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A Silver Lining

by Tom Lane

December 7,2008

The economic weather forecast has looked pretty dismal lately. People keep talking about the economic crisis we are facing, and will face in the coming weeks, months and years. But if we explore this "crisis" a little deeper, a glimmer of possibility is evident.

We need to base any optimism in realism. What started as an equity crisis, the loss in real estate values, has led to a credit reckoning, in which banks have stopped lending to everyone except those who need it the least. The seizing up of credit has furthered losses in equity as stock values and retirement accounts have plummeted. The lack of credit and the loss of equity have led consumers to drastically reduce their spending, as they try to hang on week to week. The lack of spending is leading businesses to lay off employees. All of which is leading to a dramatic rise in unemployment. People are losing their jobs, and their incomes, and fear is setting in.

The loss of a job is affecting a large number of people throughout the region – from the less-educated to the well-educated. Everyone, it seems, is at risk as all of our fates are tied together. As a result of this series of events, we are experiencing a flood of talent washing through the economy, looking for ways to engage the market.

There are no simple solutions. Good people in the private and public sectors are devoting incredible time and energy to addressing deep, underlying economic issues, and trying to figure out solutions as they go along. The challenge is worsened as nearly everybody scrambles around looking for a carbon copy of their former job. People feel bound by their resumes. But there simply aren't enough jobs that fit their resumes to go around.

But what if these talented people could take a fresh look at their career, their purpose, their skills, and got inspired? What if instead of simply looking for work, people could start looking for a career that really adds value in difficult times?

Several paths can lead us to our career calling. One of these paths – entrepreneurism, is becoming increasingly popular. One trend in particular, social entrepreneurism, embraces new technology, innovation, and creativity to make a difference in the world. Social entrepreneurs pair human need with positive, creative solutions, effecting both contribution and profit. The resilience of the Charlotte market paired with its emerging growth challenges could provide inspiration for plenty of innovative and helpful products and services.

Fine-tuning a career choice can also reignite a former passion. For example, the architect has the time to invest in learning about new green initiatives; the financial analyst turns her attention from Fortune 500 to micro-loans; the assistant pursues an online IT program and reemerges with exciting and valuable new competencies; or the sales manager becomes a spokesperson and advocate for a youth services group.

These things can and do happen all the time. But the first step is unplugging from the fear of not having a job, or a secure position, and honestly assessing your wants, needs and desires for the future. What would it take to make your work not like work at all?

While it is frightening and uncomfortable, humans often benefit from a shock to the system. Sometimes it is the only thing that wakes us up from a life that has become just "business as usual." That is not to wish hardship on anyone – it is simply to note that in the years ahead, we may look back on these days as stiff medicine that helped many lives and our nation recover (and restructure) for the better.

Economist Paul Romer said, "A crisis is a terrible thing to waste." As we hold on tight and work through our current challenges, there is no better time to ask important questions about what we want for ourselves and our families, our community, our economy and our professional lives – and set our course in that direction.

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