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What can Ray Lewis teach us about career transition and grief?

Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens reacts towards the end of the game against the New England Patriots during the 2013 AFC Championship game at Gillette Stadium on January 20, 2013 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.
Photo by Al Bello

Following the AFC playoff and championship games, the reactions of Ray Lewis have caught the attention of sportscasters and the nation. Ray’s genuine emotion holds lessons for a nation facing a rapid change in the definition of “career,” looming Boomer retirement, and an avoidance of displaying, let alone discussing, feelings.

After 17 years in the NFL, it is not surprising for emotions to be high. Although each individual’s experience is unique, professionals often attach their identity to their work. When that career comes to an end, it is the end of that identity . . . and can trigger a grief response like any other loss. It is this grief, and most importantly our failure to recognize and process it, that can hinder our ability to take the next step in our career.

What can Ray (and the rest of us) do to process the grief and have a smoother career transition?

Allow emotion. What a great role model Ray has been in demonstrating that displaying emotion doesn’t have to be taboo. Even for a big, tough guy. Pretending emotion doesn’t exist won’t fool anyone - - especially the interviewer sitting across from us. If we don’t express it at the appropriate time, it will show itself later, perhaps at an inconvenient time.

Celebrate and get support. One of the most difficult transitions is a lay off. Unlike Ray, who will get to celebrate or commiserate with his team, the layoff process usually prevents celebration and closure with colleagues. We can create these by going to lunch with colleagues, writing down successes, and talking with friends and family. If emotions are strong, professional counselors are now only a phone call away.

Recognize the process. Because everyone experiences grief and change differently, it might help to look at a few models. The Change Cycle Model, Kubler-Ross Model, or William Bridges Transition Model can give structure to the process and provide strategies for managing change and grief.

Give yourself time. We wouldn’t dream of asking someone who just got divorced when they will get married again. Because we don’t understand job loss and career change grief and because most of us need work to keep food on the table, we push away our grief and immediately seek a new job. We can’t imagine scheduling in time for ourselves. Take even a few hours a week to reflect, exercise, and process can help combat the impulsiveness that can come in times of grief.

So, when the time comes for career transition or retirement - - learn from Ray. Mourn. Celebrate. Take time for yourself. Allowing the grieving process will speed the transition.

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