“What I now think is, I will work my whole life. It will be rich, meaningful, purposeful work that may shift and change as my values and ideals change … And that actually frees me to be more agile in what I do … and take more breaks and more space in what I do.”Neil Pasricha, author of “The Happiness Equation,” in an NPR interview
Many of my coaching clients have been pursuing a single career path for most of their adult lives. They may have taken on different levels of responsibility, and worked at different companies, maybe even taken a detour to grad school – but by and large, their resumes look straightforward. Any outsider could see a progression and a logic to what they’ve been doing.
They often ended up on these career paths because it was the sensible, practical choice at that key decision point after college or grad school. It was something they (mostly) enjoyed, a good, stable job, with a lot of upside in terms of professional and financial growth.
It’s not a bad thing to have been so practical, especially at an age when so many other decisions might not be so grounded!
And yet, 20 years into these careers, my clients find themselves stuck. The career path they’ve pursued has run its course in one way or another, and it’s not inspiring to keep going that way for another two years, let alone the 20+ to get to that finish line of retirement.
They only know how to look for that kind of job. They have no idea what else they might be good at, or who would take them seriously if they wanted to change gears. It’s overwhelming!
Work Has Changed
Where we begin is in shifting their mindset about what work is “supposed” to look like. All of us started out with some impression of how our jobs were supposed to feel, whether positive or negative; and most of us grew up with parents who worked the same kind of job their whole careers.
I have to remind my clients that we have so many more options now than our parents did. Skills are transferable. The gig economy and freelancing have opened up many other ways of working, or exploring new paths.
Sometimes, I assign my clients homework to go talk to people who are working in a “nontraditional” way to find out what it’s really like, as a way of opening up their minds to other possibilities of the structure of work, or how others have put together a puzzle of different interests into satisfying, paid work.
What’s Different Now?
With a new mindset, then we start to investigate how their lives, values, and thinking have evolved since they started working. It’s helpful to remember that when we got our first jobs, we were teenagers or twentysomethings – not fully-formed adults. Now that they know themselves better, I ask my clients to reflect on questions like these:
- What does work mean, now? What do you get out of working? (beyond just a paycheck…)
- What brings you meaning?
- What’s different in your life now, compared to when you started working?
- What’s changed about what you value, and what your values are?
- What has stayed constant about who you are, and what matters to you?
- What’s your understanding now of the strengths that you bring to work?
The answers to these questions help to frame the conditions they will set for what’s next in their career, as well as the decision criteria they’ll measure opportunities against.
What Evolution Looks Like
The next piece is helping my clients start to envision an evolution in their work. That starts with deconstructing everything they’ve been doing across their different roles, and taking an inventory of their other interests and skills.
Then, we step back to look at the data, and identify the threads that go together in a coherent way, into specific paths that are a natural evolution of what they’ve already done. We’re not trying to start all over again!
Here’s an example of what this evolution could look like: A sales executive has particularly enjoyed his experience selling to pet stores, especially those that are smaller and locally-owned, where he was often able to help them think about how to increase their profits, because he built authentic relationships with them. He also has coached his daughter’s softball team and has a knack for getting the best out of the players.
These threads come together into a few possibilities to explore, that combine both his experience and interests:
- Business coaching for pet store owners – whether as a full-time business, or a side gig to explore for now
- Looking within his current company for opportunities to train and coach sales people in the kind of relational selling he has excelled in
- Identifying another company where he can do similar work, but in a way that would allow him more time for coaching softball
Often, taking action on these possibilities opens up other avenues we didn’t even consider at first – and can be a powerful way of shifting their mindset to see what else might be out there!
The idea of seeing our careers as evolving means that we can have more resilience and creativity. We can put less pressure on ourselves – because we don’t have to pick the one right path for the rest of our lives. We can give ourselves permission to try new things, to take on new projects or responsibility and see how they feel – and then to pivot accordingly.