Why & How to Quit Social Comparisons to Find Fulfilling Work

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We’ve all made decisions about our work lives that don’t match up with who we are and what we genuinely desire. “TGIF” only succeeds as a phrase because society leans that unhealthy way.

But why? There are myriad reasons, of course, which I’ll continue to unpack in my posts to come, but I can dash off the top reason without even pausing to think:

Social comparisons. Hands down.

In my college students, my alumni, my career coaching clients and myself, I see the guiding role of social comparisons in career and work-life choices on a daily basis.

Which is problematic in the extreme since, research shows, looking around and judging our choices based on decisions made by others is a sure route to regret, envy, guilt, yearning, and defensiveness, among other seedy emotions. And I’d argue that many of those emotions are bull’s eye centered on our paid work in particular.

So how can we clear the comparison scourge and make way for work lives that fulfill and stretch us? I turned to the research to find out.

Why Social Comparisons Kill Our Work Dreams

First, let’s step back and consider why social comparisons affect our decisions about career so intensely.

Social comparisons are tricky little devils. For one, they’re built into our psychology and then reinforced by society: we naturally determine value in relative terms, not absolute ones, and schools and other social institutions capitalize on that natural tendency. While we can train ourselves out of thinking about success and worth relatively, as we’ll discuss shortly, it takes a good deal of conscious effort. Thinking absolutely simply isn’t our norm.

Secondly, social comparisons can have a massive upside: they can bring us joy…IF we’re the person with the perfect resume or the immaculate personal life relative to someone else. And let’s be honest here: in each and every domain of life, there’s always someone you’re besting.

Social comparisons can feel so good that we can get hooked on them as our source of self-worth, and we don’t even realize we’re doing it:

Feeling fed up with the drudge job? Our mind wanders to our friend who hasn’t landed any paying work in the past six months.

Feeling crappy about a new haircut? Our finger clicks through Dropbox to that photo of our curly-haired friend on an extremely humid day.

Feeling icky about lack of direction? We prod someone even more directionless into telling us her woes — again.

The problem is, using this strategy to feel good comes at a heavy price: we end up feeling badly about ourselves most of the time, as Dartmouth researchers found:

“Frequent social comparisons may, in the short-term, provide reassurance. But in the long-term they may reinforce a need to judge the self against external standards.”
— Judith White, Ph.D., and colleagues

Comparing ourselves becomes an addiction, and an insidious one at that. We end up scrambling around Facebook, desperate for a hit of “I’m rocking life compared to that person,” but in the process are exposed to a whole lot of “wow, that person is doing so much better than me.

That’s why the following three steps to quitting social comparisons are vital to the pursuit of work that is fulfilling and most truly “us.”

Step 1. Set Internal Standards for Self-Worth

Getting clear on what you care about and then prioritizing your life around those values makes social comparisons less relevant, as the researchers found:

“People who are uncertain of their self-worth, who do not have clear, internal standards, will engage in frequent social comparisons.”
— White and colleagues

In other words, if you believe that “success” results from meeting YOUR goals — not the goals of your parents, friends, teachers, or “society” at large — you’ll be less likely to succumb to the agony of social comparisons.

The “how” for this step comprises most of my blog posts from the past and my work as a teacher and a coach, so it’s fair to conclude that the process of creating internal standards cannot be boiled down neatly here.

That said, you can begin today by simply writing down what you care about most, in a stream of consciousness manner — such as having freedom, connecting with friends, spending time with family, having financial stability, acting creatively, and so on. Then return to the list daily over the coming seven to ten days to add to and edit it, working to also prioritize as you go (tip: putting each item on an index card or scrap of paper can make the process faster and easier). You’ll know you’re done when you haven’t made any changes for three days running.

This reflective exercise takes less than five minutes a day, and I’ve personally seen it be life altering.

Step 2. Practice Mindfulness

There are two ways we can view ourselves: subjectively (from the inside out) or objectively (looking at ourselves as if we’re an object). People who do the latter engage in more frequent social comparisons and thus feel less content, according to research:

“Viewing one’s self objectively cuts one off from mindful experience, resulting in mindlessness. Not only are we holding the self still, in order to view it objectively, but also we are holding still the dimension on which we are making the comparison. In a mindless state, a person automatically accepts the positive or negative consequences of a social comparison.”
— White and colleagues

Furthermore, when we’re proceeding through life mindlessly, we’re less likely to notice when we’re turning to social comparisons to serve as a mood booster. In other words, mindfulness provides two ways to quit social comparisons — a pretty powerful cocktail indeed.

As we’re all aware by now, there are many ways to practice mindfulness, including meditating, engaging in mindful walking, or even simply remaining aware of small details while eating or dressing.

If you’re new to mindfulness meditation in particular — an approach that makes no spiritual claims and has been shown to decrease stress, anxiety, and blood pressure —Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book Wherever You Go, There You Areis a great starting point.

Interestingly, researchers note that making social comparisons may causemindlessness, so you’ll need to reconnect with a mindful viewpoint daily to keep things in check. It will be well worth the effort, as the researchers found:

“In a mindful state, the same social comparison information can have a completely different meaning, and thus different consequences.”
— White and colleagues

Step 3. Schedule Activities that Bring You Flow and Meaning

There is a bit of chicken-and-egg happening here, but studies show that if you can “find happiness,” you may be less tempted to look at the friend who is climbing the career ladder and has the uber-family to boot. And less affected if you do.

Unhappy people make more frequent comparisons and take them more to heart in comparison to happy people.

Of course we could fill 15 bajillion posts on the question of how to “find happiness,” but I’ll stick with the psychology-based answer I strongly believe: lasting happiness comes not from fleeting pleasures, but from structuring your life around endeavors that are personally meaningful and that frequently plunge you into a state of flow. And given that we spend about a third of our lives doing paid work, I strongly advocate for not just looking for happiness in our hours of recreation, but also actively creating a work life filled with purpose. One that is not ruled by social comparisons, but rather by your personal sense of mission.

I’ve seen many people make such a career a reality for themselves. I’ve experienced it in my own life. Is it easy? No. Does it happen quickly? Of course not. Do you retain it forever once you’ve found it? I wish. But implementing the three steps here is genuinely a great — and tangible — way to start.

 

What role have social comparisons played in your decisions about career? I'd love to hear your comments here or on Medium

 

Source:

White, J. B., Langer, E. J., Yariv, L., & Welch, J. (2006). Frequent social comparisons and destructive emotions and behaviors: The dark side of social comparisons. Journal of Adult Development, 13, 36–44.

Your Career Vision: What Would "Everyone" Want to Do?

What do you think everyone would want to do, if only they could? What kind of work? In what kind of environment? At what time of day? Under what circumstances?

Answering this series of questions can provide you with the single greatest insight into your own preferences - and also into your fears.

About a decade ago, I leaned over a paper placemat at Friendly’s and answered a friend’s query about the sort of working life I’d love to have:  based at home full-time with no boss, no “team” to have to collaborate with, making my own schedule - which likely would look like working from 6am to 10am, having the middle of the day off, and then going back to work in the evening - writing articles and books that simultaneously self-express while helping others.

I followed up my description with, “But who wouldn’t want that?”

My friend stared at me, then lifted an eyebrow. “I wouldn’t. And I honestly don’t know anyone who would.”

This took me by complete surprise. So I then launched into grilling her about what did *not* sound good to her about my vision for my ideal work lifestyle, then spent days (weeks? months?) wondering if I was a horribly strange person.

Before that day, I honestly believed that I was fantasizing about a working lifestyle that “everyone” would want. In fact, I believed that so many people wanted it, I might not be able to get it because “it” was already taken (as if such a thing could be true).

Furthermore, I hadn’t articulated my vision for years on end because I’d taken it as such a given - as something that was so obvious that it need not be spoken. Who doesn’t want to be their own boss? Who doesn’t want to work in their pajamas? Who doesn’t want to spend hours not having to talk to anyone?

Lots of people, I now realize.

The Friendly’s moment of realization is part of what drove me to want to hear people’s work stories - and, through coaching, to help them construct in reality what had been previously only been in their heads. Through much formal and very informal interviewing and coaching of people from a wide range of ages and backgrounds, I’ve come to realize just how idiosyncratic my preferences are. They are very “me.” Are there others in the world who share my vision of the ideal working lifestyle? Absolutely. Chris Guillebeau, for instance, has made a living stoking the fantasies of people like me.

But of the hundreds of clients and students I’ve known, it’s only a small percentage who share my vision - or share a vision with one another. I’ve come to believe that work lifestyle preferences are our ultimate psychological fingerprint:  as unique as each of us.

So, then, what have you been failing to articulate because it’s “so obvious”? What is your vision of a work life that “everyone” would want? What do you take so for granted that you don’t usually even bother to let it into your consciousness?

Do you think that “everyone” would love to work with an endless supply of coffee in close reach? Would “everyone” love to interview celebrities? Would “everyone” prefer to spend their day out in the sun?

I’d bet most of those examples didn’t resonate with you - yet for someone, one or more of those represent their core assumptions for awe-inspiring work environments.

Two caveats before we wrap:  

First:  DO NOT think about reality yet. When you hear the pesky voice in your head say, “but that’s impossible” as you consider some aspect of your ideal working life, that’s a sign that you’re on the right track. Write that thing down! Is endless coffee just a dream? I don’t know. I’m not trying at this moment to assess its odds of occurrence. It’s beside the point. If the thought of it makes your pesky voices rise up in opposition, you’re onto something. A good vision should be internally controversial. If it weren’t, you’d simply be describing the work life you already have. And if you’re reading this article, chances are you don’t want to keep working exactly (or at all) as you are.

Secondly:  Aim to write about the process of the work, not the outcomes of that work. For instance, would “everyone” love to make seven figures a year, especially if that money didn’t come along with a huge lifestyle cost? Probably. But “making seven figures” is not a work lifestyle. It is not a “doing” of something. It’s an outcome of that doing. We actually do tend toward having universals about outcomes - e.g., wanting more time with our family members, wanting more time off in general, wanting money flowing in without having to do anything at all - and so they aren’t that compelling or helpful in our work search process.

It’s the HOW that comes before the outcomes that varies from person to person. It’s the HOW that can guide your choices as you move from where you are to where you want to be. It’s the HOW that can unlock the fulfilling working lifestyle you’ve always wanted to have.

So take a moment to write down your obvious. What, do you think, does “everyone” want to do?

What's your "obvious"? Share below - or on Medium

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How Does a Person Build a Fulfilling Life?

That's the question that has haunted me for years. Decades even. I wondered it as I read Laura Ingalls Wilder books during my childhood, wondered it afresh as I wandered from college to grad school dropout to unemployed-but-I-know-where-I-want-to-live, and I wonder it still. Every day. In fact, I've been contemplating "how does a person build a fulfilling life?" so much lately that I haven't been able to write one word on the topic. Hence the recent radio silence on this blog (for the first time in 1.5 years!).

I'm currently being forced to put into practice everything I've spent years considering, writing about, and researching. My life is undergoing seismic shifts:  new career path for my husband, new work opportunities for me, moving to a new home [current status = our house is under contract to be sold and we can't find a house we want to buy...yikes]. It's a lot like...hmmm....being 20something all over again. Even though I just hit my 36th birthday. Proof positive that life is all about cycles of change and stability, forever and always, until the day we die.

When things are getting all shaken up, THAT'S when we need to be most intentional and present about building a life that we'll find fulfilling and valuable. But what exactly does that entail? That's a question we each have to answer for ourselves, and the question that has filled my mind much more than it has filled blank pages of late.

I trust that my "stability" period is coming down the pike and I'll finally be able to process in words all that I'm currently experiencing. But that time is not yet, so this blog will remain quiet for a while longer. (Which may be just fine with you!!!)

If you would like a little something to read over, though, check out the terrific interview Cassie Paton at Witty Title Here recently conducted with me. We chat about all things creativity, entrepreneurship and - indeed - creating a fulfilling life. I'm grateful to her for getting me out of my head and down on a page for a few moments!

I don't have the answers. No one does. We're all just rubber balls bouncing around this nutty thing called life...and I'm really bouncing at the moment! If nothing else, we'll have a lot of grounds for commiseration when I return because I know that if you're reading this blog, you're there, too.

May we all bounce to the right place for us.

Everything You Ever Needed to Know About Finding a Mentor

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What's all this hype about having a mentor? Today we'll break it down, one question at a time.

Why Bother?

First, the obvious question:  is the "mentor search" worth the energy? In a word, yes.

People who have mentors tend to get salary increases and promotions faster than workers who don't have mentors. Graduate students in psychology report that peers who have mentors meet more influential people, move faster through the program, have a better sense of direction, and present at national conferences more often.

Although men seem to benefit from mentorship more than women do, women are in greater need of mentors because they still occupy fewer high level positions. It's a shame, then, that Levo League found 95% of Gen Y women have never looked for a mentor.

What Type of Person Isn't a Good Mentor?

Overstretched people make the worst mentors.

They may seem like they have it all - family, career, local fame - and you want to know how they do it. Since they have so much going on, though, they probably don't have the time to give you the mentoring relationship you need.

For instance, Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo!, may seem like an interesting mentor given her high-profile career/family juggling, but with all she's got going on, how much time for mentoring does she actually have?

Who Makes a Good Mentor?

<Continue reading on Life After College>

4 Fear-Taming Techniques (Personally Tested, No Less!)

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What do you do when fear reaches out from our midsection and takes over your entire being? If you're anything like me, what you want to do is curl up in a ball, watch marathon sessions of New Girl, and not talk to a single soul. For days.

(Hence why this site has been so quiet this week...Putting my safe-haven of a house on the market is apparently not good for my writer's soul.)

What we have to do, though, is tame the fear. And keep walking on.

As we've discussed in the past, there is no such thing as "conquering fear" or being "fearless." Ha, if only.

In reality, people who look fearless simply live with the fears and act despite them...which means their fears are tame enough to allow them to function! (That "I can't even think about what I want for dinner because scary thoughts are consuming me" feeling doesn't cut it.)

So here's what I do - and am very much currently doing - when fear and worry get the best of me. I call it the "EFWA strategy." (Doesn't quite roll off the tongue, does it?!)

1.  Go EASY On Yourself - for a Day or Two

While the New Girl marathon may not be all that productive in the long haul, it's important to quiet the drill sargeant within us the first couple of days after fear strikes.

Instead of berating ourselves - "What do you think you're doing? You're going to give up? Just like that? What kind of pansy are you?" - we need to take a different tack during our early days in Fear Central.

Think about it:  when we were kids and had scary things happening in our life - like getting on the school bus for the first time or going to our first sleepover - how did we want our parents to react?

Did we want them to immediately start telling us "get over yourself and just do it!" I sure didn't.

What we wanted first was a hug and some affirmation that fear is normal in those situations.

We wanted to feel comforted first and foremost. THEN we could move on to bucking up and doing the activity despite the fear.

Bottomline:  Don't shortchange the scared child that's inside each of us. Give her or him the comfort deserved, while trusting that the will to move forward will follow closely behind.

2.  Put the FEARS In Writing

After we've felt comforted, it's time to face the fear head on.

We need to ask the questions:  Why am I afraid?  What are the components that are freaking me out?

Then we need to write those suckers down.

For instance, if you're thinking about leaving your job, the component fears may be:

  • FEAR:  I won't find anything else I like.
  • FEAR:  My family will think I'm crazy.
  • FEAR:  I won't have enough money.

I use this "fear-writing" technique with my coaching clients all the time - and at first it freaks them out.

"You want me to tell you exactly what I'm afraid of when I say I'm afraid of starting a business?" one client asked.

"Yes," I said. "As fully and concretely as you can."

She paused. "But I don't want to know that."

This (very common) response makes me want to chuckle - even when it's me thinking it (and believe me, I was thinking it all last week). We are in such denial! How come we think that fears that remain inchoate and unclear are better than those written down on paper in front of us?

Here's how I see it:  fears we haven't put into words are like a virus that can infiltrate every cell of our body. They take over our existence, and we can't even tell exactly where or what they are.

Fears we fully process by putting them in black-and-white, however, are like a localized wound. Sure they hurt like crazy and dealing with them might not be easy, but at least we can identify their location. That's more than half the challenge.

So do the painful act of writing the fears out. As fully as you can muster.

Trust me:  you'll feel better for it.

3. Lay Out WORST CASE Scenarios

Now that we know exactly what we're fearing, we can take it one (scary) step further and write down the worst thing that can happen related to each fear.

Take it to an extreme - I seriously mean worst case.

Why? Because your mind is thinking about these worst cases even if you're consciously trying to ignoring them. The worst cases are what are waking you up at 3am and making you pop Tums like they're Jolly Ranchers.

The worst cases are there, even if you don't want to see them.

It's time to let 'em loose.

Continuing the example of leaving a job:

  • FEAR:  I won't find anything else I like.
    • WORST CASE:  I'll be miserable for the rest of my life and feel like nothing I did was worthwhile.
  • FEAR:  My family will think I'm crazy.
    • WORST CASE:  They'll disown me and never speak to me again.
  • FEAR:  I won't have enough money.
    • WORST CASE:  I end up homeless and without food, and will wither away and die.

I told you they were extreme!

Notice that the worst cases tend to look quite laughable once we put them in writing. What are the odds that any of these worst case scenarios will happen? For most of us fortunate souls living in developed nations, about the same as being struck by lightning.

When we realize that each worst case is highly unlikely - and that you could even survive many of them, regardless of their extreme nature - the power of the fear has been sapped.

4.  Determine an ANTIDOTE for Each Fear

Now that the fear is on its knees, it's time to deliver the knock-out punch:  articulating a concrete plan for working through each fear.

It usually helps to have a friend or coach walk us through "antidote-finding" because sometimes the strategies that are right in front of us tend to impossible to see ourselves.

Here's a generic example, for which the antidotes could vary greatly depending on the person's personality and details of the job change situation:

  • FEAR:  I won't find anything else I like.
    • WORST CASE:  I'll be miserable for the rest of my life and feel like nothing I did was worthwhile.
      • ANTIDOTE:  Identify 10 things I currently do that feel worthwhile, such as running, spending time with my grandma, and talking to my childhood best friend on the phone. I'll then create a plan for doing these things on a regular basis. That way even if my work life doesn't pan out for a while, I'll be actively creating life satisfaction in other areas of my life.
  • FEAR:  My family will think I'm crazy
    • WORST CASE:  They'll disown me and never speak to me again.
      • ANTIDOTE:  Sit down with each family member individually and ask about his or her path to today's career. Talk about fears and big changes that person made related to work, and then begin to discuss how my feelings relate to their past. It may only be the start of a dialogue, but it'll be a good start.
  • FEAR:  I won't have enough money.
    • WORST CASE:  I end up homeless and without food, and will wither away and die.
      • ANTIDOTE:  Get 100% clear on my budget:  precisely how much do I need each month to cover costs? Are there places I can shave expenses? How much money do I have in savings, and how many months worth of shaved expenses would that cover? Do I need to stay in the job a bit longer to provide the sort of savings cushion that would cover enough months to make me feel comfortable?

Does it take work to tame fears using EFWA? Absolutely.

But I'll tell you this from the fear-wracked place I currently sit:  it takes a whole lot less energy than letting fears run their course.

Now I want to hear from you:  What strategies keep you moving when fear threatens to paralyze you?

Photo Credit: BombDog

Why We're More Productive When We Have Less Time

Q:  What's your take on laziness?  Is it an epidemic or what?  I once had a discussion with my friend about how we are less productive when we are less busy, if that makes sense.  For example, when we have a full schedule with deadlines, requests to fulfill, appointments, assignments, etc., we find ways to make it all happen.  Then, when we finally get "free time" to accomplish all the things we've been wanting to do for ourselves, like go to yoga, workout, clean, blog, etc., we don't end up doing much of those things at all!  There is no one but ourselves to hold us accountable for those things, which makes it all the more difficult to get it done with any urgency. - Isabel Gomez, @izzygomez A: You're definitely onto something with your observation, Isabel. You should see my low productivity in the summertime when I'm not teaching - I often fail to even make it to the grocery store!

Why would less time make us more productive? Because it stresses us out - in a good way.

We need good stress (eustress) to perform optimally, according to the Yerkes-Dodson law. Not enough stress and we're like sacks of potatoes on the couch. Too much and we're a bundle of ulcer symptoms.

But I think there's more to the "laziness epidemic" than a lack of stress. In fact, it's just the opposite. It all comes down to an improper understanding our "Optimal Time Crunch Zone." (It's not as scary as it sounds - promise!)

Get Your Time Crunch On

Before we dig into the laziness issue, let's get clear on our Optimal Time Crunch Zone by extending the Yerkes-Dodson law to "Time Crunch Status," as shown in this image I created.

Optimal_Time_Crunch_ZoneIt demonstrates that we need to be somewhat time crunched to be optimally productive.

Too much time on our hands is a recipe for getting nothing done - and too little time is exactly the same!

The big question is, how much time crunch is "too much" and how much is "not enough"?

How to Find Your Optimal Time Crunch Zone

What feels like a ton of free time to me (a whole HOUR today?!?) may feel like nothing to you - or vice versa. So we have to do some trial-and-error to find what amount of free time works best for each of us.

We can do that totally randomly. Or, if you're a dork like me, you can be a bit more strategic about the process, say, like this:

  1. Identify your current Time Crunch Status.
    1. Signs of low Time Crunch Status = not bothering to do the things you want to be doing (e.g., the blogging, going to yoga and cleaning that you mention, Isabel), fatigue, lack of motivation
    2. Signs of high Time Crunch Status = irritability, forgetfulness, exhaustion, missing deadlines, physical ailments like headaches and digestive issues (all sorts of fun!)
    3. Signs of being in the Optimal Time Crunch Zone = You aren't worrying about this issue at all! Things are just flowing.

     

  2. Jot down your Time Crunch Status AND how many hours a day, on average, you currently have "free" (i.e., the hours you get to fully determine what you're doing).
    • Put these notes somewhere you can refer back to them months - or even years - later.

     

  3. If you're not currently in your Optimal Time Crunch Zone, tinker with your Time Crunch Status.
    • For low Time Crunch Status:  try adding a bit more requirements to your day, such as by taking on a volunteer position.
      • Notice I said "adding a BIT more" - I've seen many students take this too far too fast, passing right by the Optimal Time Crunch Zone into danger territory. I must admit I did this at the start of my first few semesters of college:  workload felt so light during the first two or three weeks that I signed up for a ton of activities so that I didn't have so much free time. I'm sure you can imagine what happened to me by midterms. Ugly.
    • For high Time Crunch Status: Uh, yea. This one is difficult and I'm no master here. In theory, we should list everything we have on our plate, prioritize that list based on what each brings into our lives (both extrinsically and intrinsically), and then pare off the bottom items one by one until we hit our Optimal Time Crunch Zone. In practice...uh, yea.
  4. Continue to tweak and keep track until you see your personal pattern emerging. Then you'll know what's too little free time for you - and how many hours is too much!
    • In my experience, this "need for time crunch" remains remarkably stable over time. When I think to my friends from high school, I can think of some people who LOVE to be crunched to an extent I couldn't stand, and others who wouldn't want to endure my pace. Although just about everything else about us has changed in 20 years (good bye frizzy hair!), our individual Optimal Time Crunch Zones haven't moved much at all.

The Scoop on "Laziness"

To return to your initial question, "What's your take on laziness? Is it an epidemic?" I'll start by saying that I don't believe "laziness" is an innate characteristic, per se.

Although Peter from Office Space claims he'd "do nothing" if he never had to work again, I don't believe him. Nobody is that inherently "lazy." All humans have stimulus motives, which make us feel horrendous if we're not stimulated "enough."

Instead, I believe "laziness" arises from a lack of understanding of our Optimal Time Crunch Zone.

And, yes, it's an epidemic. We're a culture so obsessed with being busy, we experience tons of burnout that LOOKS like laziness.

In other words, we operate so far above our Optimal Time Crunch Zone for so long that when we finally get a moment to chill out, our bodies scream for us to STOP. Completely! Then we berate ourselves for not getting anything done.

Pretty ridiculous.

Once we get clear on our Optimal Time Crunch Zone, however, we know precisely how much we need on our plates to feel productive and energized. THEN we can work on breaking the "overly busy/overly tired" cycle by respecting our needs.

The "respect" part is what I'm still very much working on. My strategy? Intentionally spending time around people who operate in their Optimal Time Crunch Zone on a regular basis.

That's the best we can do, I think:  become aware of our patterns, look for healthy models to help us break those patterns, and forgive ourselves when we (inevitably) slip up.

One hour at a time.

Thanks for the great question!

What's your take on time crunch and "laziness"? How do you find the healthy balance between being stressed and being bored?

Do you have a question about work, careers, finding your path in your twenties, identity, or what you should eat for dinner? Wait, not that last one. But if you have any other questions, pop them my way @WorkingSelf or Rebecca@workingself.com. I may not know the answer, but I'll grapple around in my experiences and research to help us puzzle through it together. If your Q is published, I'll send you a free e-coaching session on values!

The Dark Side of Pursuing Meaningful Work: Welcome to Sacrifice City

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I'm a rather upbeat person. A glance at virtually anything I've authored tells that story. That said, I'm also a firm believer in truth, and sometimes "upbeat" and "truth" conflict.

Today is one of those days.

Welcome to your personal tour of Sacrifice City.

A Lifestyle Choice

First, a clarification:  when I encourage the pursuit of meaningful work on this site, I am, in essence, endorsing a lifestyle choice.

The search for and retention of a life filled with purpose and deep life satisfaction isn't some fad diet we pick up and try for 10 days to see if it'll fit. On the contrary, such a life arises from consistent and committed choices made over the course of hard-fought decades.

I wouldn't support this lifestyle if I didn't deeply believe it is worth having. Every single piece of data I can get my hands on - including my summated first person experiences - indicates it's the way to go:

But anything worth having comes with sacrifice.

And right now, I'm feeling it.

Benefits, Meet Cost

Staying true to my upbeat nature, though, let's first consider the benefits I've gained through a commitment to meaningful working - and living. Benefits I believe any of us can reap, if we want to badly enough.

  • Freedom
    • The following questions make me pause long and hard whenever they're answered:
      • Who's your boss?
      • What are your work hours?
      • How many sick and vacation days do you get a year?
      • What's your work phone number? (I honestly have no clue - who the heck uses the phone these days?)
    • Not being able to readily provide a straight answer to those questions = freedom (to me, at least)
  • Autonomy
    • Related to freedom, autonomy goes one step further, into the moment-by-moment decisions of my day. I pick what I want to do when. Some tasks are non-negotiable - like, say, grading papers and exams - but precisely when they get done on a given day is up for grabs.
  • Purpose-driven sense of mission
    • In contrast to the work-structure questions I can't answer, there is one question I can answer without pause:  "Why?"  Ask me why I'm doing just about anything in my life and I have an answer. A personally meaningful, deep-seated answer. That's not for nothing.
  • Concentrated time with my family
    • Researchers find that 100% of respondents say "relationships" create meaning in their lives. 100%! In a society where we can't agree whether we prefer the cookie or the cream in an Oreo, that finding seems pretty compelling. So my husband and I have both made conscious decisions to maximize family time, including taking jobs that give us summers off (and thereby foregoing the many better-paying and potentially satisfying jobs that don't meet this requirement) and choosing to turn down freelance and coaching gigs (athletic for him, career for me) to have late afternoons together year-round.

Good stuff, right? Absolutely. I'd make the same decisions a thousand times over to gain what I'm so fortunate to currently have.

And yet.

Yet there comes the moment of reckoning when you have to look hard in the face at all you've sacrificed to get what you have.

We're talking here, of course, about the ol' four-letter word that always accompanies benefits:  cost.

Meaning or Money?

Without a doubt, the most notable cost for my life's many benefits is money. The big buckaroo. The almighty dollar. The smacking smackaroney.

Wait, that last one didn't make sense.

The point is, there's a whole heck of a lot I'm not going to have in life because I'm so committed to meaningful, purposeful living. And sometimes it makes me downright ill.

At this very moment we're preparing our house to go on the market and searching for a new home in a community with strong schools and highly engaged parents.

Shorthand:  we want to move to a place where a good deal of money is flying around.

Put another way:  we're looking to move where we can't afford to be.

Speaking of which, here's a great way to get acquainted with meaningful working/living costs:  Spend a Sunday afternoon house hunting. Drive by the houses that are too "low-income" to warrant an open house. Step inside the "fixers" you can barely afford. Then torture yourself a bit by visiting a house $100K or so outside of your price range. Before long, "meaning", "freedom", "autonomy" and "family time" become a jumble of nonsense words an infant spews out at the dinner table.

Seriously, as of last night I wanted to take my high-values, eye-on-the-big-picture, creating-a-life-I'll-respect self and shake the bejesus out of her, screaming, "go off and finally accept a fricking job that'll pay you what you're worth and will enable you to afford a house in which you and your kin can stand upright in the bedrooms!"

Man alive!

[Note:  Is this a first world problem? Abso-total-lutely. I get that. I see that. I feel gratitude for that. And now on with my (extremely common) first world crisis.]

We've occasionally touched on money at Working Self in the past - most directly in Money and Happiness: What's the Right Balance? and less so in the recent How to Pursue Creative Passions While Paying the Bills - but I don't write about money often because I honestly don't think about money often. Again, an amazingly fortunate situation, I know.

To be clear, it's not that I don't think about it because I have so much of it - cue the laughing cat there - it's because I don't typically see the value of beyond-basic-needs money.

I learned early on that the best way to stay true to a meaningful lifestyle is to steer clear of commercial traps like, say, the mall, or magazine ads, or, well, just about any public place in our society.

Before you think I'm a major hermit (!), I should clarify that I steer clear mentally. We did visit the mall this weekend, for instance, but I didn't set foot in a single store or browse in a single window. We were there for the food court, the Easter bunny, and the carousel, thank you very much. (And even at that, it would've been much cheaper to stay home.)

Bottomline:  when I don't look at all I'm not able to have, I don't realize what I'm missing. That way the benefits are free to loom large and splendorous in my mind, enabling me to continue to make the tough calls in life, like turning down a ten-thousander in exchange for some quality family time.

The real estate search, however, unavoidably flips this whole approach on its head.

The Final Reel

Why am I bothering to tell you all of this? Truth in advertising.

You need to know what you're choosing when you say, "I want a job that feels meaningful." Or, "I want to create a life I can feel proud of." Or, "I want to make a difference."

What are you willing to sacrifice to have those things? Seriously:  how much are you willing to give?

There is no "half in." You either pick the path ripe with freedom, autonomy and purpose, or you're a slave to the clock and the dollar. (Show me the lucrative, fulfilling part-time job that you can get without sacrificing your morals and I'll change my take on that.)

Bottomline:  we have to be 100% clear on that answer before starting pursuit of a life filled with meaning and life satisfaction, or else our commitment to the path will prove as steady as Russell Brand's commitment to Katy Perry.

Intentionally and actively creating a meaningful life necessitates looking at the whole picture - the entire, un-airbrushed, ugly cracks spidering from the edges sort of picture - and considering whether we've truly got the stomach for it.

Maybe in your case what feels meaningful will also happen to be lucrative. Kudos on your luck, if so.

For most of us, however, the path that picks us can cover the bills (and only after some major strategic tweaking), but it ain't gonna buy us the house we always imagined our children growing up in within the sort of neighborhood where parents invest time and energy into being present and aware.

I trust that my future self won't care about the latter part of that sentence. I trust that she'll review her life and think of the memories made within the walls of the ranch house she never wanted, not the "cozy" square footage encased within those walls. I trust that she'll know she conducted the right cost-benefit analysis for her and her family, and will have great dignity and integrity about her choices.

My current self, though? The one who wants a hit of in-the-moment pleasure now and again?

Quite honestly, she's feeling quite blue.

And that, my friends, is the whole picture.

Photo Credit: DecoDesignCenter.com

Crafting a Rich, Creative (Debt-Free) Life: An Interview with Novelist P.C. Dettman

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Last week we discussed how to pursue creative passions while paying the bills. The best way to truly tackle this topic, though, is to hear from someone who is actively doing it. Enter today's interview!P.C. Dettman is a thirtysomething UK-based fiction writer, software consultant and trainer, blogger, and owner of a business that invests in and advises entertainment industry experts. Not to mention a family man.

In other words, P.C. knows a thing or two about putting food on the table while staying in touch with the creative writing that "found him" when he was 9.

What were the biggest hurdles you had to overcome in your 20s? 

My 20s were a total nightmare, even though I had a good job [as a software consultant based in London] and all that sort of stuff ironed out early.

The nightmare came within a year of starting work, and it was simple really: I didn't want any of this stuff. I mean that I wanted nothing of what had been planned out for me, and it hit me so suddenly, like within 6 months or so, that the whole consultancy model was basically evil, it was flawed, and it wasn't right for me.

But the thing was, and the reason this was a total nightmare, is that I had already decided I was never going to do a standard office job. I worked my summers, and I seriously could only do 12 weeks of that before I was bored and demotivated and almost ill actually. It made me really quite low to think of doing 40 years of that.

So I hit the consultancy thing straight out of college, I have all the grades and friends and money and I'm in London and flying around the world every week and getting paid to do that, and I physically hated it. I really did. My body rejected the hours and the exhaustion, and my mind rejected the whole thing. And I had no idea how I could live another year, by which I mean I had no idea how to earn my living if not like that. I just felt there was nothing available to me that would pay the kind of salary that would impress my friends and family. Crazy!

So how are you paying the bills these days?

I've realised that there is no money in writing novels.

Even people I know who have 'real' book deals with 'proper' publishers can't earn enough to do that full time. Realising this would be a hobby and not a job has taken lots of years. That industry is just so hard to get into, even if you put in the legwork and build up some contacts, that a rational person would not become a full-time author.

Right now, I am trying out a few different things to see what works. The good news is that I have a bit of money put aside if times get really tough. Everything I read about saving money I agree with and happily pass on. You can never save enough money. However much money sounds like a lot to you, it isn't. This is the biggest secret in life: there are no rich people. What do I mean by that? I mean however much you have, you can always spend more, and the more you have, the more you run up outgoings like fancy cars and boats and palaces and that stuff - the more you make, the more you need. So nobody is actually rich. I believe this.

I'm dabbling in some theatre investments in the West End (that's our Broadway) and doing some freelance writing, but that doesn't pay too well either.

My main income in future is likely to be from consulting and training people in the various software tools I've become expert at. For me, training is specifically the thing that manages to combine my writing and talking with computers, and at the same time makes some good money. That gives me time and space to pursue the kind of fun things like novels too.

It is a constant juggling act, I never feel that I totally have it down, and I think that's also good. Challenge and uncertainty keep you fresh, as does adversity. You need to face adversity and come through it, and you will no longer be afraid.

Can you tell us more about how you balance creative writing with making money?

In the early part of my career I totally went towards making money at the expense of my creative work. I saw doing a job as the easy option, the easy short-term money option, and it was, and is. The hard part is stepping back, realising it's not working for you, and then figuring out what to do instead. All of that took around 15 years, believe it or not.

Sometimes having kids is when people realise it's time to get a steady job and settle down, but I did it the other way around. I settled down at 18 to do the safe thing and now I feel it's time to do the right thing, the creative thing, and properly give that a try. I want my daughter to know who I am, and know that it's okay not to do the safe thing.

I'm reading Morrissey's book right now. He says something like a safe life is not living. I agree.

What's your advice for 20-somethings as they pursue meaningful, self-driven work?

Whenever you read advice like this, and it's from someone older than 35, I think you get one of two answers. It's sort of along the lines of well, I did the right things and you should follow me and do your time and get promoted and work in an office and have a pension and paid holidays and you'll be comfortable and happy. That's one type of answer, but it's not mine.

My advice is that people need the courage, and it really is courage, to follow their dreams. If you don't do that, you may get through the next five or ten years and have a nice life with a big house and that stuff, but you won't ever be happy. You'll be comfortable, you won't starve or lose your house, but you won't be alive. Your family and friends will think you're awesome and you'll all feel awesome together, but it's a giant lie.

You need even more courage for this if you had an expensive education and you have a professional family, because the unspoken pressure to conform will be gigantic. The second you take a step off the expected path, you'll face criticism either spoken or not, and the further you stray, the greater the pressure from friends and family. Especially if those people are all doing dull office work! Boy, you're going to need nerves of steel but that's what it takes.

Worst case scenario, you end up following the herd, but you won't starve. Best case scenario is that you'll be happier than your old friends from the days when you just did what other people wanted. To me, that's worth taking a chance.

Any closing thoughts?

If I die knowing that I always held myself to certain standards, no matter what else happened, I will have done the right thing, and I'll hopefully be happier that way. You have to be able to look yourself in the eye, when you look in a mirror. I'm my harshest critic, and you need that skill, but you shouldn't dwell on mistakes. Just roll with them and you'll be fine.

As a writer, people always say everything bad or good is just material, and there is truth in that. Your 20s are about finding out who you are, so that you can become a great person, whether that be a parent or a great leader of business or some political thing.

Whatever it is you're aiming for, you need to know yourself before you can do any of it.

Have a question for P.C.? Pop it in the comments below!

Everything I Need to Know to Work Effectively I Learned in Preschool

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We can create fancy visions of the purposeful work we want to do, but if we can't execute on a day to day basis, our big scheme is worthless. Funny enough, we learned how to do our days right way back in preschool.

How do I know? Because my daughter, K, is there now, and her preschool parent-teacher conference occurred last week. As I read over her teacher's notes (presented in a a beautiful portfolio, no less - call it the annual review for the Lollaloopsie set), I noticed a ton of parallels to what I was reading in Alexandra Levit's book "A Twentysomething's Guide to the Business World:  They Don't Teach Corporate in College."

Levit might be correct that effective work skills are skipped in college...but they're not missed in preschool! Here's a refresher:

1. Express Yourself

In the fall, K's teacher wrote the following goal in her portfolio:  "asserting needs and wants and begin to negotiate conflicts with peers."

Who among us doesn't need that written in our "annual goals" sheet?!

Those of us who are terrific at negotiating conflicts tend to be awful at the other end of the spectrum. Just call us the doormats.

And many of us are excellent at making our needs and wants known, but conflicts boil everywhere we go. i.e., The steamrollers.

Apparently millennials have a reputation as more the latter:

"One of the most common complaints I hear about twenty-something employees is that they think they know everything and don't hesitate to convince others of this at every opportunity." - Alexandra Levit

How to curb that? As K's preschool teacher might say, listen first and then speak second. And when we speak, we should present our full and honest truth without accusing or judging someone else.

K is marked as "still practicing" that skill. How about you?

2. Know What Needs to Get Done

If there's anything K is good at, it's prioritizing.

Sorting plastic eggs into baskets repeatedly? Urgent and important. (Category 1)

Hanging out with her friend Clementine in the reading corner? Non-urgent and important. (Category 2)

Eating dinner because mom is on her back about it? Urgent and non-important. (Category 3)

Watching Thomas the Train? Non-urgent and non-important. (Category 4)

Levit suggests we get as clear as K about categorizing our daily tasks:

"If you're been spending your days running around like a chicken with its head cut off, you are probably spending 90 percent of your time in Categories 1 and 3, and you might have noticed totally irresponsible people who hang out permanently in Category 4. When you master effective time management, you stay out of Category 4 and decrease the time spent in Categories 1 and 3 to allow more time for Category 2." - Alexandra Levit

No wonder K would rather spend time with her little buds than do just about anything else. She's a time management extraordinaire. I could learn a thing or two....

3. Practice Your Manners

Of course we should say "please" and "thank you." That etiquette gets us ahead in any setting.

To take our manners to the next level, though, we need to practice making others feel good about themselves, according to Levit (and K's teachers...)

"Be generous with your compliments, but make sure they're sincere. Empty flattery is, in many ways, worse than criticism. Don't praise every move someone makes, and when you do give a compliment, put substance behind the statement so it's meaningful to the person. The most effective compliments focus on specific actions or facts rather than vague generalities or assumptions." - Alexandra Levit

When was the last time you complimented someone concretely and sincerely? K did it just last night ("Mommy, I like those doggies on your pajamas. They are so cute!").

Hear that? A preschooler is showing you up. Time to get your complimenting on!

4. Communicate Well

Levit encourages twentysomethings to embrace the "C&C rule" of communication:  clear and concise.

Having sat in K's circle time when a child decided to drone on about his trip to visit grandma four months earlier apropos of nothing, I can attest that K's teachers would approve of Levit's rule. ("That's a nice story," one of them said, gently interrupting the boy. "Can you tell it to me later?")

Stated in a way that's appropriate for us adults:

"Whether you're writing a routine email or a quarterly business plan, offer only the necessary information and be prepared to provide supplemental material." - Alexandra Levit

5. Control Your Frustration

We all know the preschool version of poor frustration control. It looks something like a kid screaming and bashing hands while his or her parent tries to melt into the floor. (If you were in the checkout line in a certain Wal-Mart in Maine last Thursday at 6pm and saw a dark-haired girl with her mom, then you know exactly what I mean.)

Alexandra Levit explains that "a key ingredient in frustration is the lack of control that a person perceives for the outcome of their work."  People who believe they control their fate (an internal locus of control) "are more persistent and work longer and harder to get what they need or want," than those who feels like victims of life (an external locus of control).

Put plainly, the internal loci folks effectively manage their frustration.

According to Levit, we can build our frustration tolerance just like we do in preschool:  by consistent exposure to irritating situations.

In other words, that long Wal-Mart checkout line was good for my daughter. And that painfully boring meeting you just sat through? That was good for you.

What did you learn in preschool that you now use (or should use...) in your workplace?

Want more tips? I highly recommend Levit's book. While I've had fun drawing parallels to what we learned WAY back when in preschool, the reality is that she includes information that is essential for workplace success - and that we all too often forget to use.

Photo Credit: woodleywonderworks

How to Pursue Creative Passions While Paying the Bills

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Q:  "What advice would you give to millennials trying to pursue a creative passion in the arts who also need to pay their rent. I'm having a life-crisis trying to figure it out and I think I'm not alone. I expect my passion to become my career but what do I do in the meantime so I'm not racking up debt?" Olive B. Persimmon, @Olivebpersimmon A:  I love this question because it's the story of my twenties.

I wanted to be a fiction writer so I worked extremely hard toward that goal. (The Grand Tally:  10 years; 2 writing groups that met monthly for years on end; 5 week-long writing conferences; 4 weekend writing conference; purchase of enough writing books to currently inhabit 1/10th of a 10 x 20 storage unit; more rejections than I can count; lots of tears; many extraordinary moments of insight).

Following all of THAT, here's my totally subjective advice on making life work when our passion simply won't pay the bills.

1.  Do Not Rack Up Debt

The sentimental image of the starving artist isn't a life I'd suggest. I've known people in this boat; instead of being creatively free, they're too overwhelmed by day-to-day realities to create much of anything.

Instead I used the following formula:

  1. Limit expenses to the bone (monthly budgeting and daily use of cash worked best for me)
  2. Take a job that covers said minimal expenses in the fewest hours necessary (and if it happens to be fulfilling in some way, all the better! Number one consideration:  it must not drain your creative brain)
  3. Use every single free moment to pursue your art. (My typical day:  mornings to create; breakfast and lunch reading or watching artist interviews for inspiration and knowledge; evenings reading masterworks of fiction and/or researching contests and/or putting submission packets together)

I spent years rich on creativity but poor on money, yet without carrying a hair of consumer debt. The stability of work freed me to be fully present for my art.

2.  Learn To Love the Morning

Not a morning person? It may be time to change.

Sure, we can create in the evenings. Late nights work for many people.

That said, I'm a big believer in the age-old advice that if you want to prioritize an activity high, you should do it first thing. When my coaching clients re-order their day in this way, their prized activities suddenly get done. Consistently.

By the evening it's too easy to make excuses. The drag of the day often overpowers the weak willpower that's fighting to get us to sit down in front of the computer or go into the studio. That's human nature, not a character flaw.

So I spent three years diligently waking up at 5am to write fiction. 5am. (Then I got "lazy" and started waking at 6am instead.) Sometimes I felt angry that I "had to" wake up so early, until one day it dawned on me that getting to pursue art in any measure was a genuine luxury. And also that it was my choice to do so.

During my "early rising" period I remarked to a friend:

"By the time I walk in the door of my office, I feel like I've already lived a worthwhile day. Whatever else happens - good or bad - it doesn't matter because I've already had the sort of day I wanted."

Powerful stuff.

3. Treat Your Passion Like Exercise

That said, hard work with no reward can be grating. With a few curse words thrown in.

For all my Grand Tally of fiction work, how many pieces were published?

GOOSE EGG.

Do I find this discouraging? I did then. Often. So my uber-athletic husband encouraged a reframe. His questions went something like this:

  • Q:  Do you enjoy the experience of making your art?
    • [A:  Absolutely. The insights I gain into myself and others while creating are second to no experience in the world]
  • Q:  Do you think what you're gaining from doing the work itself is worthwhile?
    • [A:  Yes, it makes me more open to experiences, much happier on a daily basis, more alive, and more authentic]
  • Q:  Then if you never, ever make a dime off of it, or never have anyone read it, wasn't it worth it in and of itself?
    • [A: <begrudging sigh> Yes.]
  • Reframe:  None of us will ever make money nor have an "audience" from exercising yet many of us do it. It's for the experience of it, not the outcome. You get to decide if this is enough. If it isn't, then stop writing. And don't complain about your choice.

He was darn right.

I do not - in the least - regret spending years developing my creative writing skills with no readily-observable "output." Those were some of my most well-lived years of my existence to date. Rich, full, genuine years.

Besides, I have a LOT of short stories my daughter may get a kick out of when she's grown (imagine being able to read what your mom wrote as a twentysomething?!)

Bottomline:  If you don't like something about the act of creating art - not every day, mind you, because sometimes it's a slog! but on many days - then is it really your passion?

4. Think Hard about Convergence

There comes a point, though, when creating without an audience feels a whole heck of a lot like navel gazing.

That's when it's time to consider what Chris Guillebeau calls "convergence" in his book The $100 Startup.

I detail this concept - and how to find it, step by step - in my guest post on a A Young Pro Does Passion Matter? How to Find Your Dream Job, but in short:

Convergence is “the intersection between something you especially like to do or are good at doing (preferably both) and what other people are also interested in…Not everything that you are passionate about or skilled in is interesting to the rest of the world, and not everything is marketable.” - Chris Guillebeau

If we truly need an audience - and their dollars - to continue our pursuits, then we simply have to consider what the world wants and needs. Not what we wish they would want and need.

5. Get Acquainted with Creative Entrepreneurship

Along those lines, the field of creative entrepreneurship has a ton to say about creating financially sustainable art.

My favorite blog on this topic is The Thriving Creative by actor Steven Sparling (who is now studying for his doctorate in the field!).

6. Don't Kick Yourself If Your Art Changes

As  we move from #3 ("I'm creating art for the act of itself") into #4 and #5 ("I need an audience"), our art tends to change. Drastically.

You don't HAVE to make that move, mind you. You can forever pursue your art on the side of a paying job and live a wonderfully full, meaningful, purposeful life.

By 30, though, I was ready to move on. That meant getting 100% clear on the IMPACT I wanted to make through my writing, rather than being hung up on the TYPE of creating I was doing. I came to recognize that my long-standing goal was to enlighten people's understanding of human development and meaningful living.

Fiction is one way to reach that goal. Writing non-fiction magazine and online articles is another.

I suspect you know what path I chose.

This did not occur altogether consciously nor in an instant. It was a subtle shift - mornings spent on fiction some days, on non-fiction others - until I accepted that the reason none of my fiction was being published was because, quite frankly, I didn't want it to be . It stunk and I knew it, so I shot myself in the foot at every turn.

Non-fiction is my forte. In part because of the decade spent developing the craft of writing. Regardless of genre.

Lo and behold, when we accept our strengths - not what we wish our strengths would be - deep satisfaction...and the money...begins to follow.

A parting mantra:  it's not selling out if you're led by what's inside you.

With best wishes to you in pursuing your art, whatever its end,

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Have a Q for our Wednesday Q&A feature? Email me (Rebecca@WorkingSelf.com) or tweet @WorkingSelf. If your question is chosen for publication, you’ll get a FREE MINI E-COACHING SESSION about values, plus a backlink to your website!

Photo Credit: Thomas Leuthard

Are You Falling Prey to Career Myths?

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Career myths stick in the college population like hand-clapping games stick in primary school. So when my college students drop by my office to talk about "the future" (cue ominous music), the same falsehoods spill out year after year. I certainly can't blame them; I believed these myths myself in my early twenties.

Here's the trick, though:  the sooner we purge our minds of career misunderstandings, the less the ominous music is needed. So let's dispel these bad boys, shall we?

7 Common Career Myths

1. You're about to choose your "forever"

This is far and away the most common myth I encounter. It's usually phrased along the lines of, "But I don't know what I want to do for the rest of my life."

Neither do I! Neither does most anyone I know. How boring would our lives be if we did know what we'd be doing forever?

We don't have good data on just how much career and job change is normative, but it's safe to say that change is the rule rather than the exception.

Skeptical? Then dedicate the coming month to this activity:  ask everyone you encounter how they got to their current career. The stories will likely fascinate and amaze you. Plus make you feel a lot less pressured to figure out "forever" and instead simply choose what's next!

2. Networking is about sharing your resume

When we focus networking efforts on resume sharing, we fail miserably.

Continue reading on Life After College

Is That Legitimate Job Offer a Dream For You...or Too Good to Be True?

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Q:  "I’d love to see you expand no. 7 from 10 Signs a Job Opportunity Isn't the Right Fit ("It Seems Too Good to Be True") to a full post. I associate ‘too good to be true’ with not getting scammed, so in this context, I’m wondering what might be the underlying reasons for it happening, how to diagnose an offer that appears too good to be true, whether that kind of offer might even it be a sign to start looking for a new job." - Vince Skolny, @VinceSkolny A:  So glad you asked. I'm a bit of an expert in accepting "too good to be true" (TGTBT) job offers. Which is not a point of pride, I might add! Hopefully, though, my (many) mistakes can be someone else's gain.

First a note:  there are some obvious job scams out there (hint:  "you can work from home!!!" = not good) but what I want to focus on here are offers that are legitimate. They happen within a solid organization - perhaps the one you already work for - and will pay real money with real benefits, but they're opportunities that come with catches. Often major catches.

Let's tackle your great Q by breaking it into parts.

Why "Too Good to Be True" Offers Occur

When we review the many reasons TGTBT job offers surface, it's a wonder they don't appear in our lives constantly!

  • Cheap Labor - TGTBT job opportunities often float our way when we're young and/or unattached simply because the boss thinks they can get a lot out of us for very little investment. They see our eagerness and capitalize on it - but in a manner that's not in our best interest. Instead, they're offering burnout material:  long hours, low pay, little to no recognition, frustrating working conditions. Which brings us to...
  • Desperation - Nobody wants the burnout jobs. Nobody. Yet the work has to get done somehow. The boss feels so desperate, he or she becomes a salesman putting shiny gold lame on a pile of poo. Someone needs to be talked into doing this burnout, toxic work. If you're ambitious and agreeable, that person just might be you.
  • Need for a Fall Guy - As unfortunate as it may be, some projects are destined to fail soon after they get started. The timeline is too short, there isn't enough budget allocated, the right team isn't in place. Everyone associated with the project knows it's doomed, yet someone from above is adamantly pushing it forward. This is a fall guy scenario. Someone needs to be brought in to carry the load of the unavoidable failure. Inexperienced, enthusiastic, hardworking individuals are the perfect target.
  • Desire for a Quiet Puppet - Some managers desire a new feather in their cap without doing the work it takes to earn that feather. They scour their ranks for the most talented, unassuming, high work ethic individual they can find to do the work. They want to tell you what to do, burn you out, and then take all the credit. TGTBT written all over it.

Signs of a "Too Good to Be True" Opportunity

  • (Respected) Others Said "No" - Here's the huge red flag I've often missed. I now know that when considering a job offer or promotion, it is perfectly acceptable to ask, "Have you offered this to other people?" or "Who else considered (or held...) this position?" The manager may lie, sure, but most bosses will be upfront when asked point blank. If I'd asked this question before accepting a major freelance writing project, I'd have saved myself three years of pain. Four people don't take a job and back out of it suddenly for no reason...
  • You Have to Sign a Contract - Indeed many wonderful, legitimate, career-boosting jobs require a contract. But when the contract reads like an iron-clad purchase of your soul, beware. Regarding my aforementioned awful freelance writing gig, the contract had apparently become increasingly lock-solid because so many people had previously pulled out. By the time I stumbled in, I barely made it out without a high-profile legal team. Lesson learned.
  • Ambiguous Job Description - That piece of paper laying out your responsibilities isn't just an HR requirement, it's your lifeline. If you can't understand what you'll be doing, you're setting yourself up for some potentially uncomfortable days...
  • Unclear Hours for the Pay - ...and nights. There's nothing worse than a job you thought would be 9 to 5 turning into 24-hour on-call, doing emails at 3am, writing reports into the wee hours sort of position. For which you don't see an additional red cent. There is something to be said for working hard, for sure, but TGTBT jobs tend to have high time requirements that remain hidden...until you start.
  • Hourly Pay Rate Seems Too High - Speaking of hours, always calculate the salary being offering compared to the number of hours of work being advertised. What is the hourly rate of pay? If it's out of line with what would be expected for your field and/or your level of experience, rest assured that you're going to be working a lot more hours than advertised. A lot.
  • Uncertain Recognition - Are your efforts going to be recognized in some way? Or will you remain a hidden member of the team? If the latter, consider hard whether this position is a necessary rung on the ladder (which it may very well be) or a situation in which you'll get unnecessarily used.
  • Only the Positives Are Discussed - When your boss goes into salesperson mode, beware. Every promotion or job should be presented in a balanced way, with full indication of all the benefits to doing the work - along with the potential challenges. If the offer is not presented this way, something may be amiss. Particularly run for the hills if, when you mention the potential difficulties you foresee from the setup, the boss brushes them or - worse - laughs. (Yup, I've had potential bosses do both.)
  • Management of Difficult People - I also seem to be fodder for these sorts of TGTBT jobs. A manager has a group of people that no one can seem to handle and who don't do their jobs and instead of firing them, they come to me and present some beautiful job title, asking me to take on this unruly team. Uh, no.
  • Climbing Too High Too Fast - I mentioned in the "10 signs" post that unearned opportunities are a red flag. This sign bears repeating (again and again and again) because we are so likely to be honored and excited when "big breaks" come our way early in our career that we fail to ask WHY they are appearing. Sometimes we can climb fast. More often, though, there's something up.
  • Success Doesn't Seem Possible - As discussed in the previous section, fall guys do get set up. We don't want to be pessimistic, but a healthy dose of realism is in order before accepting any position. Projects simply do not succeed without proper budgets, teams, timelines and goals in place - or at least available to be put in place.
  • Comes From Someone Who Has Never Seemed to Like You - An even bigger red flag that you're going to take the fall is when a promotion comes from someone with whom you've frequently locked horns. We want to avoid paranoia, of course, but trust your gut on this one. If you someone who used to glare at you is suddenly giving you the saccharine sales pitch, what do you think is really going on?

Is It Time to Look for a New Job?

If a TGTBT promotion - or a series of them - appears in your life, that doesn't necessarily mean there is anything wrong with the organization for which you work. (It may, though, be an indicator that it's time to look deeper at the company's practices and goals!)

It is possible that your particular manager may not be highly effective, or may not be the sort of person you want to work for.

That said, if your job isn't toxic, then TGTBT opportunities in and of themselves are not cause to leave a job. In fact, your organization or manager might just be hyper-zealous about making good use of you, resulting in a scattershot pattern of offers (some terrific, some awful).

No matter what, though, encountering a sequence of TGTBT offers ARE cause to get clearer about your values, goals, and sense of purpose. And to develop your assertiveness skills so you can say "no" gracefully while building the life you actually want.

To accepting only the best offers,

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Have a Q for our Wednesday Q&A feature? Email me (Rebecca@WorkingSelf.com) or tweet @WorkingSelf. If your question is chosen for publication, you’ll get a FREE MINI E-COACHING SESSION about values, plus a backlink to your website!

Have you ever accepted a "too good to be true" job offer? If so, what were the red flags (in retrospect!)?

Photo Credit: *spo0ky*

5 Steps to Turning Down a Promotion Strategically

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How should we proceed when we realize a promotion isn't right for us? (See my recent post "10 Signs a Job Opportunity Isn't the Right Fit" for help determining that.) Ideally, we turn down the promotion in a manner that's not only graceful but advantageous.

The goal is to have our boss say something like:  "I have even more respect for you now than before we began talking."

If we're serious about crafting meaningful work, we need to say no a lot. A lot.

We'd better get good at doing it.

1. Act Like a Consultant

When a boss is laying a promotion on the table, he or she is actually looking to solve a problem. The problem may be straightforward (someone left an existing, necessary position) or more complex (an emerging need has arisen).

If the problem is the former, skip ahead to the next step.

If it's the latter, it's our big chance to act like a consultant. The boss is tapping us for the newly-created position because he or she thinks we have the unique set of skills, insights and connections to fill the emerging need.

In fact, we may be the only person in the organization highly suited to meet this need.

That can put us in a tough spot:  if we say no, are we letting the organization down? Worse yet, will we be seen as an anti-team player?

If we simply say "no" and walk away, then both may be true.

Instead, we need to make time - hours even - to break down the emerging need and think about various ways to address the situation. The proffered promotion is only one possible solution.

Once we have many possible approaches on the table, we can consider whether any of them DOES fit us. In other words, is there a solution to this problem that we want to provide? The promotion might not be the right choice, but some other configuration (e.g., a subtle shift in workload across many people) may be the perfect step on our path to our ideal job.

When we bring our proposed solution to the boss, we may get brushed off. That's OK. The effort we took to try to find a solution instead of simply saying a flat-out "no" will almost always be appreciated. Sometimes deeply.

2. Look at Your Colleagues Through Boss's Eyes

Similarly, one way we can help to solve our boss's problem is to offer concrete suggestions for who he or she might tap next for the promotion (or for portions of our re-engineered solution).

When I need to turn down a promotion, I spend a few days privately vetting my colleagues. I think through what they have to offer, the ways in which they are being underutilized, and - perhaps most importantly - my knowledge of their goals and sense of purpose, information bosses typically haven't accessed.

It can be highly fulfilling to help a colleague's star rise in the direction that person highly desires.

Bottomline:  what's a poor fit for us is a dream job for someone else.

Share the wealth.

3. Discuss Your Strengths and Goals

How often do we get to sit before our boss and lay out our strengths, goals and sense of purpose? Ideally that happens at every annual review, but in my experience, it so doesn't.

When the boss is eagerly awaiting our acceptance of a promotion, though, we have a captive audience before us. We want to be succinct, to be sure - this isn't the moment to unleash our life story! - but we also are due a moment of "here's the lead in to my answer."

One obvious danger in turning down a promotion is coming across like we don't care or are not ambitious. There's nothing worth than appearing to be stagnating water.

Talking strengths and goals is the antidote. Lay out your truth...as long as it aligns with the organization's general mission and your continued existence in the company (i.e., this also isn't the moment to announce your dreams of entrepreneurship).

For instance, in a recent promotion turn-down situation I said, "I genuinely care about X. I have been working on that topic for five years and it's what drives me. While I could do the position you're offering well, I would never be driven to do it exceptionally since it is not about X."

Thankfully "X" is a priority to my organization, just a different priority than the one targeted in the promotion. The boss respected my honesty and seemed to appreciate the opportunity to gain insight into how to make best use of me. Any good leader would want that knowledge about his or her star players (and if you're being offered a promotion, yup, you're a star).

4. Demonstrate Your Values

Similarly, if you're clear on your values, don't be afraid to show them.

I spent years turning down opportunities explicitly to spend time with my young daughter. Some people may have judged or discounted me for that, but I was so sure about my values that their thoughts honestly didn't matter to me.

Even better, the people whose values did resonate with mine drew closer to me. By being upfront about why I was making decisions, I gained valuable and loyal allies in my organization, including some administrators who'd made similar choices - or, interestingly, wished they had.

Is it risky to let your values surface?

Perhaps. But I've always found the pay off to be well worth it.

Being known as someone who is principled and authentic tends to be respected across the board, even by people with a very different value set.

5. Display Deep Gratitude

Finally and probably most obviously, turning down a promotion is the prime time to show deep and genuine humility.

Recognize what the boss sees in you, accept it (i.e., don't brush it off or think yourself unworthy), and say thank you.

Someone saw us. That is, in essence, what a promotion offer actually is:  a boss's moment of saying "I know you're there. I see what you're doing. I appreciate your talents."

Being seen is the greatest gift one human being can give to another.

So no matter what else we say or do, we need to let the gift giver know that we appreciate the gesture and will truly carry it with us. Down our chosen, meaningful path.

Photo Credit: swisscan

What steps would you add to this list?

First HuffPo Piece = SMART Goal-Setting Come True

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We made it on Huffington Post!  "Forget Work-Life Balance - Aim for Blend Instead" I set the goal to publish on HuffPo way back on January 2, 2013 - a couple of weeks before the first iteration of this site went live. This definitely seems like a good example of creating a "SMART" goal:

Specific:  Huffington Post publication

Measurable:  Building credibility toward that goal through guest posts on increasingly established sites

Attainable:  While I wasn't ready in January 2013 as a brand new blogger, I trusted I had the skill set and the resolve for this to be an attainable goal, when the time was right

Relevant: Being published on HuffPo isn't really about that publication - it's about being able to reach more people with my passionate belief that meaningful work is worth working toward, and can be found!

Time-Bound: I honestly didn't do this part in any formal manner, although I'd privately hoped to be on HuffPo within two years.

Hope you enjoy the HuffPo post (you may recognize it from the past) and it inspires you to share and/or comment.

More importantly, though, what's the SMART goal you're going to set today? You never know, in 14 months it might just come true! :)

Making the Most of the 20s, Pressure Free

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Q:  "In a recent newsletter you mentioned the work of Dr. Meg Jay and the importance of using your 20s to best advantage. I was wondering how an early-20s individual like myself can balance the pressure to achieve before 30 and the worry about delaying life after 30. I would love to hear your personal reflections on how you navigated these achieve/delay tensions, and what you would recommend for those still trapped (as Erik Erikson said) in 'disengaged confusion.'"  - Maria Legault, @legault_maria A: Since you asked specifically for "personal reflections," let me start by saying that I'm no poster child for living the 20s "right"! I wish!

There's a reason I enjoy arguing against societal pressure to achieve before 30, like I did on HuffPost Live last week:  it's precisely because I let that very pressure define much of my 20s existence.

I always felt like I wouldn't be "good enough" if accolades and other external measures of success arrived after the big 3-0 marker. In other words, I believed that 1/8th of my adult life was somehow more valuable than the other 7/8ths of it. (Crazy, no?)

Once I passed the 30 "deadline," though, I finally began to truly live my purpose because I was no longer afraid of failing. It was like, "well, I missed that 30 goal so I may as well throw caution to the wind and start trying crazy things out." Which, it turns out, is exactly the sort of attitude that makes great things happen.

Finding the Sweet Spot

Had I lived differently, though, what would have been ideal?

Well, I picture the pressure to achieve RIGHT NOW and the feeling that life can wait until 30 as two ends of the same continuum, as shown above.

Meg Jay argues heatedly against waiting until 30 to start living. I argue heatedly against feeling like you need to achieve before 30. Do we disagree with one another?

Yes and no.

I do think that, taken literally, Jay's argument can create the very pressure that will undermine what she most wants to see happen in 20something lives. Like in my case, a pressure cooker feeling of "oh no, time is slipping by!" doesn't typically make us move faster. It paralyzes us.

Which leads me to one of my major beefs with Jay's approach:  the vast majority of twentysomethings I encounter are not "wasting their 20s" because they are think life can wait until 30. They're being inefficient precisely because they're scared to death that they're not doing enough with their lives fast enough.

That's why I advocate for taking the pressure off.

Here's the major caveat, though:  I believe in taking the pressure off WHILE reflecting WHILE taking intentional action WHILE being mindful of glimpses of purpose whenever they arise WHILE finding your internal compass WHILE quieting the voices around you WHILE engaging in a life filled with active trial and error.

Life is a creative process.

Given that time pressure is negatively related to creative cognitive processing, the more stressed we feel, the less we'll be able to construct fulfilling lives for ourselves.

So we must structure our days like productive artists:  By finding some method for shutting out external deadlines, but still showing up to the canvas or the blank page every day. Every day.

While feeling no pressure to put any particular thing on it.

Only You Can Judge Success

Speaking of squashing creativity, classic research by Teresa Amabile points to another divergent thought killer:  external evaluation.

If life is a creative enterprise which we each undertake in our own idiosyncratic way, the goal is not "succeeding" by some external standard before an externally-imposed deadline.

Instead the goal is making the most of each day set before us by living our life that is grounded in equal parts reflection AND action.

A number of commenters around the blogosphere have remarked that Jay's TED talk and book, The Defining Decade, are great for people who desire a traditional lifestyle - straight-arrow career, marriage, home, kids - but off the mark for people who want to live more unique lives.

I completely agree. Honestly, her book would've messed me up big time had I read it in my 20s. She advocates for a life I didn't - and still don't - want. A perfectly good life, mind you, but not mine.

So another key way to balance the pressure to succeed before 30 with the concern that we'll wait until 30 to start building a life is by living like no one is watching. Now and every day, regardless of the age we happen to be at the time.

And the secret is, nobody is actually watching. It may feel like they are, but that's a relic of adolescent thinking that will fade by the late 20s thanks to cognitive development. That may be why we get unstuck in our 30s and beyond:  because we're finally free from the constraints of "others" that have dominated our adult lives to date.

Putting it All Together

No need to wait for your brain to mature, though.

You can act like an artist and create the life you want right now by:

  1. Taking the four steps to reducing social comparisons
  2. Finding your honest hour and using it
  3. Setting an anniversary date during which you actively make change for the coming year
  4. Soaking up past, present and future simultaneously

And don't forget to disregard "under 30" lists as you go!

Happy journeys,

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Have a Q for our new Wednesday Q&A feature? Email it to me at Rebecca@WorkingSelf.com or tweet me @WorkingSelf. If your question is chosen for publication, you'll get a free mini-e-coaching session with me about values PLUS a backlink to your website!

Now what do you think? What are you doing - or have you done - to make the most of your 20s?

10 Signs a Job Opportunity Isn't the Right Fit

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We face countless job opportunities throughout our lives, whether they be in the form of new positions, promotions, or side hustles. The trick to creating a life filled with meaningful work is knowing which opportunities to accept - and which to reject. During the past month, I've been mulling over an opportunity that, despite being a poor fit, was hard to let go. As I reflected on the (many) times I've said "yes" to opportunities that deserved a "no" - and then paid the price in the form of diminished well-being and less work fulfillment - I began to compile a "list to self" to help guide my future decisions.

When it was complete, I realized the list might be worth sharing. So here it is:  my 10 time-tested signs of a job opportunity that needs to be turned down.

1. Your first reaction was negative.

We know whether we want an opportunity within five seconds of hearing about it.

Did news of the opportunity feel like a punch in the gut or a lift toward the heavens? Did your mind scream, "oh no!" or a joyful "Are you kidding?! Me?!" Did you want to run away or run and tell your neighbors?

These snap judgments aren't throwaways; they're our real thoughts and feelings, as Malcolm Gladwell argued persuasively in Blink:  The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Just because we can't put the reaction into words doesn't mean it's worthless. In face, this unspoken quality may mean the feedback is even more valuable.

2.  The opportunity feels heady.

The first thing I thought when I entered the gorgeous atrium where my prospective teaching job would be housed was, "Whoa, this is heady." I had the exact same reaction five years later when I walked into the marbled lobby of the publisher who I was considering contracting for.

In both cases I said "yes" to the opportunities.

In both cases I deeply regretted it a few months later.

Heady is just like the buzz of alcohol:  it wears off. Rather quickly.

The status or power or pay or physical setting may feel intoxicating. But when the real work begins, we're left with little more than a hangover.

3. Success will hinge on your less-developed abilities.

It's terrific to want to develop ourselves and take on "challenges." I'm all for that; we'd stagnate otherwise.

That said, success in a position must rest primarily upon our strengths in order for us to feel content and like the work is feasible.

In other words, it's fine to take an opportunity that will cultivate a number of our underdeveloped abilities, so long as the key ability is our ace in the hole. Choose otherwise and we're setting ourselves up for misery - and failure.

4. The opportunity may make you re-prioritize your values.

The best time to get in touch with our values is when life is calm and stable between opportunities.

Once an offer's on the table, all sense of values tend to go flying out the door.

That's because we humans tend to be awfully good at convincing ourselves that a promotion or job offer is great for us, whether due to fear, excitement, or people pleasing. "I don't really care about evenings with my husband that much," a friend once after she'd been offered a promotion that would require longer hours. This was the same person who, a month earlier, had been waxing poetic about the grounded feeling her hubby provided, and how much she needed that touchstone on a daily basis.

So the battle here is three-fold:

1) Getting to know our values - and their priority level - when no opportunities are on the table.

AND

2) Being realistic about the ways in which a new opportunity may threaten those values.

AND

2) Staying true to that prioritized value list, whatever the job cost may be.

5. Saying "yes" is solely about the paycheck.

Speaking of cost, often the expense of saying "no" to an opportunity is quite literal.

Yes, we all could use more money. We all could think of great ways to spend an extra few thousand or more. Some of us may even need the money to simply stay off of debt collectors' speed dial.

I get this. I honestly do. (In fact, I started this blog a year ago because I so deeply understood this point.)

That said, we need to be clear not only about our fiscal budget, but about our happiness budget. If the opportunity threatens to bankrupt our sense of well-being, it may not be worth the gained income.

In sum, I've turned down opportunities worth at least the cost of my college tuition. Making these decisions felt a lot like band-aid ripping:  painful in the moment, but then I was so glad they were gone.

6. Physical symptoms have appeared since the opportunity arose.

While considering the opportunity recently laid before me, the stomachaches that plagued my childhood suddenly reappeared, I began waking up at 4am unable to fall back asleep, and I emerged from meetings about the opportunity with headaches that felt eerily similar to concussions.

Granted, I may somaticize more than the bulk of the population - we INFs on the Myers-Briggs scale often do - but we all tend to experience some physical signs when we're going astray, however minor those symptoms may be.

Pay attention to them.

Think about it:  if we're feeling ill just thinking about saying "yes," imagine how we'll feel when we're actually doing the work.

7. It seems too good to be true.

Ah yes, the "there must be a catch" phenomenon.

What holds in life holds at work.

If the opportunity looks way too good and feels slightly unearned - e.g., a promotion well beyond what would be expected for this point in your career, a job whose high pay that doesn't add up to the low hourly requirement, a change that elevates you from managing no one to 300 people  - it may be time to move on.

Sure, some great-looking opportunities actually are. But have you gotten your Publisher's Clearinghouse check in the mail yet? Didn't think so.

8. "Everyone" says you "should" take it.

The cardinal rule of creating meaningful work:  beware of "everyone."

Collective tends to be too hung up on extrinsic rewards and status updates to be helpful.

The antidote:  1) identifying the people that get us on a deep level, and 2) only listening to them when we're in decision-making mode.

In fact, I find it helpful to not tell anyone outside my (very tiny) personal board of directors that I'm even considering an opportunity. If friends and family don't even know I'm making a decision, they don't have a chance to weigh in. Problem of hearing from "everyone" solved!

9. The opportunity came to you, not vice versa.

Some amazing opportunities simply fall into our laps. There is no denying that.

Some absolutely cruddy ones do, too.

One of my prospective coaching clients described the latter as "being derailed by opportunities."

The ratio of amazing to cruddy for opportunities that come to me is about 1:20.  The ratio of amazing to cruddy for opportunities that I actively seek out or create is about 1:2.

When opportunities have made their way to us, there's a larger chance that they aren't aligned with what we actually want and need out of life. Instead, they often represent what someone else wants and needs - that they think they can get through use of our talents and skills.

An honor? Yes.

Right for us? Absolutely not.

(Sarah Bareilles' King of Anything is a perfect fit here.)

My mom always warned, "Throughout your life, people are going to see your potential and want to use it to suit their own purposes." Mom knows best.

10. You won't be living your sense of purpose.

Speaking of purposes, if we are to stand any chance of knowing when to green light an opportunity versus when to deep-six one, we need to know what we're heading toward.

Sure "purpose" is no small thing, and it can feel like an overwhelming entity to know.

We'll be breaking purpose down in the weeks ahead, but for now what it boils down to is rather simple:  What makes you feel fired up? What makes you feel "well used"? What makes you feel like you're building a legacy of which you can be proud?

If the opportunity doesn't involve any or all of those things, then forget it.

A superior opportunity will eventually come along. Or, better yet, we'll create it for ourselves.

What did I miss? What would you add to the list, based on your experiences of choosing well...or poorly?!

Photo Credit: Daniel Kulinski

The Key to Meaningful Work: Your Honest Hour

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If you want to find meaningful work, you need to know when your "Honest Hour" occurs. As we've mentioned in the past, work's only meaningful when it has genuine significance to ourselves.

In other words, it must be freely chosen. By you.

Which means that all those voices in your head - your mom making an off-hand comment about artists being unable to afford the clothes they sleep in? Your dad saying that the true value of a person lies in her ability to support herself? Your "friends" on Facebook trumpeting their latest status coup?

They have to go. Like, now.

The best way I've found to quiet the Voices is by taking advantage of your Honest Hour:  the brief moment each day when the Voices have duct tape across their mouths and you can finally - finally! - hear your inner melody.

How to Identify Your Honest Hour

The timing of the Honest Hour varies from person to person.

Mine starts at 6am. (It's a taskmaster, I tell you!) If I sleep in a bit, the Voices - including that faceless beast "everyone" - wake up and start screaming at me. Then I can't have a true thought to save my life.

On the contrary, many of my career coaching clients' honest hours occur right before falling asleep.

A few others enter it somewhere around our natural siesta time:  about 3pm or so.

Importantly, though, whenever the Honest Hour happens to fall, we must enter it naturally for it to be worth anything. Sure it's tempting to reach for alcohol or some other substance to make the Voices quiet down and our "truth" come out, but that kind of "truth" is just falsity layered upon falsity.

We want to hear the real you, not the buzzed you.

So how do you discover your Honest Hour? Here's the 3-step process I've developed over the years:

  1. Brainstorm your possible Honest Hours. Think of all the times when you might spill the contents of your deepest secrets to your best friend. Or, even better, to a relative stranger! In other words, when does your facade come off and your truth slip out? Write down all the possibilities you can think of. (Note:  you can "cheat" and use the three times I've found to be most common - immediately in the morning, right before falling asleep, and 3pm-ish - but be sure to wrack your brain to take your own idiosyncratic ways into account).
  2. Prioritize your brainstormed list. Which of the times that you've listed seems most likely to elicit honesty? Which comes next? And so on.
  3. Test one potential Honest Hour a day, using the following instructions:

    1. Sit down at the first Honest Hour you have listed. On top of a sheet of paper, write the Honest Hour you're attempting. Below it, write a response to the first prompt below. (Note:  the goal is to trick your rational mind into not engaging, so do NOT read all the prompts and then carefully choose one. Simply do them in order!)
    2. Let the words flow out as long as they will. Aim for at least a page long hand. And YES, long hand is key, as Julia Cameron of The Artist's Way fame would agree. The Voices lurk in electronic devices and get tempted by typing in any way, shape, or form. Once you've become practiced at shoving the Voices aside, you can return to the computer or tablet. For now, hand cramp it is!
    3. Here's the important test portion:  When a Voice appears - e.g., it says in response to something you've written "There's no way you could do that!" - make a little check mark above where it intruded. Then ignore the Voice and keep writing.
    4. Repeat this exercise every day at a different potential Honest Hour.
    5. After you've tried them all, compare both the length of  your responses AND how many checks appear on each page. The paper with the longest response and the least checks is the winner:  you've found your Honest Hour!

Rules for Entering the Honest Hour

Don't celebrate just yet, though. There's a bit more work to do.

In my experience, the Honest Hour tends to be a slippery little thing. If I don't enter it just right, I can't access it at all.

To top it off, many days it doesn't even last a full hour. Little stinker!

I take what I can get, though, and have found strategies to enter and preserve my Honest Hour.

The following are my personal rules. To develop your own, you'll need to summon up some good ol' trial and error (a lot of error, if you're anything like me!).

  1. Do not check email, social media or your phone before sitting down to honesty. Believe me, I've tested this theory about a hundred times. I wake up, think to myself, "I'll just quickly pop on email - I won't respond to anything, I'll just read them," and then find the Voices flooding my mind before I know what's happened. (I almost did it this morning, in fact!) Quieting the Voices takes a great deal of resolve. May the force be with you.
  2. Talk as little as possible before sitting down to honesty. My husband understands that I'm a mute in the morning. I can say "hi" and "how'd you sleep?" but I won't entertain questions about the day ahead, nor have any in-depth discussions. Anything that requires rational thought serves as a gong over the bed of the Voices. Don't ring it.
  3. Hide your to-do list well before entering your Honest Hour. I'm not being figurative here. Literally HIDE your to-do list. If you're anything like me, the mere sight of that monstrosity will set your rational mind ablaze. You'll soon be so hung up in "but I really need to [insert a task that seems important in the moment but actually isn't in relation to the meaning of your life]" that you won't have an ounce of honesty to spare.

How to Use Your Honest Hour

Given how recalcitrant the Honest Hour tends to be, is it really worth working so hard to find and preserve it?

In a word:  yes.

In two words:  totally yes.

In three words:  absolutely freaking yes.

I wouldn't have half the satisfying working life I do if not for my Honest Hour.

Because once we've found our Honest Hour, we can use it to sink our teeth into identifying and pursuing meaningful work.

It's the time to sit down and do introspective exercises (like the many that will be coming right here in the coming weeks!)

It's the time to dream up plans for next steps.

It's the time to trick ourselves into feeling courageous enough to take those steps.

The Honest Hour is where your truth lies. Get well acquainted with it. It's fabulous - even if it does fall at 6am!

Honest Hour Prompts

  • What would you be doing with your life if no one were watching?
  • Describe an ideal work day 10 years from now.
  • What work would you be doing if the emotion "fear" were alien to you?
  • When you die, what sorts of feelings and understandings do you want to have imparted to others through your work?
  • What's the most important work a person can do? Why?

I want to know if my 3-part strategy for finding an Honest Hour works for you...and what needs tweaking!

After you've tried the system out, please write a comment here, or email me at rebecca@workingself.com. I'll send an exclusive Working Self self-reflective worksheet to everyone who shares their experience - plus I may feature a response as a case study right here on the interweb (with your permission, of course!)

Photo Credit: charliebarker

Hiding From Our Life's Work Behind Our Careers

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Is your career helping you do your life's work - or standing in the way? Steven Pressfield poses this question - among many others - in his book Turning Pro. He claims that many of us have "shadow careers":

"Sometimes, when we're terrified of embracing our true calling, we'll pursue a shadow career instead. That shadow career is a metaphor for our real career. Its shape is similar, its  contours feel tantalizingly the same. But a shadow career entails no real risk. If we fail at a shadow career, the consequences are meaningless to us." - Steven Pressfield

When I read that passage, my mind screamed YES! I'd never have been able to put it into words, but Pressfield's description matches something I've witnessed - and experienced - time and again.

The tricky thing about shadow careers is that they look productive. We can easily convince ourselves and others that we are doing something with our lives, that we are pursuing something important, that we are attempting to making a life worth living.

All the while, though, we know deep down that it's just a ruse. We're taking the easy path - even if the career itself is excruciatingly difficult.

For while we may be doing work that is meaningful to somebody, it's not actually meaningful to ourselves. And as we've talked about in the past, the "meaningful to the self" piece is what actually matters to our well-being.

My Shadow Career

I "get" shadow careers not only because I've seen countless career coaching clients and alumni in them, but because I jumped whole-heartedly into one myself.

I recklessly launched myself into a PhD program straight out of undergrad to create a sense of productivity...and to run from my true desires to build a creative, entrepreneurial life.

I was a stress addict at the time; stress made me physically ill and miserable, but I didn't know how to live without it. What better way to escape what I feared most - living a self-driven, inventive life I'd imagine - than by plunging headlong into my addiction?

I did exactly what Pressfield says:

"Sometimes the reason we choose these [shadow] careers (consciously or unconsciously) is to produce incapacity. Resistance is diabolical. It can harness our drive for greatness and our instinct for professionalism and yoke them, instead, to a shadow profession, whose demands will keep us from turning our energies toward their true course.

Sometimes it's easier to be a professional in a shadow career than it is to turn pro in our real calling." - Steven Pressfield

Time is of the Essence

The good news is that once we recognize our own attempts to hide from our life's work, we can start to make change. For me, that came on the day I broke down from the stress of a statistics final exam - and finally realized that I was sick of being stressed out about tasks and assignments I didn't care one iota about.

Luckily I was only 23 at the time.

I firmly believe that the twenties are when we can most easily make a change and set a healthy course for our lives, a claim Meg Jay has popularized recently.

Pressfield seems to agree, writing:

"The shadow life...is not benign. The longer we cleave to this life, the farther we drift from our true purpose, and the harder it becomes for us to rally the courage to go back." - Steven Pressfield

Hope is never lost, of course, but it typically takes twice as long to uncover the genuine desires of the fortysomethings I coach compared to the twentysomethings.

The younger we are, the less we've poured into our shadow careers and all the delusions that necessarily accompany it - the self-talk claiming, "maybe this is what I always wanted out of life," and "I might not love this work, but I could grow to love it, so I just need to keep giving it time" and, worst of all, "I was just an idealistic child when I wanted to do my dream job; now I'm an adult who needs to be serious about my work."

Make change before you've buried yourself so far beneath your shadow career deception that you can't manage your way to the sunlight, even if you thought to try.

How to Discard a Shadow Career

So if we need to make change, how can we do it?

Here's the advice from Turning Pro:

"If you're dissatisfied with your current life, ask yourself what your current life is a metaphor for. That metaphor will point you toward your true calling." - Steven Pressfield

As examples of metaphors, Pressfield points to a person working on a Ph.D. in Elizabethan studies because she's afraid of writing her own plays, or someone working in a support capacity for an innovator that he secretly wishes he could be himself.

In my life, my shadow career closely approximated my genuine desires to support human development through writing and one-on-one work. I was writing (research papers). I was working one-on-one (with students). That I wasn't actually writing anything creative - anything that was truly mine - or wasn't building a client base all my own? Small differences.

Except they weren't small. They were huge. Ginormous. Gargantuan.

They were the difference between feeling I was living my purpose and feeling like I was merely existing. The difference between flourishing and languishing. The difference between joy and suffering.

Getting clear on the impact we want to make on the world can help us find the metaphor in our shadow career, and then, bit by bit, one delusion at a time, we can break free from it.

Have you had a shadow career? If so, how did you break free?

(Note:  In the coming weeks, I'll be unveiling my strategies for uncovering your desired impact. I'm determined to help you make your shadow career a thing of the past - one component at a time!)

Photo credit: kevin dooley

How to Find a Mentor

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How to find a mentor is the topic of my hot-off-the-headset podcast interview on Stacking Benjamins, a high-energy, humor-filled show about earning, spending and saving. We discuss:

  • What's the cost of NOT having a mentor?
  • Can books be mentors?
  • What's in it for the mentor?
  • How should you go about asking someone to mentor you?

And much more (including dogs-playing-pool basement decor; ya know, why not?)

PLUS, during the interview I offer a deal on my career coaching services (a $200 value!), so listen through to the end and then fill out an "interest" form if you want to snag one of the two coaching spots I have left!

Do you have a mentor? If so, how did you find him or her? What advice would you give others about finding one for themselves?

My Favorite Career Advice (and Its Surprising Source)

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I've spent the past decade fairly obsessed with questions of career and work. It would seem reasonable, then, that my favorite career advice I ever ran across would come from some learned source.

A psychology study, perhaps. Or What Color Is Your Parachute? Or maybe even Oprah.

Try none of the above. Not even close.

I've spent years sharing this incredible career advice, but avoiding telling its source. Today I finally come clean.

The Best Career Advice Ever

Before I reveal the secret source (and, no, it wasn't actually a fortune cookie. Nor a bubblegum wrapper. But you're getting warm...), let me first share the advice, as told to me:

You keep looking for the next exciting thing.

You think when you've found "it," it'll feel constantly thrilling and exciting and will always keep surprising you.

The truth is, the RIGHT thing feels more like relaxing into your favorite easy chair than strapping onto a roller coaster.

You think you should feel some sort of tap-tap-tap, reminding you it's there.

In fact, when it's RIGHT, you'll almost forget its presence because it's so consistent it can be easily overlooked.

Trust that the right thing is there when it is, and know that it's precisely what you need.

Why I Love This Advice

This advice saved my sanity, in more ways than one.

First, it was dead on:  I did think the perfect career would feel like an adrenaline rush. Hearing otherwise was a head spinner.

Second, it reminds me to be grateful for what I currently have rather than always searching for its replacement.

Third, it made me feel like I could finally - finally! - get off our societal treadmill of "what's next? what's new" and just be. Not be complacent, mind you, but be present and aware and fully, refreshingly engaged.

I've told this advice to countless career coaching clients and college students and the reaction is either total puzzlement - what is up with you? - or complete and utter relief. When it's the latter, I know we're making progress.

The reality is that to create meaningful work, you can't spend all your time and energy searching for "next." While sometimes "next" is completely necessary - especially when "now" has morphed into toxic city - more often than not, we're searching for "next" out of a knee jerk response rather than a genuine need.

I often meet people who have "pretty good" in their hands. Instead of looking to tweak and improve that "pretty good" into "amazing," basing their subtle and gradual changes on knowledge of their values, preferred skills, and favored environments, they want to toss it all and start over.

There must be something more is the common refrain.

The true - and comforting - answer is that "more" comes as you focus on the impact you want to make, and then make changes to more effectively create that impact.

A sexy answer? Uh uh.

But it's honest.

And such an amazing relief.

Secret #1

So now that you've heard the advice - and my testimonial for it! - allow me to let you in on a couple of secrets.

The first secret is that this advice wasn't intended to be about career at all.

In fact, it was told to a nineteen-year-old version of myself.

What do teenagers tend to be preoccupied by? Yup, love.

This was advice about my love life. And let me tell you, my now-husband is grateful I received it; he was the "easy chair" boyfriend I was overlooking at the time.

Secret #2

Now, the source, which I've kept neatly hidden every time I've shared this favorite bit of advice.

Keep in mind that I was nineteen and a college freshman, so go easy on me.

My favorite career advice came from...a psychic.

Yuppers.

What Do We Take Away?

The moral of the story is, don't consult a career coach when you're having rough times, just consult a psychic.

Oh wait, that's not the moral.

The moral is that we tend to try too hard to create a fairytale career love match when no one actually has that.

The search for that thrilling end state - which doesn't exist - can make us feel overwhelmed, confused, and disillusioned.

Take me for instance:  I love my work. Ridiculously so. My work feeds me, makes me feel like I'm living my purpose, and, on more occasions than I'd like to admit, sends me back for Round #2 of deodorant.

Even still, my work is more like relaxing into an easy chair than riding on a roller coaster.

Thank goodness I recognized the gentle arm of the chair pushing against me, and continue to recognize it still. It's the best anticlimactic climax I've ever experienced.

Now I want to hear from you:  What's your favorite career - or life - advice? (And where did yours come from?!)

 

Photo Credit: C.P.Storm