Nature abhors a vacuum – and so do I

If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts, but if he will be content to begin with doubts he shall end in certainties.  Francis Bacon

A strange thing has happened; after working hard over the past six months to exit all my work commitments and create a blank canvas for new opportunities to emerge, I’ve now been overcome by panic and am working flat out to refill my diary.

So today I am forcing myself to combine action with reflection and ponder the source of discomfort that is driving this behaviour.

And discomfort it surely is.  The question of what I DO has become even more nebulous; so what does that say about who I am?  It’s all very well wearing different hats for different people but now I don’t seem to have any head wear at all.  When people ask me, I feel somehow ashamed about circumstances that I should be celebrating.  As my neighbour who now goes fishing rather than working in his business said to me this morning –  I’ve deliberately made myself self-unemployed.

Yes there’s a dark corner – or maybe a gaping hole –  inside me and maybe most of us, that needs to be filled by some sort of work achievement if we are to feel valued.

If you do want to create change in your working life,  and you have created space or had space forced onto you by redundancy or illness, what’s wrong with floating a little in that space?  Floating is nice, floating is good  – but endless floating become suspiciously like bobbing helplessly, drifting this way and that with every passing tide or gust of wind?

So if you’re looking for a solution that allows you to enjoy your unexpected work vacuum without rushing to fill it, I have an answer.   It will let you combine floating with a need for action and boy, is it worthwhile.

Because actually you have got work to do. You want to make sure that when you do take action you strike out for the right shore or even step aboard the right yacht rather than grabbing onto the first bit of flotsam that crosses your path.  And it can be very tempting to grab out just to fill that horrible emptiness of being unemployed.  So  – message to self – don’t do it!

Your work whilst you’re floating it is to identify what Work it is you do want, work at building relationships and networks and work on play projects that let you try out new ideas.  Doing these things create real value for you and can be a source of genuine satisfaction and joy.

Above all believe in the value of what you do each day, hold up your head when asked the inevitable and what do you do question and be delighted that you’re lucky enough to be self-unemployed.

 

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Finding the right career: is it the key to happiness?

It is not how much we have but how much we enjoy that makes happiness. Charles Spurgeon

All of us want to be happy even if we don’t admit it openly.  But what do you think would make you happier?

Rita Mae Brown famously said that happiness is “Someone to love, something to do and something to look forward to” and there is no doubt that your work is a large part of that “something to do”.

But recent scientific research into happiness reveals that your external circumstances only contribute 10% to your level of happiness.  People quickly get used to any positive changes in their lives and soon return to their original or baseline levels of happiness.  In fact, studies of identical twins have discovered that 50% of our happiness is determined by our own genetic “set-point”.

You may find this surprising, I certainly did.  Surely our happiness is driven by finding the perfect partner, getting the dream job, earning more money or losing that extra bit of weight around the midriff.  Isn’t it? Isn’t that what we all strive for- and believe? I seem to have spent my whole adult life in a state of  believing that “my life will be perfect once I’ve ……..” Complete the sentence with anything you like.

How often have I stopped to look around me and say “hey, this is pretty good right now” ?  How often have you?  Yet, according to Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor of psychology at the University of California this is one of the most powerful things we can do to increase our happiness levels.

In her book The How of Happiness, she describes the scientific work that has been done to measure what it is that really impacts our happiness levels.  And the good news is that, with 50% pre-determined and only 10% affected by external circumstances there is a massive 40% up for grabs.  40% of your happiness that you can influence by taking intentional happiness-increasing action.

Actions such as nurturing relationships, expressing gratitude, avoiding over-thinking (always one for me, I’m a chronic overthinking perfectionist), savouring life’s joys, engaging in “flow” activities and cultivating optimism.

In the abstract these all sound rather difficult to imagine actually doing.  But small experiments can pay big dividends as I’ve found when trying things out with friends and colleagues.

Here’s an example: find a willing partner and agree to text each other each day with one thing you’ve appreciated that day.  It could be a great cup of coffee, a compliment received, a small achievement, a slice of time you spent on yourself – it’s amazing what we take for granted in an “average” day. At the end of the week compare notes as to how your happiness levels have changed.

In my experience this simple exercise has made a significant impact on the happiness of anyone who’s been prepared to give it a go.  If you can’t find a partner then keep your own record.  Just make sure that you take the time to actually write things down, thinking it won’t be nearly as effective.

So, what has this to do with career changes? If external factors really do only influence 10% of our happiness, does it make sense to place such high expectations on finding the perfect job?  Although a positive career move will bring a temporary increase in happiness, the evidence shows that we will quickly return to our set point.

So perhaps we should give ourselves a break.  Take time to appreciate what we really enjoy in our current role, nurture relationships with our colleagues, find enjoyable activities that we can truly engage with – and stop over worrying about finding a perfect career.

 

Living with Uncertainty

“When faced with a feeling of stagnation or confusion, it may be helpful to take an hour, an afternoon or even several days to reflect on what it is that will truly bring us happiness”  Howard Cutler

I’m currently reading Independence Day by the immensely talented Richard Ford.  His protagonist, Frank Boscombe, mid 40s, bereaved and divorced, five years ago walked out of his career as a sports writer and entered what he terms his “Existance Period”.  His life, though outwardly mobile – new job, home, relationships,  all appearing to be hanging togther, inwardly is cruising in neutral.  His acceptance, and naming of the directionless eddy in which he has foundered seems to me a rare thing.  For how many people do you know who would acknowledge, even to themselves that they are not heading anywhere?

I find the admission liberating as I didn’t know we were allowed to do that.  Surely we must always be heading somewhere?  Setting goals, seeking new challenges and striving for greater sucess?  That’s what I was brought up to believe.  And that’s how life is structured too, certainly in the early years of school, university, professional qualifications, promotions and new jobs.  And yet, I suddenly don’t know what it is I want to strive for anymore.

This fills me with panic – surely I must be heading somewhere.  If I don’t know where, I just need to look harder, look faster and then I’ll find it.  But is this the right approach?

Not for William Bridges who, in his wonderful book Transitions, calls it The Neutral Zone.  He says that every major life transition, such as career change, has three stages which must all be dealt with – An Ending, The Neutral Zone and A New Beginning.  Bridges draws attention to how we have lost our appreciation of this gap in continuity.  The emptiness now only indicates an absence – one that we try to fill as quickly as possible, either by rushing forward to inappropriate new realities or, when possible, scuttling back to where we came from.  “But you don’t see” says the man who approached him after a lecture. “I’m nowhere and I want to get somewhere”.

In reality, a career change can happen instantaneously – as if you have been unplugged from one role and plugged into another.  But the interior transition takes longer and requires personal transformation before that sense of being dislocated is lost.

But what if you’ve swum away from one shore and can’t yet see the other side?  Instead of panicking and thrashing aimlessly forward – or backwards, try just floating for a while.  Watch the clouds and give yourself the gift of your own Neutral Zone.  Use the time to learn – about yourself or to see the world differently or to gain new skills.  Focus on enriching your life.  Practise mindfulness and stay in the moment.

After all, you’ve been moving forward all your life, a little break won’t hurt.

Putting Value on What You Do

Does what we are choosing reflect what we most deeply value? Jack Kornfield

Yesterday I spent  a few hours with a good friend who also happens to be a very inspiring woman.

At the age of 46 she had a crisis of belief in her work, despite being in her “dream” job heading up a public sector department. She left burnt out and disillusioned.  Whilst pondering her next move she took up track cycling, discovered she had a natural talent for it and, within nine months, was winning events at the World Master Track Championship.  Over the next four years she won eight World Masters track cycling titles including a world record in Women’s sprint in 2002.

Now, nine year’s later she is training again with a new goal of setting a new world record in the 60+ age group.  In the meatime she has set up her own business as a life coach and personal trainer and started a women’s cycling network with over 100 members. So I was shocked to hear this woman, who has achieved so much, questioning the value of what she does and whether she should be concentrating on a earning more money instead.

It made me wonder, why is it that our work achievements need to have £s attached to them before we believe they are worthwhile?

Yet, I also totally understood where she was coming from.  Used to having a high paying job for most of my adult life I continualy struggle to find another yardstick by which to measure my success. When I first set up my own coaching business I had very few clients and my earnings were, well, peanuts.  My heart used to sink whenever a well meaning friend, family member or business acquaintance asked me whether my business was going well.  I instinctively felt it wasn’t, despite the fact that I’d started a new business from scratch, won my first clients and been elected to the board of a key coaching professional body.

And, more importantly, I was loving my work, collaborating with wonderful people and finding each day exciting and challenging.  Still, I felt a failure because I wasnt earning nearly as much as I used to.  Or as much as I felt I OUGHT to.

So what is this “ought”and why is it so hard to eradicate from our sense of self-value?  The simple answer is that it’s there because we allow it to be. We can tell ourselves over and over again that our goal isn’t to earn a lot of money but somehow we just don’t “feel” it as a truth.  Why?  Because we don’t spend time building other sources of self-value to replace it.  We may think we do, but too often we don’t take time to build a crystal clear image of success that resonates with our deepest held values – and we don’t measure our progress against that.  So, its not surprising that our default position always reverts back to money as a measure of success.

So now I’ve developed my own definition of the value created by my work.  I remind myself whenever I can that I am a success if my work:

  • allows me to use my favourite skills and talents;
  • involves the right mixture of independent tasks and collaboration with people who I admire and whose company I enjoy;
  • requires continual learning and pushing of boundaries consistent with the creation of the life I want to live;
  • contributes to a purpose that reflects what I most deeply value;

and

  • I am able to pay the bills that I need to pay to keep me and my family safe and happy.

Now when people ask me how my business is going, I simply smile and tell them how incredibly rewarding it is.

So how do you measure the value of what you do?

Finding the Real You

It’s never too late to be who you might have been” George Eliot

Recently I’ve been spending time exploring ways to access those securely smothered career dreams that we all have but rarely acknowledge, except when dawdling over a glass of wine on holiday.  Then we feel relaxed enough to play the game of “what did you want to be when you grew up?”  When we head back to our “real” lives we sensibly file away those dreams, dismissing them as childish, unrealistic and not at all suitable for a sensible adult with responsibilities.

I have good news for you.  The truth is that you haven’t stopped growing yet.  It’s true that you have worked hard to create your place in the world, a place that feels comfortable and recognisable.  In fact so comfortable that you may think that it is a world that is impossible to leave.  My friend – it isn’t.

How do I know?  Because many people are catapaulted out of their safe worlds every single day – by illness, by redundancy, by marriage breakdown, by disabling accidents and by the death of loved ones.  That’s when they learn that their safe world is just an illusion, that the rug can be pulled from under their feet at any time.  I know because it happened to me; in 2005 my 20 year long marriage broke down  and in 2007 I was diagnosed with breast cancer – I felt that I’d spent my whole life playing a game where I thought I knew the rules, only to see those rules smashed to the ground.

But, you know what?  Like many many other people have discovered, having your life fragment into pieces gives you the opportunity to re-build it in a new way, to create a new life – and yes, a better one.

So my message to you is that you CAN change your life but you need to choose to do so.  Don’t wait for a tragedy to force change upon you.  Instead see it as a playful project, where you can let go of assumptions about yourself and explore those hidden aspects of your character.

If you don’t believe me, I’d like you to try this one tiny step.  Think of a dream that you’ve had and never fulfilled – be it to play guitar, be an artist, write a book, sail a boat, live abroad or run your own business.  Open your computer and search for a tiny step that you could commit to right now to playfully explore that dream.  You could book on an evening class, start a blog, join a club, even just buy a book or subscribe to a magazine.

This weekend I spent two days making jewellery on a silversmithing course.  It cost me less than £200 and two days of my time.  But the reward has been immense as I’ve finally unwrapped one of my dreams, brought it into the sunlight, turned it over and allowed it to live and breathe.  Will I now become a silversmith? I don’t know and it doesn’t matter – I’ve opened my mind to the possibility.

So dare to ignore that inner voice that tells you it’s unrealistic, invite your dreams out into the open, explore the real you and remember – you’re not a grown up yet.

Stepping over the Threshold: Letting Go to Let Come

“When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.” Lao Tsu,

All transitions begin with an ending.  Where your career is concerned, nothing will change until you step away and let go of old work patterns.  Yes, you might change jobs, but this will nearly always be achieved by relying on those skills and experiences which have served you for so long.  Nothing will change.

At some point, you have to make a choice; either scurry back to what you know or step over the precipice into a new existence.  And yes, it is scary. Our natural instinct and nurtured sense of survival is to create order out of chaos; to force new structure into our lives and to move purposefully from one existence to another.

The recognition that you can choose to free yourself from your professional identity, shed it like a skin and emerge shining and new, is a process that creates both a tremendous amount of energy – and deep pools of anxiety.  The energy drives you forward to explore your values, strengths and desires to create a new vocation.  The anxiety holds you back – and will pull you under and imprison you in the “what is” rather than allowing you to emerge into a “what could be”.

As you yo-yo between these two states of mind your natural tendency will be to do something, anything that will introduce a new structure to the void that your career has become.  Most often this means scurrying back to the familiar, the proven and the recognised; donning once more the mantel of your professional identity.

But, resisting personal growth incurs great psychological damage.  Living your life to meet others expectations rather than authentically searching out and following your own path is the number one regret recorded by palliative nurse Bronnie Ware in her interviews of the terminally ill (The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, 2012, Hay House, UK). Conversely, freeing yourself from a professional identity defined by others and allow the unfolding of your own truthful vocational adventure can bring immense satisfaction and serenity.

So, as you step into the unknown, be prepared for the traps – all the layers of fear that will hold you back, all those voices saying that you cannot do what you believe in. Do not rush to create an answer just to silence those voices.  Instead, take steps to marshal your resources for a period of upheaval in your vocational life; find a mentor, meet with like-minded career shifters, use affirmations, visualisations and other sources of inspiration.   Instead of forcing a decision on yourself when the way forward is still obscure, focus on creating the positive energy needed to cope with the inner tension.  Relax into the uncertainty and celebrate the changes it will bring.

Dare you create a space in your life to see what emerges?

From House Holder to Forest Dweller – the shift to “Why?”

Why does that revolt come, in mid-life, after years of striving and having finally achieved a certain recognised  – and well rewarded – status?  According to William Bridges, sometime after the age forty, people experience an important transition in their work life: The transition from being motivated by the chance to demonstrate competence to being motivated by the chance to find personal meaning in their work and its results.

In professional life you get in and get ahead by demonstrating your competence.  It is this professional competence which has earned you your place in life – your material wealth and your social standing.  It is a quality that has served you well and that you hold close to your sense of self.

But somewhere along the way competence begins to lose its force as a source of motivation. You no longer get a buzz from solving technical challenges and your work starts to take on a weary predictability.  You will probably try to reactivate the old motivation by seeking new assignments, a change in responsibility or a new employer.

And these might work temporarily, but they are missing the point.  You are not simply losing interest in the same old stuff; you are undergoing a fundamental internal transition.  It is this which is causing you to lose connection with activities that used to matter to you.

The idea that life is a series of transitions is not new.  But perhaps the modern western economic imperative conflicts with the internal transitions that we all face.  By mid-life you have established your home and family, your financial standing and your career credentials.  What ambitions do you have left to achieve?  With twenty more years of work ahead of you, you should be making the final assault that will entrench these successes and lead to a respectable retirement.  Instead, you are troubled by the feeling that something has changed.  What is it?

This so-called mid-life transition occurs at the point when Hindus believe that people are meant to stop being “householders” and start a period of inner search and discovery – called the “forest-dweller” phase.   The mid-life crisis is not just a tired cliché.  Making radical changes in your external life is often an attempt to deny this inner transition you are facing.

Why do we find this transition so difficult?  Because it involves letting go of beliefs, dreams and imagined futures.  It involves coming to terms with who you are.  It involves discovering what you want to be right now and letting go of what you wanted to be as a 16 year old.

So ask yourself: “What is it time to let go of in my own life right now?”

(Bridges. W: Transitions, Making Sense of Life’s Changes. 2004)