Sunday, February 10, 2008

Will You Still Be Working at 95?

I get a lot of mail from readers of my nationally syndicated workplace column, much of it coming from people who have a workplace dilemma they'd like me to help solve (and more than a few letters from the unfortunately incarcerated who would like to be my pen pal). Today, I want to share a recent letter I received from a 95-year-old woman who told me she had been employed full-time from 1929-1971, and has been working part-time for the last 27 years.

For those of you without a calculator handy, or suffering from Monday morning brain freeze, that means this woman has been working for 79 years.

While she did not share with me the specifics of her work experience, or why she chose to work for nearly eight decades, I will tell you that she said she was interested in my book, "45 Things You do That Drive Your Boss Crazy...and How to Avoid Them," and asked me to send her a copy.

Then, she asked me this question: "Where did I fail?"

Where did she fail? I wondered how someone who was still working at 95-years-old could even think of herself as having failed. Did she have jobs she hated? She didn't offer me a clue. Did she have trouble with a boss or co-workers or perhaps never have the career of which she dreamed? I don't know. Her letter was short and provided few details.

So, I will send her my book. I can't imagine that it will tell her something she doesn't know. After all, by the time I entered the workforce she had been there for more than 50 years. What could I possibly tell her that she hasn't known or experienced firsthand? In her lifetime, she has seen men gladly working for pennies a day just to try and feed their children during the Depression. She has seen blacks forced to sit at the back of the bus, then fight -- with grit and intelligence and determination -- into the board rooms of this country. She has seen women start their own companies and go to outer space and possibly become our next president.

"Where did I fail?" I don't think I can begin to answer that question. She will, like all of us, have to answer that for herself. But I think her letter should make each of us think about what we're doing right now to ensure that if we work for one decade or eight, we will not look back and consider having failed.

For each of you, your success will be of your own measure. It will be a reflection of the road you took, the goals that you set for yourself despite the odds against you or the advice directing you another way.

So, my question is this: What have you done right? What important lessons do you have to share with others about surviving and thriving in the workplace so that none us has to ask at age 95: Where did I fail?


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