The Isolation of Modern Professionals

When I was about 8 months pregnant, I had a scary realization: I realized that I would be fundamentally alone in the process of giving birth to my daughter.

I had an amazing support network - the best midwives, a devoted husband, and loved ones galore - but ultimately, the only one who could give birth to her was me.

Now, sure, cesarean sections are always an option, and there are other tools like vacuums and forceps to help, but in the end it's always the mother, and the mother alone, giving birth.

This realization really scared me, and 12 hours into active labor, it hit me again after a contraction: I’m the only one who can do this.

Giving birth to our gifts is a similarly lonely process.

In a way, I’m a midwife to modern professionals who want to create something more soulful and beautiful in their career. I do my best to support them along the way, but ultimately, they have to do the work to bring their vision to life.

Creating and giving birth to a worklife that we love is so hard and lonely that it’s no wonder many people don’t make the attempt.

How Isolation Shows Up for Professionals

I meet a lot of people who feel really alone at work. They may not have many close friends in the office, they may not even go to an office, or they might feel so afraid of speaking up at work that the relationships they do have are shallow and transient.

They might also love their co-workers but know deep down that they’re ignoring what it is they really want to do, which isolates them from their own desires.

It’s amazing that so many people can spend 40+ hours every week without regular, meaningful human connection, but it’s become normal for many of us.

What does that lack of connection do to us and to our organizations? I see isolation showing up in a few major areas:

  1. The hierarchical model of most organizations. When we feel disconnected from people and forget their humanity, we try to control them. We rank people, manage them, and start to believe that people who don’t toe the line are bad.
  2. The belief that we just need to do more, faster. When we’re isolated, we don’t feel comfortable admitting that we’re tired, or burnt out, or overwhelmed. We buy into the belief that since everyone else seems to be able to handle it, something’s wrong with us and we just have to try harder.
  3. High rates of turnover. When we can’t see the connection between what we’re doing and how it serves others, we quickly lose steam and feel the need to move on to greener pastures. When we’re so isolated that we’re afraid to share what’s going on for us, we leave before trying to make things work.

Isolation doesn’t just impact us in our specific organizations, it’s pervasive throughout the “professional scene.” A few weeks ago, I was at a professional event and noticed how totally disconnected everyone seemed. During the round of introductions, people told us their job titles or 30-second resumes in such an empty way that I actually got emotional.

When we offer up these stale, two-dimensional descriptors of ourselves, we maintain the cycle of isolation in professional settings.

Another Way to Engage

I don’t think we have to choose between professionalism and authenticity.

Even though giving birth to a career you love is, at its core, a process only you can go through, it’s almost impossible to do so without a supportive network around you.

Without career midwives and partners to cheer us on and reflect our strength back to us, we can get lost and give up too soon.

Without real relationships nourishing our careers, we can continue to buy into expectations and models that don’t actually work for us, like introducing ourselves in droll and meaningless ways.

Rilke wrote:

“I want to unfold.

I don’t want to stay folded anywhere, because where I am folded, there I am a lie.”

There is some serious origami-style folding happening in our professional circles, and if you’re reading this post, I hope you start to open up a little bit more. I hope you can unfold, and do it in connection with other human beings.

How to Be a Less Isolated Professional

Here are three things I’m trying to do to be less isolated in my worklife:

  1. Cultivate authentic relationships with my "professional BFFs." I can’t develop these sorts of relationships with everyone I work with, but I cherish the 3-4 people with whom I can spitball business ideas one minute and share failings with in another. If there’s anyone you encounter in your worklife who could become your professional BFF, ask them to coffee and unfold a little bit in front of them.
  2. Notice when I’m feeling pressure to be tough and "successful." It’s extremely isolating to feel like you have to have everything together, say the perfect thing, or be a strategic wizard. When I’m feeling this pressure, I notice it and remind myself to be humble and self-compassionate. This reminder usually shifts me into a place of connection to myself and to others around me who might also be feeling pressure to perform.
  3. I’m offering free help, all the time. I’m tired of being nitpicky about who I can help, when, and for how long. If someone emails me with a question or wants to get coffee, I’m up for it. A lot of people will tell you to network strategically or only connect with people who can eventually offer you something in return, but that’s going to keep us in isolation. Let’s open the floodgates. Let’s connect happily and freely.

Isolation at work may be common, but it’s not inevitable. We can build a workforce that’s actually an uplifting, safe place to give birth to our gifts.