On Having the Courage to Reconfigure your Career

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Loved the article, but how do you define ‘what makes you come alive’? How do I work that out? My entire adult life I have been responsible for other people. I have fallen into stuff (motherhood, marriage, jobs) by default, not design. Anyway … could do with a simple questionnaire if there is one??!! E, Marketing Director

Last week, I was leading a workshop for a group of 50 of the most senior leaders in the finance function of a global UK listed company. After my session on financial leadership behaviours, a woman in her early 30s, approached me, eyes sparkling, saying how interesting she’d found it, because having studied zoology at university, she was passionate about animal and human behaviour. We got talking and it turns out that she’d done a secondment to a company I once worked for from one of the big 4 accountancy firms. She laughed, saying that her family couldn’t believe she was an accountant.

This week I’ve had an old friend staying with me. Having recently left a large UK company where he was FD, he’s considering what’s next. Reflecting on why he’d become so risk-averse with respect to his career choices, he concluded that training as a chartered accountant with a big 4 firm, had beaten out the entrepreneur in him. This aversion to risk didn’t seem to him (or I) to be consistent with what he was passionate about – Lotus sports cars (he has 3) and the Isle of Man TT race – an annual event where motorbikes race at 200mph on the streets of a small island off mainland Britain.

In her book Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essays on the Intersection of Life and Design branding expert Debbie Millman tells the story of how she fell into the job she was doing because she was afraid.  She felt creative, but she wanted to “safeguard her economic future” and so made the logical choice  – it never occurred to her that she could have it all. Now, reconfiguring her career, she offers the following advice:

Start with a big fat lump in your throat, start with a profound sense of wrong, a deep homesickness, or a crazy lovesickness and run with it.  If you imagine less, less will be what you undoubtedly deserve.  Do what you love. And don’t stop ‘til you get what you love.  Work as hard as you can, imagine immensities, don’t compromise and don’t waste time.  Start now.  Not 20 years from now.  Not 2 weeks from Now.

This totally resonated with me. At my own intersection, left was training to be an accountant; right was a Masters in Marketing. 20 years later, I’m finally doing what I love. So, to answer EK – no I don’t think there is a simple questionnaire, but reflecting on these might hold some clues.

  1. What do you send your time actually doing?

Does that give a hint to what your priorities are (as opposed to your obligations) – for me that’s easy – reading, researching and writing on human behaviour and psychology – why are we as we are?    Even when I was in technical Finance roles, with little opportunity to express this passion in work, I dedicated my spare time to these activities.

2: What did you dream of / do when you were aged 11ish – 16ish?

What we did and dreamed of becoming when we were younger holds clues to what makes us tick now. We were not self conscious about our limitations then, we hadn’t yet learned that we couldn’t have it all. Ask your friends and siblings – what did you do and dream of being before you became responsible and fell into default options? What were the dreams of the girl who wanted to be a zoologist?

3: Who are your role models?

 I recently watched Meryl Streep’s introduction of Hilary Clinton at the Women In The World conference – wow, Hilary for president. Pick one or two of your role models and write down why you like them.  Fact: if you can spot it, you’ve got it. In order for you to recognise qualities in another that you admire (or indeed detest) you have to have those qualities yourself.  What do the people you’ve picked reveal about your own qualities?

4: What’s in your heart?

Jonathan Fields, reflecting on his interviews where he asks “what constitutes a good life” suggests listening to our hearts rather than our heads is the answer:

What I think has helped propel me to live a more purposeful life [is] to feel that what I’m doing is coming from my heart and not my head so much.

Reconfiguring our careers, our lives, isn’t easy: fear is a powerful inhibitor. But is our greatest fear (in the words of Marianne Williamson) not that we are inadequate. Is our greatest fear that we are powerful beyond measure?
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