start to finish, but another is doing things correctly. You see the issue.).
So my friend was frustrated, but that's not what kept coming up. He was confused, but he had some plans to help him work through the confusion. He was discouraged, but he understood the reality of his situation. Turns out the thing that made him most anxious about this entire work/life change was what to say when people asked - how he'd feel after answering the, "so what do you do?" with, "nothing, any suggestions?" - and if he could get around his girlfriend's father's "what's your five year plan" grill session.
And so I gave him an incredibly unexpected piece of advice (as in before I said it, I didn't know I thought it):
- You should just lie, I said.
- Yeah, come up with something.
- Something I'm not really doing?
- No, something you might do or you're thinking about doing and just sell it as your plan, smile, and walk away.
- I need an example...
- Okay, so you're interested in breaking into the finance world and you know you'll need to take some courses to make that move, right?
- So when people ask you what you're doing your line is, "I've moved on from X company and am getting ready to take some finance courses so I can prepare that make that transition, what are you doing?" Aanndd you're out.
Let me backpedal. The truth is important in many, many circumstances - and the absolute truth in some. This isn't one of them. This is one of those circumstances where the perception v. reality of the social status dance can become more important and more consuming than your actual situation. We want to feel stable and know what our next steps will be, but sometimes even more so, we want to look stable and appear as though we know what our next steps will be. This isn't a criticism - I've been exactly where my friend was - it's a fact.
Fear of the cocktail party convo is often greater than fear of the actual question you pray they don't ask. And so may advice is to play a little spin doctor (ed. note: Can't be Wrong, on repeat). Prep your line and deal it convincingly and walk away knowing they're not entirely clear on what you just said, but way more comfortable than they'd be if you went, "I don't knoooow, I'm a messsss, who do you know who can heeelp?!?!"
That's the thing about the "cocktail party" - and really, life in general. What we think people are thinking, how we think they're judging, what we think they're expecting becomes a bigger thing than it probably is and definitely ever should be. It's not their fault for judging - it's the human condition - and it's not our fault for caring - same deal, but if we can just see it for what much of it is - surface, obligatory convo - then we can handle it as such - with a line containing some truth that doesn't make us feel as low as we might be at that point.
Lie to feel better about yourself? No. Present your situation in a positive light then quickly walk away? Yes.
Remember, everybody has a little PR in them. Ask the guy managing Eliot Spitzer come-back campaign what he does and he'll say, "I'm in political strategy." Follow up with, "Oh, for who?" and he'll say "the democrats." True story...