Among the best all time opening lines of a novel is Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, “happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Our careers, it turns out, are no different. If we are unhappy at work, we have to discover why. And the best way to do that is to create a personal career vision. Looking at our careers through the lens of what has meaning and purpose to us helps us get where we want to go, and recognize it as the right place when we arrive.
Alas, like so many other things for women, discovering and articulating what we want isn’t easy. Often people come to coaching with a nagging sense that something just isn’t right. Am I in the right career? Is this the right company? Does this job make me happy?
In coaching hundreds of people for more than a decade, a few themes have emerged:
1. Our lives are full of shoulds and oughts. We should go to a certain college. We ought to be grateful for a certain job. If we do good work, we should be recognized and promoted. It ought to all work out for us. We must start by thinking proactively about what we want rather than waiting for it to happen. While this isn’t exclusively a problem for women, it impacts us more. In their book Why Women Don’t Ask, Linda Babcock and Sarah Laschever share the research that women, on average, are more likely to believe our circumstances are controlled by others. So we just have to wait for things to happen. This isn’t true. Knowing what makes us happy and affirmatively and intentionally articulating that is the fastest path I know to success.
2. Our motivation to take a job often begins at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: safety, food, shelter, employment. We need to pay our rent, our student loans and for our lifestyle. And as our lives progress, those expenses only increase sometimes to mortgages, childcare or more expensive lifestyles. When we get stuck at the bottom of the pyramid, there is limited ability or energy for moving up towards belonging, self-belief and self-actualization. By prioritizing where we belong, how we contribute and what has meaning to us over what we are afraid of losing, we begin to shift our thinking. We start from a different place.
3. Not every job is, by definition, purpose-driven. To find meaning and purpose in our work, and to continue to steer our careers in that direction, is even harder. It requires a reflective practice, where we regularly wrestle with challenging questions about who we are, especially in a world where people keep telling us who we should be. It helps to have help. That’s why so many high performers hire executive coaches -- to help them chart their course, navigate ever-changing waters, and continue moving forward, even when things get rough.
When I coach people, I start by asking "what gives you energy?" When do you feel alive and excited by what you are doing? Even better, when do you feel in flow? The concept of flow originated with Mihaly Csikszentmihaly (pronounced Me-High Chick-Sent-Me-High) who defined it as ‘being so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. The ego falls away. Time flies….Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” I ask my coaching clients to keep energy journals so they know what gives them energy and what drains them of their energy. Recognizing when we are in flow is an important step in designing our desired careers.
I also ask people to notice how they feel about their work. Connecting with our feelings is really important. And hard. As a former lawyer, I had an easy time telling people what I thought, but couldn’t very well name a feeling. My own backstory, like so many people with whom I’ve worked, led me to believe feelings were unsafe, unreliable and not a good source of data. It was only through hard work with my own coach that I came to see that feelings do matter. They are a huge source of data that can help us make decisions that are consistent with who we are and what we want. I encourage my coaching clients to name their feelings and ask themselves what wisdom those feelings provide about what motivates and inspires them to act every day. What’s worth getting out of bed for?
Another way to get started down the path of creating a personal career vision is to explore and embrace your core values. Values are those things that we hold dear. Values are part of our character. They tell us what is important to us. What we stand for. Where we won’t compromise. They guide our choices and they help us live in a way that is meaningful - perhaps with integrity, honesty, authenticity, strength or presence.
For many of us though, we were told what our values should be. Often by well meaning people, like parents, teachers, partners and even leaders. I’ve had more than a few people in my life that I would call ‘benevolent dictators.’ Upon reflection though I have to ask, were they so benevolent? Or was their well meaning direction part of their vested interest in my agreeing to their core values?
Another reason we struggle to articulate our own core values is that for many of us we are achievers or people pleasers, we fear the unknown or crave stability, so we base our choices on things we think will make us feel good, valued or safe. We do what we think will make others see us as successful or like us. If we define ourselves by some external source that we believe will calm our fears or anxieties, we bend and mold to fit what others want. And we lose ourselves along the way.
To ask ourselves what our real core values are takes courage, and it may mean reconsidering things we once thought or were told were true about us. It may mean leaving jobs, relationships or friendships in which we invested so much time. And that is painful, but sometimes necessary.
To discover your core values ask yourself -- when have you truly acted on your own terms and not reacted out of fear or need for security? Especially when it comes to work. We are drawn to leaders that are good at communicating what they believe because it makes us feel special and safe. In connecting with our own core values first, we will be able to identify leaders whose vision and messages truly resonate with us. They are the people worth following. This, in turn, allows us to develop our own message, and we too become people worth following.
Simon Sinek in his book Start with Why says that for values “to be truly effective, they have to be verbs. It’s not ‘integrity,’ it’s ‘always do the right thing.’ It’s not ‘innovation,’ it’s ‘look at the problem from a different angle.’ Articulating our values as verbs gives us a clear idea of how to act in any situation.” You know a core value because when you don’t have it in your life, you have to make a change. With my coaching clients, I give them a stack of cards, each one has a core value as an action. I have them eliminate the cards one at a time until they are left with only five. These values will help you design your ideal career.
When we are able to articulate our core values and allocate our time to things that give us energy, we experience what psychologists call self-efficacy. We feel more confident in our ability to exert control over our own behavior, our choices and our environment. We cultivate the courage to create a personal vision and we are inspired to bring it to life. This is the beginning of leadership development.