Is the ‘abyss’ calling you?

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A good friend of mine recently became a multi-millionaire after the company, where he’s been a senior executive for years, was sold.

He could have stayed on, but with all the material success and security he ever wanted at his fingertips, he chose to leave. And in four weeks, he’s done.

You’d think he’d be full of joy at the prospect? Sadly, that’s not the case. The problem is he’s lost his identity…

My friend, Mike, doesn’t know who he is anymore, or if anyone wants him; and right now he is staring into what I call the ‘abyss of irrelevance’.

Should we care when someone, who is paid a bucket load, has an existential crisis – like when the retired star athlete, who has lost all sense of purpose, slides into a self-medicated haze of bad behaviour and self-pity?

The answer is simple: yes, we should.

Feeling discarded

The same thing happens to former soldiers and ‘sirens’ (police and emergency services) whose journey through fire together is poorly understood by outsiders. I know massively capable, former Special Forces guys who, on leaving the military, suddenly felt out of place in the ‘real world’. At best, they struggled for a long while to find a way to contribute.

And it’s the same for ordinary blokes – men like us – who’ve invested ourselves into our jobs, feeling useful, valued and part of something bigger than ourselves, only to have it taken away by choice or circumstance. When this happens, we too feel discarded and we can often be found leaning over the precipice, staring into the very same ‘abyss of irrelevance’.

It’s happened to me a couple of times. And so many people I know are going through this right now, from pilots to estate agents.

Mike’s journey is illustrative. ‘You warned me about this two years ago!’ he said to me. ‘But it was hard to grasp. It hit me so much more rapidly and significantly than I expected.

‘Suddenly I’ve got more money than I ever anticipated. I could have stayed on but what would I do? It should have been a good situation, but wasn’t. Mostly I wonder how much of how I see myself is tied up in what I’m doing? It makes me dizzy. I don’t know what my value is or even if I have value…

‘It’s not personal but I’ve become less relevant and visible as I wind down. I have so much less to do. I think I should be happy, but no one is interested in helping me foster my career! They have much bigger issues and I’m not a priority. I’ve chosen this path and I’m not the victim. I always needed to be the life of the party yet now I’m a wallflower! I feel neutered and thwarted.’ 

Within these words, there’s a huge message for us all.

Losing a role, where we’ve felt valued, has us peer into the ‘abyss of irrelevance’. We’re convinced that’s all there is – and fear grips us, preventing us from crossing over the threshold to find out what’s next, where an unimagined new life awaits.

As Mike talked, I distilled down some valuable principles:

  • Accept part of us is dying. In the middle of it we can’t see what’s going on or through to the other side. ‘I’m aware I’m going through a process,’ said Mike. But the truth is, he doesn’t know what it is. And no one talks about this!
  • Face the abyss with courage. ‘It’s all an inner battle,’ he said. ‘I have chosen this path, should own it and control how I deal with it… It’s like when I finished uni and didn’t know who I was, or what to do. I travelled so I’d have space to figure it out.’
  • Take time to reflect and let go. ‘I’ve been driven to be noticed, productive and a leader for decades,’ he said. ‘I invested so much in being that person.’  But now, who else can he be?
  • Talk to someone committed to our wellbeing, a person who will hold us accountable. No one else cares! A former colleague finished a job he’d held for two decades and engaged a coach for two years to help him work through all the issues that arose.
  • Take the opportunity to grow through this process. On the other side is the chance to build something new… ‘I’ve let go of my ‘kingdom’ and am moving into a stage of having no more agenda,’ added Mike. ‘I want to give away whatever wisdom I have and want nothing back, not even thanks or admiration.’

Huge opportunity

The final principle is the brutal truth of regret.

‘The founder [of the business] walked away with hundreds of millions from the sale,’ Mike revealed to me. ‘But on Christmas Eve he was told he had a terminal illness. I fear he doesn’t have long.’

Instead of staring into the abyss, a huge opportunity awaits us all if we allow ourselves to let go, explore what’s possible – and get on with the job of creating a new life. And if we are really prepared to do these things, the benefits will be more than we ever imagined.

Miles Protter is a columnist for Sorted magazine.

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