This morning was a fairly typical work travel morning.
I had to call United to make a change to a flight, and got to call the unpublished number that’s only available to those who travel as much as I do. When the agent got on the line (after no hold time), he was extra helpful and made me feel like my business actually matters to the giant company. He made changes to my itinerary for free that normally cost a few hundred dollars. He told me once again how much they value me.
Then I left my hotel, and on the way out dropped off my keys at the front desk. They greeted me by my name, told me what an honor it was to serve such a frequent traveler and asked if there was anything else they could do before I leave town. (This was after they’d given me free breakfast throughout my stay.)
In the cab on the way to the airport, I called my assistant and rattled off a bunch of things I need help with today, and several of those things are already done.
This is all my current work life: people treat me like I matter a lot.
They do things for me, give me things for free that other people have to pay for, and go out of their way to be nice in ways that not everyone receives.
And even though I know it’s just an artificial construct, “important” in quotes — the airlines and hotels are nice to me because frequent business travelers are their biggest source of revenue, and my assistant is nice to me because that’s the job (though, also, my assistant is amazing) — it’s still something that I notice.
And sometimes it seeps in when I’m not quite so aware. The special phone line with no hold implies that my time is more valuable than other people’s time, and therefore I shouldn’t be made to wait, even though others have to. I recently had to call a different airline, and when I sat on hold, I thought, “Don’t they know that I have better things to do with my time?!” It’s the same signal I get when the hotels upgrade me to a nicer room while giving someone who is probably paying more than I am a worse room — I am more important, and deserve these things. Even if you know this happens, it’s still hard to be unaffected by it.
The Duality of “Important” — and Not
When I’m in the non-work-perk world, I don’t get this kind of treatment at all. I don’t carry myself in a way that gets anyone’s attention or dress in a way that announces, “Hey world! I have money to spend!” And so if I stroll into a store, it’s just as likely as not that the sales clerk won’t even acknowledge my presence. People who don’t know that I’m a United 1K and a Marriott/Starwood Platinum couldn’t care less that I’ve entered their establishment. (Because those things are meaningless in the real world.)
In non-work settings, I’m essentially invisible.
It’s a surreal duality being Very Important when it comes to work, and being invisible much of the rest of the time. Right now I’m fine with it, because though I can function as an extrovert, I’m also just as happy not talking to strangers most of the time. Being left alone in public balances out the attention that comes from being “important.”
But soon all that balance will be thrown out of whack. Leaving work isn’t just about losing the tangible perks of work travel, like having a special phone number with no hold time and nicer agents. It’s also losing a big chunk of my identity. It’s losing my answer to “What do you do?” that elicits impressed responses.
But is it also losing my visibility in the world? Will retiring mean becoming entirely invisible?
Ego and Invisibility
I don’t actually care whether a store clerk greets me or not. I do notice in outdoors stores that Mr. ONL virtually always gets offered help and I usually get ignored. That’s the kind of subtle sexism that’s so commonplace most women don’t even think about it anymore.
But outside of retail settings, I do wonder how it will all feel. Whether we are extroverts or introverts, we all want to be acknowledged by the world. We want to know that we’re seen when we want to be seen, heard when we want to be heard, helped when we need help.
We want to have some evidence that we matter.
And if we don’t see that evidence in our day-to-day lives, how can our egos not take a beating?
Don’t Be That Guy
One of my fears has long been that I’d be one of those people in retirement who’s always name dropping what they used to do or be. Who can’t stop talking about it. I know when looking ahead that giving up our work identities will be a huge adjustment, just like it is for those folks who can’t give it up, but I still don’t want to end up being that guy. Frankly, I’m relieved the transition is something we’ll have to navigate at a younger age, so that we’ll (we hope) be better able to adopt new, different identities than people who’ve had careers for 40 years.
But there are pieces of that behavior that I’m beginning to understand better. Like when I start wondering, “Will anyone ever ask me for my input on something again?” The answer is: I don’t know. And that thought makes me sad. I love helping people think things through, and making things better in the process. That doesn’t mean I need to do that every day or as part of a full-time career, but the thought of never doing that again is enough to make me feel like reminding the world, after we retire, that, “Hey! I used to be good at that!”
I don’t need to matter to companies, but I still want to matter to people.
Savoring It — While Reminding Myself
By saying no more this year, we are so far succeeding at creating enough breathing room in our work lives to savor some of our work “lasts.” And I’ve been focusing on appreciating the work perks for a while now, because I’ve known all along that they have an expiration date that gets closer every day.
But I’m doing something else now, too, which is to remind myself in those moments of being told or shown how “important” we’re all pretending I am that none of it is real.
The travel niceness is a purely economic relationship that’s not actually with me at all — it’s with my employer and my clients who pay for all of it. I’m just the person the perks and niceness pass through at this moment, but I’m interchangeable, and soon they’ll transfer to the people who take my place. My assistant isn’t serving me, but rather serving the position I happen to occupy right now.
I don’t know if this plan will work, but I’m hoping that — by both being extra grateful for the perks and making an effort to see them for what they are — the transition into unimportance next year will be less jarring.
Focusing on What the Ego Really Needs
I’m not gonna lie — I have a little anxiety when I think about flying in the back of the bus again where it’s extra cramped. But this isn’t about that. My ego isn’t kept afloat currently by hotel front desk clerks. That’s just the stuff that makes it most visible that I “matter.” (And seriously, airlines — all knees matter. Can we just get a reasonable amount of space for everyone on the plane, and not just the muckity mucks up front?)
But it’s helpful to think about not just how I can matter to the world, but what actually matters to me and my ego. And the stuff where I’m an economic pass-through is not what matters. What I care about — and what I’ll always need — is to feel valued for the stuff that’s inherent to me, not just attached to whatever position I’ve occupied. Being a person who has an assistant doesn’t matter, but being someone whose opinion you’d like to get on something does.
It took a little soul searching to figure out my answers to those questions — What’s the superficial ego boost stuff that I can let go of? What’s core to my identity, and important to keep in my life? — but it was time well spent. And if you’re nearing a big life transition, I urge you to ask yourself that stuff too. Because at least for me, asking those questions has helped me see what I need to recreate in my post-retirement life in other ways.
I don’t want people to ask for my input in the future because they feel bad for me because I won’t shut up about how I used to be a ____. I want them to ask it because I’ve proved my worth in some other new way, through other collaborative projects. That’s not about being important or “important” — it’s about making sure that I continue to bring value to the world in ways that matter to me.
Do you ever think about how it will impact your ego when you leave your career? Any tips from anyone who’s been through this transition? Anyone else ever wonder about becoming invisible? Other fears you have about your post-retirement life? Any interesting answers that have arisen when you’ve put in the effort and done the soul-searching? Let’s chat about it all in the comments!