9/11 impacted me more this year than last, thanks to my students.
You might think that 18 years later the impact of an event like 9/11 would fade. Actually, I realized in reflection this year that the trajectory of my life shifted significantly because of that day.
As I was planning this semester’s coursework and assignments, I saw that I had a class on 9/11, and I didn’t think much about it. Even the weekend before when I saw that 9/11 was Wednesday, I made what seemed like an insignificant mental note and refocused on my to-do list.
Most days, my to-do list feels like a bunch of obligations I feel compelled to take care of, and the sense of responsibility outweighs the pride and joy I might otherwise take in my to-dos.
Class starts with 10-15 minutes of a mindfulness and/or self-awareness journaling exercise. When I lined up each exercise with each class during the summer, I was mostly thinking of progression and pairing with class topics.
On my way to class that morning, the DJs on the radio were recalling where they were when they heard the news. The female DJ shared that her mom woke her up with a call that morning and told her to turn on the news. She was annoyed, but once she realized the severity of the situation, she felt awful for being annoyed by her mom calling.
She was in college at the time and went to class because she didn’t know what else to do. She tried carrying on as though things were normal, but they were not. The professor told her to go home and call her mom. Then another student showed up and the professor told that student to do the same thing. “No one knows what to do right now.”
I had thought that I would let the day slide by without mentioning it, until I was on my way to class listening to the DJs recall their thoughts and emotions, forcing me to recall mine.
No one knew what this meant, if we would ever feel safe again, or if we were just watching the beginning of the end of life as we knew it. We knew that civilians and first responders were dying in scary and awful ways.
Many of us thought about people we knew living or working in New York City, or those we knew were supposed to fly somewhere that day. My brother was flying to the west coast that day. I was frantic until I heard from him that his flight was grounded in Pittsburgh.
I was a young professional, finally having found my path in recruiting, eager to get to the next level, and interface with clients and candidates. But it was taking too long. I was starting to get bored. I was yearning for change, but I wasn’t doing much to actually change things, like looking for a different job.
I loved my boss and the other women in my office. I was sure I would eventually learn new skills from them if I stuck it out, but I was more excited by my lunch break run than by the work I was doing.
Then one seemingly average, beautiful day, a call came in for the managing director. I remember overhearing her voice as she was on the call. She sounded shocked. My first thought was that something terrible must have happened in her family, but then she shared the news with the rest of the office. Shaking with tears in her eyes, she told us that a plane just crashed into the World Trade Center, and they think it was on purpose.
I can barely remember what happened next. I know that we dropped everything to search for news online. I might have found a live stream. The managing director went out to buy a TV to bring it into the office.
I had been working on a call list of management consultants in the DC area at that moment. There was no chance I would be reaching anyone now.
I remember calling my brother. I called my mom, dad, and boyfriend.
Another plane hit. We knew for certain now that it was a terroristic attack. Fear and shock left us bewildered.
What do we do? What can we do?
By 11 AM, we were told that we could go home if we needed to. I didn’t want to be alone. I didn’t want to take my run in a national park. Who knew if they had other targets. Eventually, I went home and tried to process what was going on.
Returning to work felt strange. I had called candidates who were working on the exact floors where one plane hit. How could work ever seem important again for me or them?
There was a universal sentiment – what we had previously thought was important, may not actually be that important. Everyone thought twice about what they were doing with their time. Everyone assessed what was really most important in their lives.
Armed Forces enrollment spiked, as did the number of people quitting their jobs, even in the midst of impending economical impacts.
By the time I got to campus that day last year, I was in tears struggling to compose myself. I thought for sure that I should make mention to my students of such a significant day in our country’s history, but also wondered how I could keep from ugly crying, which I felt like doing at the time.
As class began, I assessed my composure and decided I would introduce that day’s journal exercise by talking about 9/11. It wasn’t until I spoke that the synchronicity of the events, to me being there with them at that moment and what I was dedicating my career to, that the journal entry clicked. And the tears came, but I didn’t fight them.
This particular day, I challenged the students to think about Brules that they were following – BS rules made up by someone else about how to be successful and happy that are not authentic or in alignment with what would really make them successful and happy.
I told them how a good percentage of my clients come to me after or in the middle of successful careers because something is missing – some joy, some impact, some contribution that hasn’t been made after building their career, as meaningful as they thought it was at one time. I urged them to make sure they were defining their own happiness and success. What they were learning would help them make sure that at any point in the future, they could reinvent themselves and their definition of success.
These students were just kids when 9/11 happened. Some of them may have no memory of it because they were too young, and the older ones probably weren’t old enough to be told the truth of what had happened. Surely, at some point, as they got older, they learned about these events from a 3rd party observational perspective.
Today, though, I wanted them to tune into that universal sentiment – If it all, life as we know it, our financial model, our sense of safety and responsibility, changed today, what would really be important for you to do with your time? What beliefs that you adopted from others could you let go of now, and replace with what serves you and your own definitions of success and happiness?
My mission of making work a worthwhile way to spend time away from what’s really important was solidified by 9/11, both the day and the aftermath – the recession, my layoff, my struggle to land meaningful work again, and my realization that I no longer wanted to reject candidates – I wanted to help them.
I was only 27 when I started Epic Careering. Credibility was something I had to fight to establish, but I knew that I didn’t want to waste another year making a handful of placements while thousands of candidates stayed stuck and disempowered.
I knew that, like my parents, there were working parents everywhere coming home exhausted, overworked, and stressed out – wanting to have the energy to engage at home, but needing to disengage just to recover.
Even the best work is going to present challenges. Innovation and progress can’t happen without those challenges. However, if people are going to spend their time away from their families and loved ones, at least that time can be meaningful, fulfilling, and well-compensated.
If 9/11 hadn’t happened, I would probably not have been laid off, and I may not have had the personal experience of long-term unemployment that made me understand and help people going through the emotions of that experience. In fact, I may have continued to go through the motions of a job I was growing bored of, waiting for a chance to learn and do something more.
And if it hadn’t happened:
- Would I still feel called to this mission?
- Would I have gained such insights about what great talent craves if I had not gotten to know them as clients, only candidates?
- Would I be consulting to companies on how to be better employers for sustainable, conscious growth?
- Would I be teaching emerging students how to navigate the job market and become conscious leaders?
- Would I volunteer my time to nurturing young entrepreneurs in an effort to spark future economic growth and innovation?
My to-do lists are mostly things that I GET to do in support of my mission. I am seeing that now more clearly, and I am grateful that my time, energy, and efforts are making a meaningful difference to others.
Coincidentally, my students were awesome at sharing their realizations. They went deep. They brought their emotions to the surface and learned that this was okay.
I saw that for them, 9/11, a day when too many tragically died, had birthed a new vision of how they can apply what they are learning in college to craft careers that help make the world a better place.
This blog is dedicated to my students, Cabrini COM Cavaliers, social justice warriors!
Karen Huller is the creator of the Corporate Consciousness Ripple Blueprint and author of Laser-sharp Career Focus: Pinpoint your Purpose and Passion in 30 Days (bit.ly/GetFocusIn30). She founded Epic Careering, a leadership and career development firm specializing in executive branding and conscious culture, in 2006.
While the bulk of her 20 years of professional experience has been within the recruiting and employment industry, her publications, presentations, and coaching also draw from experience in personal development, performance, broadcasting, marketing, and sales. Her solutions incorporate breakthroughs in neuroscience, human performance optimization, bioenergetics, and psychology to help leaders accelerate rapport, expand influence, and elevate engagement and productivity while also looking out for the sustainability of the business and the planet.
Mrs. Huller was one of the first LinkedIn trainers and is known widely for her ability to identify and develop new trends. She is a Certified Professional Résumé Writer, Certified Career Transition Consultant, and Certified Clinical Hypnotherapist with a Bachelor of Art in Communication Studies and Theater from Ursinus College and a minor in Creative Writing. Her blog was recognized as a top 100 career blog worldwide by Feedspot.
She was an Adjunct Professor in Cabrini University’s Communications Department and an Adjunct Professor of Career Management and Professional Development at Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business She is an Instructor for the Young Entrepreneurs Academy (YEA) where some of her students won the 2018 national YEA competition, were named Ernst & Young’s America’s Next Top Young Entrepreneurs, and won the 2019 People’s Choice Award.
She is board secretary for the Upper Merion Community Center and just finished serving as Vice President of the Gulph Elementary PTC, for which she received recognition as a Public Education Partner and Promoter from the Upper Merion Area Education Association. She lives in King of Prussia with her husband, two daughters, and many pets, furry, feathered, and scaly.