Reaching out to others matters more now than ever before. People have been lonely, afraid, and confused. By taking the time to contact others, not only do you help them by sharing your warmth and personal connection, but it also helps you because you feel so much better afterward.
With the success of the vaccines, we are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel of this difficult period in our history. But before we jump back into the routine of the normal life that we lived in 2019, it would be a shame not to pause to reflect on what we have learned during this time. The social isolation caused by the pandemic really was an opportunity for a collective pause, and a global self-assessment about who we really are, and what we really want in life. As a part of this series called “5 Things I Learned From The Social Isolation of the COVID19 Pandemic”, I had the pleasure to interview Damian Birkel.
Damian Birkel is the Founder & Executive Director of Professionals In Transition Support Group Inc., a nationally recognized non-profit organization that offers hope, help, networking, emotional & job searching support fueled by state-of-the-art tips, tools, and techniques. He is also a Harper-Collins Leadership Author of three books.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers like to get an idea of who you are and where you came from. Can you tell us a bit about your background? Where do you come from? What are the life experiences that most shaped your current self?
I was a “born and bred” Clevelander and the last person people would think of willing to pack up everything and move South for a job. I was a Senior Buyer at the city’s most prestigious department store. We had a beautiful “fixer-upper” in the suburbs that we had just completed renovating, and recently added a healthy, bouncing, baby boy to our family. One afternoon the phone rang in my office. It was an Executive Recruiter calling about a company in Winston-Salem. I thought I was being pranked by one of my Buyer Buddies and said: “There’s no such thing as a city named after cigarette brands!” However, after an extensive series of conversations, I eventually agreed to an interview.
After receiving an incredible job offer from the Recruiter, in a very short time decided we decided to move to North Carolina. It was the best career move of my life. However, after three years our corporation suddenly divested our company, and all 92 of us were without jobs. It was a rude awakening. Trying to find a job in your home, the geographic area is extremely challenging. Finding one in a new city? (This seemed) almost impossible. I called many places looking for a support group for the unemployed. Their reaction? Either, Startled or Laughed Out Loud. “No such thing,” they said. “No need,” I was told. It was almost as if my job loss was my fault.
At my lowest point (healthcare running out, mortgage due, two car payments, VISA, and more), I was totally spent both physically and emotionally; well beyond burnout. I fell into catastrophizing; all I could envision was me:
- Laying on a park bench;
- Weeks without a shower;
- With a dirty, scraggly beard;
- A ripped brow bag with an empty bottle of cheap wine beside me.
- My wife had divorced me;
- We had been forced into bankruptcy because I could never find a job;
- After losing everything; I was banned from ever seeing my kids again.
None of this happened. But I didn’t know it at that time. However, my life had become extremely dark; but I had to hide it from my wife & kids. Any remaining hope had drained out of my body. Out of pure desperation, I remember going to church (feeling as they say in the South: “lower than a snake’s belly in a wagon rut.”) Falling to my knees, in utter desperation, I began praying for help and guidance. I promised to ***never forget what it was like to be unemployed.*** Professionals In Transition® is that promise kept. As a result, over 10,000 people have been served without charge since 1992.
Are you currently working from home? If so, what has been the biggest adjustment from your previous workplace? Can you please share a story or example?
YES. The biggest thing I miss is the interaction with and for people. Attempting to provide emotional support over Zoom is challenging at best. You can share tons of information (which we do), but you lose something online. Our biggest adjustment was within a week “pivoting;” and moving our weekly meetings from in person at the Red Cross to Zoom. There was a tremendous technical learning curve and we bumbled through until we got things right.
Over the course of many weeks, a recent grad student (who majored in an extremely specialized field) and I slogged through the job search methodology needed to land a job. We patiently worked together on his resume, LinkedIn profile, networking, interviewing, and salary negotiation skills. Several weeks ago he suddenly had a “eureka” moment and broke through the self-barriers that had been holding himself back. He quickly “got it” and then “lit up like the finale of a July 4th fireworks display.” In one fell swoop, the entire job search process came together and made sense.
This wouldn’t have happened without Covid-19, because I didn’t know or care about Zoom before I was forced to learn it. He’s in a different city; and without Zoom, there was no way that I could spend quality time with him weekly.
What do you miss most about your pre-COVID lifestyle?
- The ability to reach out to people without hesitation.
- Not being able to easily read people’s faces because of mask-wearing.
- Watching the delighted look on little kids’ faces when I establish eye contact and warmly smile.
- “Conversational space.” The 6 foot required Covid space is absolutely necessary but eliminates intimate conversations, hugging, & handshakes.
- Business lunches and in-person Networking have all but been eliminated.
The pandemic was really a time for collective self-reflection. What social changes would you like to see as a result of the COVID pandemic?
- Dramatically improving access to the internet in areas of inequity.
- The broadening of Healthcare to meet the needs of the underinsured or the uninsured.
- Increased access to job training.
What if anything, do you think are the unexpected positives of the COVID response? We’d love to hear some stories or examples.
Working at home with my bride of 45 years has been terrific. For the first time, I got to see the “professional you” side of my wife and got a much better idea of what her work really involved. We talked more, visited more, and got to know each other on a much deeper level.
How did you deal with the tedium of being locked up indefinitely during the pandemic? Can you share with us a few things you have done to keep your mood up?
I never really felt “locked up.” Instead, my paradigm shifted to one of ravenous reading and learning. There are incredible resources available online. By taking a curated approach to online resources an information funnel was created. This has enabled me to focus and enjoy concentrated, speed learning, while never feel imprisoned
Aside from what we said above, what has been the source of your greatest pain, discomfort, or suffering during this time? How did you cope with it?
In my case, I had a number of physical issues that needed attention. These were major issues like knee replacement, lower back stimulator, chronic back pain, and others. Pain has been my greatest teacher. I coped through the pain with pure grit and without complaint.
Ok wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Learned From The Social Isolation of the COVID19 Pandemic? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Phenomenal Time for Learning. Those who have not upskilled utilizing all free courses available online will have to account for their time spent during the pandemic at some point in the future. I have had more concentrated learning during the pandemic than any other time during my life.
- Reaching out to others matters more now than ever before. People have been lonely, afraid, and confused. By taking the time to contact others, not only do you help them by sharing your warmth and personal connection, but it also helps you because you feel so much better afterward.
- Now is the time to master LinkedIn. LinkedIn has become the default way to network. Many people that still have a job are afraid of losing their job. I am working with many people who are employed but afraid of downsizing. Well over 80% of all jobs are never posted on the Internet. By building a robust LinkedIn profile and constructing your LinkedIn community with purpose; creates a phenomenal two-way communication tool and job funnel.
- Be the answer. The key to job security is to constantly be the answer to other’s needs. This is vitally important while the pandemic continues to play out. In most cases, people are working remotely and need to have creative initiative and willingness to go “above and beyond” the needs of the organization and become the “go-to person.
- Become proficient at Zoom or other communication tools. You must be comfortable with all means of electronic communication to thrive in the workforce.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you during the pandemic?
My Life Lesson Quote translates into The Rules of Life. They have gotten me through good times and bad:
- No excuses.
- Do What-Ever-It-Takes.
- The “magic” is in the listening.
- Life is not an exact science.
- What goes around comes around.
- Be the answer.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this. We wish you continued success and good health.