The "return to work" after cancer treatment isn't talked about much outside of those who are on the journey.
There seems to be a general assumption that cancer patients will just pick up where they left off.
If we are given the privilege of "returning to work" after cancer treatment, we return as very different people - physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
There are physical scars, stamina issues, emotional and mental changes, along with a greater appreciation for how our time and energy are limited resources.
For many of us, picking up where we left off is either undesirable or unavailable.
Admittedly, when I heard that I was losing the Long-Term Disability income, I panicked.
That saying that plans are only as good as the first punch to the face?
Yup. So much for me thinking I had a solid "Plan B."
After spending a couple of days raging against the usual suspects - the American "work ethic," hustle culture, "trickle-down" economics, Tayloristic management theories, the US "health" care system and insurance industry, the other -isms, etc. - I did what I normally do when punched in the gut.
I started doing research.
The first place I needed to do research was within.
I decided at the beginning of my cancer journey that I wanted to "work with" instead of "fight against."
Quality of life > Quantity of life.
Why not use the same guiding principles for designing my Act 3 as I do with lymphoma life?
What if I "worked with" my current situation - uncertainty, instability, and all?
What if I "worked with" my natural strengths, interests, and inclinations instead of constantly trying to shore up weaknesses and prove myself worthy?
What if I focused on the quality of the journey?
Can I create an Act 3 that I enjoy living?
A job is a lifestyle choice.
I'm choosing how I want to spend my day, the skills I develop and use, the types of people I'm spending time with, the experiences I get to have, and the environments I can explore.
As I looked over my entire working life (almost 40 years, including the stagehand jobs I had in High School), which people, activities, accomplishments, and environments brought me the most joy?
Hint: It wasn't working in a cubicle staring at a computer.
Act 2 was about inflicting change on people - through training, implementation, or project management. Heck, I even wrote a book about it.
I'm tired of trying to "fix" what is a feature. I'm tired of fighting the -isms. I'm tired of always feeling like I have to prove myself or that I'm falling short (again) because I'm (again) trying to fit this square peg into that round hole.
My identity has been wrapped up in all that for the past 20+ years. COVID was the Super Bowl of my instructional technology / IT career. I have nothing left to prove or say in that arena.
In the end, I think I've done OK with my performance of Act 2. Not brilliant, not terrible. I'm not winning any awards.
Made a decent living and have some savings. Developed a small reputation. Accomplished some things I'm proud of. Learned a bunch, maybe more than intended. Even managed to help a few people.
Most importantly, I made some lifelong and highly cherished friends.
I don't know how long Act 3 is going to be - so considerations around career growth, climbing the ladder, making an impact, and all that are less important than before.
My goals for Act 3 are to enjoy the journey and do no harm in the process.
How do I want to earn a living?
What do I want my day-to-day life to look like as I earn that living?
Who do I want to play with?
Where do I wish to explore?
Which backburner dreams do I want to pursue now?
What skills have I already cultivated that I can use as I write and perform Act 3?
My internal exploration and research over the past 6 weeks have been focused on answering the above questions.
Of course, finding those answers is a voyage of discovery and an exercise in flexibility.
I'm keeping the "desired results" loose - particularly as I gather information.
Success, for me, will be landing in a place where...
- I am excited about starting the day.
- Work with friendly and supportive people.
- Am working towards something I believe in that map to my values.
- Feel happily energized at the end of the day.
- And can easily pay my bills in the process.
I recognize that I am in a privileged position as I ask these questions.
- I have marketable skills.
- I already possess certifications that get me past the HR bots.
- I have a couple graduate degrees that also get me past the HR bots.
- There is a second income in my household, so I'm not trying to pay the entire mortgage, all utilities, and food on my Social Security Disability income.
- I'm not carrying credit card debt, car payments, or student loan payments.
- We have decent health insurance through my partner's employment, and it appears I'll be eligible for Medicare in the next 6 months or so.
- I have some savings. Not enough to retire, but enough to get me through a couple of lean years or pay a surprise medical bill.
- I live in a wealthy area of the country where I have access to free LinkedIn Learning, a solid internet infrastructure, and other resources that may not be available in other parts of the US.
- Most importantly, I have a cadre of very supportive, very smart friends and family who provide advice and wisdom while entertaining my most outlandish ideas (and gently guiding me towards reason when I begin to leave the realm of practicality).
As much as I'd like to say that we should always ask questions about what we really want, make mindful decisions about our career moves, etc. - sometimes one has to prioritize basic survival needs.
This control enthusiast needs to have her basic survival needs met before contemplating making her more out-there dreams reality.
I am fortunate to have the basic survival needs met.
I realized, after my initial panic attack, that the Social Security Disability Ticket to Work program provides an amazing opportunity.
As I explore and re-skill, I still have income. Since I'm participating in this program, they won't be performing medical reviews as long as I'm making progress.
There's a structure and a plan I can follow. I didn't have to design it myself (for a change).
I have the time and security to volunteer as a way to fill experience gaps and get to know people.
I'm given coaching and accountability, along with encouragement to take care of myself through this process.
And I keep uncovering more amazing resources and people.
I've been encountering the Holland Career Personality Code during this journey.
I know many of my instructional design colleagues side-eye these personality tests, but they can be somewhat helpful as a starting point - especially if the results resonate.
The US Department of Labor has linked specific occupational categories to each code. It was interesting to find that all of the stagehand work I did in my teens and 20s mapped more closely to my scores than my instructional design/training/project management career. Figures.
The Virginia Workforce Connection team leverages the Holland Code within their own Work Interest Profiler. Virginia uses the scores from this and other assessment tests within their comprehensive (if confusing) website to help serve their constituents. The site requires registration and is designed for those who live and work (or used to work) in Virginia.
Check your state's Workforce Development office to see what sort of career exploration tools and services are available.
Classic books I have used over the years during career pivots:
- Designing Your Life - Bill Burnett and Dave Evans.
- I Could Do Anything... - Barbara Sher (helpful, but shows its age)
- What Color is Your Parachute - Richard Bolles (updated regularly, but check reviews first)
The above books are important resources within my own toolkit for navigating dramatic change. This whole journey has been a test of my toolkit. So far, so good.