Have you ever reached a crossroads in life or work and really had no idea which way to go next? Or perhaps you never reached a crossroads but found yourself wondering if the road you were on was the right one? It has happened me many times. Most times I didn’t stop too long to wonder, just took one of the roads without any great thought, wandering along it until I came to the next crossroads.
A few years ago, I decided to take a different approach. I was mid-way through a 5-year project that I had committed to seeing it through to the end. It was a wonderful project where I worked with great people and was learning and developing every day. For the first time in my life, I decided to get out there in front of the next crossroads. With over 2 years to go, I invested in the services of a career coach. When we first met for a chat, I told him I wanted to position myself for the end of this project, to be ready to make a smooth transition to the next career stage and to be purposeful about it. I wanted to have a goal that I could work towards and so make the most of the experience I was gathering.
Just a week before our first scheduled appointment, everything got turned upside down. My contract, which usually renewed every year, did not get renewed. Instead, it finished very suddenly and very sharply. While I started that week congratulating myself on how proactive I was being in preparing for a point more than 2 years from now, I finished the week clearing off my desk and packing a few meagre-looking personal possessions into one of those brown-striped office cardboard boxes you see on all good office dramas. While the contractual issues later got sorted and returned to the project, it was quite a shock at the time.
My first instinct was to cancel the career coach. I’d already had quite a job convincing myself that the hourly fee would be worth it. Now with a sudden and complete lack of income in the face of all the usual financial commitments, I truly felt it was just a luxury, maybe even a folly. Then I realised that all that had happened was that my point of over to years hence had accelerated itself forward. Whether I liked it or not, I had to deal with it right then. On top of that, I felt I really and truly lacked the resource to do it all by myself. So I swallowed hard and forced myself into that first coaching appointment.
Coaches ask questions – usually quite straightforward sounding questions but which are actually very deep. My coach asked me pretty simple questions that I thought I knew the answer to. When I was in a position where I had to say the answer out loud to somebody else who was listening intently, however, I was taken aback to realise I actually didn’t have the answers. Here are some of the questions: ‘What do I really want?’, ‘What inspires me?’, ‘What motivates me?’, ‘What makes me most happy?’, ‘What are my biggest aspirations?’.
In my early 40s, I realised I had never had that clarity. That’s quite a crushing thing to realise at so-called ‘middle age’ and with 20 career years already behind me. I realised this in the first conversation with the coach as he asked for a rundown on my career to date. He listened intently to my story then picked up and pointed out to me some word patterns in my narrative. I had ‘blindly’ moved to England after college, I had become an ‘accidental’ sales manager, I had ‘hazarded’ a return to college, I had ‘fallen into’ tourism, and, in the case of my then contract, I had been ‘unwittingly’ vulnerable. The story was then interspersed with moments where I recounted ‘then I woke up and realized’ that what I was doing wasn’t really for me and had then taken a big change in direction.
I finished the story by declaring with a hollow laugh that I was a ‘Woeful Generalist’. I felt I had been gifted so much potential and, for lack of direction and clarity, I really hadn’t done myself any justice. I had never felt a sense of accomplishment or achievement. I hadn’t committed to a single career path, continuously moving horizontally rather than vertically, ensuring that my status and salary stayed relatively low. “Just where does a Woeful Generalist start with figuring out what to do next?” I asked. “With half a working life spent without any true purpose or direction, how can I change that modus operandi?” “You start at the very beginning”, my coach replied.
Here is the task he set me. If you are like I was at that point - unsure of why you got to where you are, unsure of where you want to go next and no idea of how you can resource yourself to get there, then I recommend this exercise before you start making any plans or decisions for yourself.
It seems straightforward, doesn’t it? I readily share with you that this took me weeks to complete. Yes, it was easy to come up with 10-15 important values that we can all subscribe to – honesty, respect, commitment, freedom, equality, integrity etc.. In fact, my coach handed me a list of 50 to start me off. Try eliminating 45 decent values that most of the world would subscribe to! Therein lay the difficulty and challenge of the exercises – whittling it down to just 5 on each list and getting comfortable with omitting some very important ones. It was a challenge to get to the point where I knew I had chosen ‘The Tina 5’, the ones that sat squarely and comfortably on my shoulders as guidelines for my life.
The task and the coaching sessions forced me to really think for myself, to get to a point of clarity and of knowing who I truly was, to be able to say: ‘Yes, that sits with me. Yes, that’s what I’m about above all else. Yes, that’s what I value the most in my life right now’. My final Top 15 were what I called ‘The Non- Negotiables’ or ‘The Bottom Liners’ which simply had to be respected. Life would be in balance when I could tick the box on all 15. At that time, a little self-audit revealed that I enjoyed 4 of the top 5 features of my ideal work, I was regularly disrespecting all of my top values and I was actually prioritising only 2 of my core life priorities.
On the positive side, I identified the common threads across my portfolio career and noticed that the same strengths were always at play even in widely varied roles. This enabled me to synthesise all that experience into a platform for my future career. I understood why I had struggled to be proud of past promotions and achievements - they simply didn’t correspond to my values or life priorities. With the Top 15 as my parameters, I achieved incredible clarity with which to make decisions. It was so easy to see what fitted with me and what didn’t and it became very clear where my future career lay. It was nowhere near what I would have expected just a few weeks before.
Most importantly, I can no longer un-know these things about myself. Now that I know them, I can no longer ignore them. By knowing and articulating them, I have made myself responsible for respecting them. It is both challenging and empowering. In retrospect, that first coaching session that I thought I couldn’t afford was the first day of the rest of a much more purposeful life.
Shortly afterwards I came across this quote below from Farrah Gray: It resonated loudly and sparked me to commit to working flexibly, in service of others, based in North Clare, in a role that would be both financially rewarding and intellectually stimulating (no prizes for spotting the Top 5 features of my Ideal Work!).
“Build your own dreams or else someone else will hire you to build their's.”