Monday, June 3, 2019

Loneliness and the Quest to Find Professional Community

I recently attended the International Academy of Business Disciplines, an annual academic gathering. Over 200 individuals from around the world attended. It was my first visit. I knew one member from prior professional events. By the end of the conference, I had met and spoken with countless others. I felt connected, engaged, inspired, and happy. I felt like part of a community. 

I won’t see the majority of the people I met for at least a year, assuming I attend the 2020 event. That prospect leaves me feeling sad, and, once again, lonely as a professional.

That’s not a new feeling. Far from it. Nor is my quest to forge professional connections and a sense of community which I feel day in, day out. 

I see the origins of my conundrum in 1992, when I decided to become self-employed in public relations. I had had enough of working for people I considered difficult and insensitive. I figured I could do the kind of work I had done on my own, and achieve much greater professional satisfaction. 

I did, gradually, build my business. My productivity skyrocketed in the short term as I no longer had to engage in small talk with colleagues. I no longer needed to fight to use office equipment. I didn’t have to go out for lunch. I could simply head upstairs to my kitchen to help myself to whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted it.

I thrived. Or so I thought. But I worked alone. I was, for most of the time, alone.

Sure, I stayed in touch with colleagues. That’s how I built my business, after all. I got to know the people I had worked with and they hired me over the years. And I met with clients at their offices. Occasionally, I hired subcontractors to help me when I couldn’t complete client work on my own. 

But I remained physically alone, for the most part. And I often felt lonely, although I didn’t consciously admit it. 

I didn’t feel like I had a professional community. I didn’t have a group of people who understood what I did, or were familiar with the issues I faced. I didn’t have a group of supporters who cheered me on. More importantly, I didn’t have colleagues who would challenge my flawed thinking. I didn’t have anyone to contradict my self-limiting beliefs. In other words, I had no one to show me some tough love when I needed it. And, boy, did I need it then (and still do now). 

Eventually I changed careers, getting into teaching and then higher education full-time. And still I felt alone. I was an adjunct instructor, not a full-timer. I considered myself an excellent teacher. Nonetheless, I felt adrift as an outside. My tenured or tenure-track faculty simply didn’t understand (or care about) my career. My feelings of loneliness persisted.

I’ve entered what I consider the golden age of my career. And I still feel lonely on a professional level. Sure, I’m active in professional associations. I have a full-time teaching position at a school. And yes, I’m active on social media. Virtual contacts and “conversation” don’t necessarily translate to meaning connections, however. Thus, I still often feel alone and even isolated.

I’m still looking for that team of supporters. I still crave the kinds of relationships that support me in good times, and challenge me to do better. So I need to keep working to make myself ready to find it, and subsequently allow it to manifest in my life. 

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