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?

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?

Professional Identity – Some thoughts

Is it then inevitable that our self-identity becomes dependent on our professional identity? Why should this be and how does it come about?  Here are some thoughts:

Professional work provides status, identity and structure.

As Wayne Oates recognised forty years ago when he coined the term “workaholic”, some people are psychologically addicted to work because it gives them a status, identity and structure they can’t find elsewhere.

A profession provides you with a “safe” place in the world.

Donald Winnicot’s work on transitional objects :
…”In later life, a valued possession,….a cherished dream, or perhaps a valued attribute, skill, or ability may come to act as a substitute for our lost doll or teddy, symbolising and reassuring us about who we actually are and where we stand in the wider world.”

A professional workplace provides you with social norms.

In her research on The Psychological Contract of Solicitors, Helen Grant noted that the ‘apprenticeship’ period,ensures the professional internalises an extensive set of norms which over time becomes an integral part of their identity’.

GRANT, HELEN,MARGARET (2010) The psychological contract of solicitors and the impact of promotion to partnership. Doctoral thesis, Durham University. Available at Durham E-Theses Online: http://etheses.dur.ac.uk/311/

Career Identity and Self – where does one begin and the other end?

 “In the middle of the road of my life I awoke in the dark wood where the true way was wholly lost” Dante

How important is your work to you?  Is it something that’s always been a great source of pride?  For many professionals, their career represents a massive investment of energy, hope and ambition.  They’re bright – and proud of their intellect.   After all, it’s tough even to get into their particular profession, let alone to succeed at it year after year. And they enjoy a certain status, even a mystique, because of their grasp and application of specialist knowledge.

But as an accountant, lawyer or other professional invests more and more effort into progressing their career – regular passing of exams, completion of training contracts, long hours, changing jobs and earning promotions – they risk creating something that is so psychologically valuable that it become an end in itself.  At some point their career starts to represent more than what they do – it became who they are.

Of course, they don’t realise that at the time.  It’s only when they start to question the value of their work that they end up facing a gargantuan knot of career as self-identity.  A terrible doubt can emerge; “if I strip away all my professional identity, will I disappear?”