An odd question I heard someone ask this week was "if your house was on fire, and all people and pets were safe, what one possession would you hope could be rescued?"
In the context in which the question was asked, we had only a moment to think of an answer. The answers varied from treasured framed photographs, to items of sentimental rather than monetary value, to an item of clothing belonging to a dear parent who had recently died.
It was just a game, but it still reveals something of what we actually value, rather than what is valuable from an insurance claim point of view. As the conversations moved on, however, and the game was forgotten by most of us, I was stuck with my thoughts. I wondered to myself, if it was not my house, but my career that was on fire, what one thing would I like to rescue?
Careers, of course, are never literally on fire, but what if your role is unexpectedly redundant? What if that "nailed on" promotion goes to someone else? What if your business collapses and everyone in it is out of work in a moment?
In these circumstances, what is the metaphorical possession you clasp dearly to your chest, as you walk from the smoking embers of the job you thought was secure?
Is it your Russell Group 2:1 (university graduation result), or the big city law firm training contract, or your biggest deal, or your airport lounge gold pass, or your job title? I wonder if these things truly define our need to feel fulfilled in a career, or whether these things are like the replaceable ornaments that decorate a room, but which, in the end, do not define us.
Sadly, I fear that many of us will experience a sudden loss of something important in the next twelve months. It is impossible to imagine that every role will be preserved, and that the economy will be buoyant enough for every business to survive. Change will certainly come and with it, for some, that sudden upheaval and sense of loss, anger, frustration and, indeed, a sort of grief.
I do not anticipate it as a certainty, but I do feel we should reflect on how we will cope. What do you value about your career at this point that you must take with you if your current role were suddenly to end; as you go from what seemed certain, to a place of great uncertainty, what are you holding against your heart? If I reflect on my own world, which is (as it always has been) fragile and uncertain, then some things are hugely sustaining to me. For example, I know that the tasks, the meetings, the reports etc, matter very little indeed. What matters most are the relationships we have with clients, and faculty and suppliers. Relationships that will prevail and become even more valuable in times of great need.
I know as well that the greatest achievement is never revealed in a balance sheet or in a set of management accounts; the greatest achievement is in the difference we make to those who put their trust in our work. Nothing can take that away.
Kindness too is an investment that creates an invisible network of support. The more we offer, the more secure the network becomes. Each strand of kindness is the perfect gift that costs nothing but thoughtfulness, and yet can never be wasted. Kindness stays with us, and softens the jagged edges of life. The smallest and the seemingly least consequential moment can literally change a life. I remember well the letter a college lecturer wrote to the senior partner of the law firm I hoped to join, recommending me to the firm. The letter might have taken ten minutes to write, but it undoubtedly changed my life.
If the fire alarm goes off on your current role and you must evacuate this moment of your career, I hope you can take with you the care of relationships that matter and the difference you made to others. At a time when you might feel scared and overwhelmed, these things will matter more than anything. These things speak for you when you might be lost for words.
The care we take now, and every day, to look after the things we should take with us, will bring fulfilment today and sustain us later. If we have to walk from the building for the last time, I hope we can do so in the certain knowledge that we made a difference. It is that investment that will never let us down.
Gilbert is CE of LBC Wise Counsel.