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.

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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.