Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Are You In The "Right" Career?

I have always been fascinated by how we choose our careers—or how our careers choose us. Some of us end up doing work we love because it’s a perfect fit for our temperaments and life goals; others stay for years in jobs that suck out their life force. I once worked with a woman whose wall calendar was filled with X’s, marking off the days until she was eligible to retire in another 10 years and do what she really loved—baking extraordinary cookies and cakes. She reminded me of a prisoner patiently making chalk marks on a wall while dreaming of freedom.

As a career coach I’m frequently called on to help clients figure out their life’s work. They ask me “How do I know I’m in the right career” or “How can I discover what I’m really good at and would be happy to do for the rest of my life?” So how do we really know? We can take various career assessments and personality profiles to see how our interests and abilities match those of others who are successful in a particular line of work. Those tests can give us important clues about our options but they can’t make decisions for us.

So what’s so important about choosing a career that’s a good fit? Just look around you. The fallout from disastrous career choices is not pretty. Some very “successful” people turn out to be profoundly miserable and take it out either on their colleagues or themselves. For example, we all know doctors who, after completing many years of training, realize their chosen career is all wrong for them. Rather than throw away many years of preparation, they continue to treat patients while going through the motions. The results can range from minor medical errors to personal or professional tragedy. And I have lost count of the numbers of people who were happy doing their jobs until the day someone made them a “supervisor”. Usually, unhappy supervisor equals unhappy workers as well.

I have also encountered people doing so-called “dirty jobs” who dispense unlimited amounts of wisdom and joy while going about their daily tasks. One man in particular sang and smiled while emptying the trash. When I asked him why he always seemed so cheerful, he responded that he believed he was doing the work he was put on earth to do and was happy to do it to the best of his ability while making others’ days brighter. His attitude was a great reminder of the impact any of us can have—positive or negative—no matter what we do to earn a living. I believe that most of us want to make a positive contribution, but what agonies we often go through to find work that nourishes us as well.

Parker Palmer, in Let Your Life Speak, says “Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you . . . Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about—or my life will never represent anything real in the world, no matter how earnest my intentions.” In my experience, many of us reach midlife without having truly listened to the “voice of vocation” as Palmer calls it.

So here’s my advice to those of you just beginning your career journeys or contemplating a change:

a Take the time to really listen to that voice. Choose a career—or make a change—because you know it is absolutely the right thing for you to do. Choose work that feels so right you can’t imagine doing anything else.

a Discover your passion and follow it. I vividly recall a client who, when I asked her what she was passionate about, responded “nothing, really,” then after a long silence said, “Well, I kind of like people.” Not good enough!

a Don’t choose a career just because the job is high paying or prestigious or your parents/friends want you to take up a particular line of work.

a Don’t “settle” just to pay the mortgage and put food on the table. Yes, you may need to find work that takes care of the bills, but don’t give up on your dream while addressing reality. For example, find a job with an organization that offers tuition reimbursement so you can prepare for your career of choice while making a living.

a Don’t let fear of the unknown or what others will think stop you before you even get started.

a Never let others disabuse you of your gifts and your purpose for being on earth.

a When you’ve found your vocation, remember to use your talents to help other people, just as they helped you achieve success.

Monday, April 27, 2009

How I Got Unstuck and Found Freedom

“Being ‘pattern aware’ is an important component of mature leadership,” says Sylvia Lafair, author of the recently published book, Don’t Bring It to Work: Breaking the Family Patterns that Limit Success. Her book is an exploration of how patterns that were created to help us cope with family situations end up tying us in knots (and “nots”) in our careers. You will absolutely recognize yourself and your colleagues in Dr. Lafair’s “13 most common destructive patterns in the workplace.”

So let’s get personal here. I’ll own up to a pattern I wrestled to the ground to illustrate how we get stuck in family baggage and how I found the way out. Dr. Lafair says there are 3 steps to becoming pattern aware and finding the way OUT:

1. Observe your behavior to identify patterns.
2. Understand the origins of those patterns.
3. Transform behavior by taking action.

I had no trouble identifying my non-serving patterns, but it took a while to understand how I came to be a world-class “martyr” (one of the 13 patterns). The book describes a martyr as someone who “will do everyone’s work, bend over backwards, go above and beyond the call of duty.” As one of my colleagues said, “[I] took over-functioning to a new level.” If that sounds like a good person to have in the workplace, you aren’t factoring in the guilt exacted by martyrs, who love to suffer and let everyone know, over and over, how hard they are working and how guilty others should feel for underappreciating them. Yeah, that used to be me. Over the years I must have annoyed quite a few people, who were probably thinking to themselves, “We’d be glad to pitch in if she’d just ask for help.”

The book relates the typical family experience that creates the martyr pattern: “Parents could not fulfill their dreams or gave up their dreams to help their child, and the child takes on the burdens.” Now my pattern was making more sense. Neither my father nor his father was able to fulfill his dreams. My grandfather had creative writing and musical talent that was set aside to earn a living as a self-employed roofer; he was electrocuted in a roofing accident when my father was only 4. My father was studying to be a doctor when he ran out of money and went to work for a steel foundry, which was horribly unsuited to his gifts even though he became successful. My mother gave up her career as a nurse to be a homemaker, because that’s what most women did in the 1950’s. Both my parents pinned all their unfulfilled hopes and dreams on me, their only child, and I spent most of my life doing my best to realize everyone else’s dreams.

Now came the really hard part: transforming my martyr (and sometimes victim) pattern into one that would better serve me, my family and my colleagues. To get unstuck, I went back to my family history through a process called Sankofa Mapping (described in the book) and discovered wonderful, positive legacies passed on by my ancestors. Sankofa is a West African word that means “heal the past to free the present.” Wikipedia states that it “symbolizes one taking from the past what is good and bringing it into the present in order to make positive progress.” That’s exactly how I used my new understanding of my family history.

The story that stood out for me was that of my great great grandfather, who had been a leader of tenant farmers in Ireland. In a last ditch attempt to seek redress for injustices, he led the tenants in a collective lawsuit against the landlord. Although the court ruled in favor of the tenants, their demands bankrupted the landlord. My ancestor, along with the rest of the tenants, lost his home and livelihood. As the story was told to me, he said to his family, “We’re going to America. There’s no future here.” With their last few dollars and an undying faith in God, he, his wife and 10 children came to the United States to seek a better life.

He could easily have fallen into an annoying litany of “poor me” or “you owe me,” but instead he stepped up to his role as family/community leader and expressed gratitude for the opportunity he found in a new land. His heirs continued to provide strong yet compassionate leadership in a variety of fields from business to education to missionary service in developing countries.

Reminding myself of that story of their strength, persistence and faith in the face of almost overwhelming odds has given me alternate patterns with which to carry on my own leadership legacy. Dr. Lafair says that the martyr transforms into the “integrator” who asks for help and gets others involved in sharing the burdens. Instead of carrying my family burdens on my back, I can now stand on the shoulders of my ancestors as I move forward in my own journey and ask others to walk beside me to help carry the load.

By dropping the heavy load and the poor me excuses, I’m becoming—at 60—the person I was always meant to be. And it feels great! Ultimately, as Dr. Lafair points out, transforming our patterns is about freeing ourselves to live fully—not only in the workplace, but in all aspects of our lives. Who doesn’t want that kind of freedom?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A Paradox For Our Times

Every day I hear friends, family and clients telling sad stories of lost jobs, businesses, stock portfolios and peace of mind, and asking me how we’ll ever get through this economic crisis. How can I answer them, except with “there, there, everything will be OK” or “yes, we’re all headed for certain doom”? Is there an alternative response?

Yes! In Good to Great Jim Collins proposes the “Stockdale Paradox” as a way to deal with what life inevitably throws our way. The paradox is: “Retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of difficulties, AND at the same time, confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” Collins named it after Admiral James Stockdale, a Vietnam War POW in the “Hanoi Hilton” who was repeatedly tortured during his 8-year imprisonment. With no certainty of his survival, Admiral Stockdale continued to be a leader among the prisoners and took effective action to increase the number of survivors. He didn’t tell the prisoners to keep their chins up because they were sure to be rescued any day, and he didn’t roll over and wait to die either.

What a simple, yet profound, lesson for us in these troubling times. Throughout history we can find numerous examples of people who prevailed despite living amid conditions much more brutal than we are facing. Just ask your parents and grandparents how they survived and helped others survive during the Great Depression and World War II. I suspect their answers would be some variation of a lesson learned by Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist who spent 3 years at Auschwitz, Dachau and other concentration camps: “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way.”

One of the unsung heroines of World War II was Antonina Zabinski, so eloquently described in The Zookeeper’s Wife, by Diane Ackerman. Antonina and her husband were in charge of the Warsaw zoo when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. After the Germans bombed the city and removed the remaining animals, the zookeepers saved more than 300 people from death by hiding them in the empty animal cages, right under the noses of the Nazis. Although terrified that the Germans would kill her and her entire family, she continued to aid the Polish Underground and provided hospitality and even moments of joy to their “guests.” Antonina chose her attitude and did the right thing despite her fear and the brutal reality of her loss of friends and possessions.

And so we remind ourselves as we hear the latest gloomy predictions and unemployment numbers that when the dust settles from this round of earthly troubles—and it will—the ones left standing will be those who confronted the fear and transformed it. Let’s keep stories like this before us, along with the faith that we will prevail. Like Admiral Stockdale and the others, with no certainty of our own survival, we can still be the light that shines in the darkness to help others find the way out.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Social Networking for Our Sociable Brains

It all started a few weeks ago with a simple question: “Do you blog?” My too-quick answer was “No, why should I spend my time writing stuff no one else will read.” But several more discussions at networking events made it clear to me that I was missing something.

So, true to my usual MO, I did some research to find out what was up with all this blogging, linking and tweeting. I started reading other people’s blogs, and before I knew it, hours had gone by and I realized, uh-oh, I’m hooked. What’s going on here? When the answer finally hit me, it was one of those “duh” moments. We blog, link and tweet because it’s a way to connect with others in a world where the news gets scarier by the day. It’s how we share a piece of ourselves with others and see into their hearts and minds. It’s the modern equivalent of sitting on the front porch in a small town, chatting with your neighbors and feeling part of a community.

And then I remembered Daniel Goleman’s recent book, Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships, in which he says “we’re wired to connect. Neuroscience has discovered that our brain’s very design makes it sociable, inexorably drawn into an intimate brain-to-brain linkup whenever we engage with another person. That neural bridge lets us affect the brain—and so the body—of everyone we interact with, just as they do us.” Our brain circuitry contains what are called “mirror neurons," which reflect back the feelings and actions we observe in others so we mimic or mirror those same feelings and actions. In other words, if we see someone smile or cry, we tend to feel the same emotion and imitate the action without even thinking about it.

As we interact with others, our words and actions can actually reshape the neural circuitry in their brains, for better or worse. That’s an awesome impact, and one that should make us stop and think before we engage our tongues or our keypads.

Goleman ends the book by stating “the crucial challenge for this century will be to expand the circle of those we count among Us, and shrink the numbers we count as Them.” For me, that’s the lure of social networking—to expand my circle of “Us”. So let’s use these powerful tools as a way to nourish our connections with each other to make a difference in the world!