PROFILE: THE HIGHER THE MOUNTAIN—THE HIGHER THE POTENTIAL FOR BROKEN BONES
In her hey day, Janet was definitely an “IT WOMAN”. She was recognized walking into “the right” restaurants, she was mentioned in society columns, she was at the pinnacle of her field and “everyone knew her name.” She was the type of person you said you knew…even if you had met her for 3 minutes at a cocktail party 5 years ago.
And when she lived at those heights, she absolutely loved her life. I mean…loved…loved… loved. “I had the dream job”, she told me. “My office had awesome views, I flew the Concorde and stayed at the Ritz in Paris”, she said only half in jest, as she avoided all the other stuff involved in navigating any big job like that. “What about the stress of such a high powered position?”, I asked. “Oh the good so outweighed the bad”, she quipped. And furthermore, when I asked what she didn’t like, she paused and pondered for over a minute, only to answer “NOTHING.” To me, that all sounded too good to be true, but it was honestly HER reality.
And then, suddenly “IT” happened to the “IT Girl.” That old political power squeeze rained in on her and one day, she was called to the new CEO’s office and told to be out of there by week’s end. Given her power base in her industry, she was able to follow this up with two other jobs which were, in her words…just jobs. But… she was used to THE job, so the gap between this new reality and her old life seemed pretty cavernous. When your identity is being THE boss with everyone listening to your views and opinions and looking UP to you, just being on the field just didn’t cut it. Moreover, as time moved on, there were new and younger “IT” people and slowly, she and others like her start feeling a whole lot less relevant. That’s a super tough bridge to cross!
She bemoans the fact that when that final job ended, her power base was a bit stale and the consulting gigs she could get didn’t bear enough resemblance to her old life, power position and stature. Or perhaps, she said, all her old contacts had passed their prime as well, so their influence had waned too. Janet worked in what I’d guess you’d call a pretty fickle field, which bows down to those in power and somehow forgets you when you’re not. Or perhaps every profession these days suffers from a lack of respect for “the old guard.” Experience is secondary to being au courant and young. In any event, in Janet’s case, everything ended before she was ready to accept the end. Maybe there’s a lesson here that if you do want to stay in the game, you’ve got to take the steps when you’re somewhere on that power mountain…and not when you’re at base camp. And then again, maybe there is no lesson. To quote Martha (last week’s profile): Once you’ve retired, “The queen is dead…long live the Queen.” Once you’re off that big mountain, it’s pretty hard to scale those heights again.
And now, Janet’s a normal person like the rest of us. The problem for her, however, is that accepting that fact is incredibly difficult. Stepping off the gold-plated treadmill of power, recognition and incredible glamor was just plain painful and incredibly difficult to accept. The past just looks a whole lot better to her than does her present. Because so few of us ever have that dream job, the reality of that jump off the treadmill is a whole lot easier for the rest of us, I suspect.
“What specifically do you miss?” I wonder. “The satisfaction of the job, the day to day challenges, the fighting and the winning and even the losing”, she answers, adding that there’s just no way to replace that. We talk about “middle grounds”…and she hasn’t found one…and is still on the hunt. Janet says that she tries to stay busy with “activities”…but, “that’s just not a whole life…they’re time fillers for me”, she admits.
Most importantly, she misses her previous identity. “I am just no longer the person I was”. Looking at her from the outside, it’s clear that she was blissfully happy being that person. Listening to her, I think that this statement is at the crux of it all: If your identity is the successful, respected and universally known person at the top of the mountain, then the risk is that nothing else matters when you come down. And rebuilding your identity in your late 60s or early 70s is really really tough.
On the other hand, she has good friends and a superb family. And after focusing on the frustrations in her retired life, we conclude our talk zeroing in on the positives of how very lucky she is: She knows that she’s been so blessed to have that amazing career. She knows that she now has some great things in her life: friends, some travel, and the luxury to spend summers outside of the City. At the epicenter of her happiness is her family. She is justifiably incredibly proud of her supremely accomplished children and cherishes time spent with them. And she positively adores being with her 4 grandchildren. They are truly the light of her life. But if she could go back to her prior life tomorrow, she would. That mountain was just too darned high and beautiful! And I imagine she’s not the only person who can’t quite heal those broken bones.