Monday, February 23, 2009

Is Happy Hour Still Happy?

On Friday I went to a happy hour organized by fellow alums of Georgetown University's Executive Master's in Leadership program. Our program was a cohort of 40 students and we were (still are) very close. In general, this group is a shot of energy. But the last time I saw everyone was in July and since then just about everyone had...laid people off, been laid off, gone on furlough, and/or seen their life savings evaporate. Walking in, I was curious to see just how "happy" the hour would be...

One classmate had to restructure her department and was preparing to take a furlough. Time off without pay is not exactly ideal, but as mentioned in one of my previous posts (Does 10% Reduced Pay = 10% More Time?) there are some advantages. While on furlough, employees are instructed not to check email, come to the office, or conduct anything that could be perceived as "work related activities." In an age when many employees regularly check email through the night and weekend; take laptops and BlackBerrys to the beach; and generally allow themselves to be available 24/7--a mandatory break sounds pretty good to me. The more my classmate talked about it, the more it seemed things weren't all doom and gloom. Plus, she has a life outside of work: she gardens, teaches, travels. She would be able to do more of the things she loved with her time off...even if it meant less pay.

Another classmate had been hit harder. Her husband's work nearly evaporated with the collapse of the banking industry. Meanwhile, her part time job had been eliminated and she was looking for full time work. The more we talked, the more positive aspects of her life emerged. She was teaching a few classes at a university and told me about her latest course, where she had the freedom to use more creative exercises and simulations. The joy that came forth as she described the impact one such exercise had on her class gave me hope that her layoff would put her in a position to continue creating similar experiences and meaningful work.

And then there was one classmate who had been laid off in December. A true role model for networking and getting this done, she was briefing me on her latest creative endeavors and job prospects, when we were interrupted by a phone call. Ten minutes later she was back in the bar and we were celebrating. A prestigious consulting firm had just offered her a job.

If so much hope and optimism surfaced in the stories of classmates most effected by the recession, how about the rest of our cohort? Well, one classmate had raised record amounts of money for her non-profit and was receiving invitations to participate in exclusive conferences around the world. Another classmate had signed a huge client at his agency. A third classmate snagged the lead in a television documentary. A fourth announced she had fulfilled a childhood dream to publish a children's book.

So, is happy hour still happy? I think it is! While there was a little more gloom than usual, everyone had some level of joy, optimism and hope for the future. Opportunities abound, even in a recession. It's a call for all of us to take a "furlough" from work--if not physical than mental--and ask that question we were so good at answering when we were five: "What do you want to be when you grow up?"

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