Making Yourself Useful

With the world turning upside down right now, I think a lot of us are harkening back to the last time when we suddenly had to adjust to a temporary professional “new normal.” I’m referring, of course, to 9/11. This was obviously a very different sort of event, but I’m seeing a lot of parallels in how many of us are dealing with the aftermath.

During 9/11, I was still working in my “first career” as a newspaper reporter in central Illinois (remember my origin story from a few weeks ago?). I think I was either supposed to have the day off or maybe I was going into the office a little bit later that afternoon, but as soon as the Twin Towers collapsed, I rushed into the office, found the editor-in-chief and asked, “How can I help?”

For the next few days, pretty much all of the reporters on staff, regardless of their usual beats, became news reporters. I spent the afternoon of 9/11 on the phone with former area residents now living in New York City. I remember my main interview was with a business executive who lived in a high-rise apartment with a direct view of the Twin Towers. He was obviously stunned with everything going on, but he was extremely patient with me in describing as best he could what was happening. I still have a copy of the newspaper from that day somewhere in the house. It wasn’t a great story, but I am proud of it because it was useful to the newsroom and hopefully to the broader community.

The next several days were somewhat less chaotic but the attitude was the same. People put aside any grudges or distaste for their jobs and came in with the same attitude – “How can I help?”

Which brings me back to our current situation.

I assume by now we are all working from home. For those of you who aren’t used to this, it’s likely a pretty big adjustment. You can’t talk to the person next to you in your cubicle. You can’t take a 5-minute break to walk into your boss’ office and complain about how coworker X is totally incompetent and you hate working with her. For extroverts like Derek who thrive on social connections, it can be a bit isolating (Note from Derek: Clearly, Scott is joking here. I was social distancing before social distancing was cool.)

Compounding the problem is that some of you may not have a lot of work to do. While many organizations are busy figuring out how to transition their scheduled live events into online meetings, I suspect there is likely a slowdown for some people. Are you a meeting planner who spends most of your day coordinating with live venues for upcoming conferences? Probably not a whole lot to do that applies to your usual role.

There is no playbook for how organizations deal with unexpected crises. It’s a time for creative, on-the-fly solutions where the team rolls up its sleeves and individually asks, “How can I help?” There is some great work going on in the CME community right now as we are all being forced to problem solve. I spoke with someone yesterday whose organization managed to turn a live 2-day meeting into an online event within 72 hours. They lost a few registrations but also picked up some new learners. It was a total team effort and it was a real accomplishment because it worked!

This is unquestionably going to be a tough few weeks. I just spent the last 10 minutes teaching my 9-year-old son about compound fractions because he couldn’t hear his teacher on the video explanation she posted. I may not be 7/4 as productive as I usually am, but that’s OK (yes, you all see what I did there). Just like you are, we are figuring out as we go how this is all going to work.

So for anyone worried about stepping out of your comfort zone these next few weeks, don’t be. Asking the simple question of, “How can I help?” is not only going to give you a sense of purpose, a sense of “I still matter,” but it’s also hopefully going to bring you a level of personal satisfaction as you acquire new skills and overcome some pretty significant hurdles. Maybe you’ll be asked to work with new people. Maybe you’ll be tasked with something totally unfamiliar to you. Maybe you’ll just be asked to “sit tight” for a while.

There is still light somewhere at the end of the tunnel, and we will eventually get back to our usual rhythms and routines. In the meantime, embrace the change. It’ll feel good, I promise.


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