You know you need to see a change in your career. It could be in your role, the uninspiring trajectory you’re on, or a difficult or unhappy situation at work. You know you need to do everything you can to create the change you want. And yet, it sometimes feels like you’re banging your head against a brick wall. ‘Keeping on keeping on’ is increasing draining, and it’s definitely knocking your motivation and confidence.
You need to change the game. Rather than exhaust your energy and nerves ‘keeping going’ like the Duracell bunny, engage a three-pronged approach to create the change you want to see in your life. Each prong is an art in and of itself, to which various techniques and approaches lend themselves. We present a key method per prong.
Do all the things you know you should get done. No matter how bitter the taste, eat the fruit. Clearing your plate, much like cleansing your palate, prepares you psychologically and practically for the next course – here, the next instalment of your career journey.
When things that you know ought to get done are still tugging at your sleeve, it’s tough to notice the details that count and to be on your top game. Freed from this latent call on your attention, you can become more attuned to the details and opportunities that count. You’ll also have more time and space to respond and act as circumstances change.
Method: Make a list all the things you need to get done. If in doubt, list the things you know (a) you’re procrastinating on, (b) your mentors, confidants, or trusted advisors would tell you do, and (c) you haven’t yet tried, but know you should. Now rank the list in order of importance. Apportion time windows to getting the first 3 items on the list done. Now, start with the first item and complete it as soon as possible. Once you have completed the first three items, apportion time windows to the next 3 items and then get going with those. As new items arise, add these to your list, and each time you delete/add items, revise your importance rankings to make sure you’re always working on the most important things.
Tip: Go for MVPs on these items, because summoning the willpower and finding the time to do the dirty laundry is tough enough. If you demand perfection or ‘high-quality doing’ on these items, you place the bar ever higher, and inadvertently make it less likely you’ll make any progress at all. Here, getting things done is more important than doing them well.
You want something, but the external environment isn’t yielding to your getting it. There is a lack of fit somehow between what you strive for, and what you come away with. Here, there is a subtle, and oft moving, line between tenacity and taking ‘no’ as an informative and valuable answer. ‘No’ as an answer or rejection may indeed be a call to try harder, but don’t let it become the sirenesque call that has you ignore all warning signs until you are on the rocks.
Treat the pushback as feedback. Use it to inform either what success means to you, or your approach to achieving it. It could be that either you need to update what your chosen successful outcome looks like, or that you need to update how you are going about getting it. For example, if you are trying to get buy-in for a new initiative at work, pushback from a key stakeholder may indicate either that their buy-in is less vital than initially understood (and that you may, for instance, wish to divert your attention to building a consensus among a group of other stakeholders instead), or that your approach may incorrectly appeal to their concern for the bottom line (when in fact they may be more partial to how a minority group at work is impacted). Be ready to question both your ends (the successful outcome) and your means (your approach to achieving it).
Think about how much you really want the successful outcome in question. Is it that outcome you want per se? Or is it something that it gives you or stands for (e.g. social impact, recognition, etc.)? In that case, what else might give you the experience of, or access, to those things?
Consider your means for achieving your desired outcome and benchmark your approach to that of those who have achieved it. For example, if it’s a particular job you want, pull up the profiles of those who already have it – where does your own profile align, and where not? Where do the discrepancies work in your favour? Where might they not? If there are no discrepancies, consider widening your circle of investigation: what kind of culture does the industry or company you targeted have? How well does this really align with who you are or how you might appear to others? How does this role fit in with your career trajectory to date? What other options might you have overlooked? Where do you want to be in 5, 10, x years’ time? How else can you get there? It’s worth remembering that transformational leaders and other outstanding individuals often take the road less travelled. How could you use that knowledge in your service?
Method: When you are appraising what value to derive from a ‘no’, it helps to depersonalise the situation. This sidesteps a common, and often treacherous, entanglement with anxieties and feelings that we aren’t good enough, are being rejected personally , or that we ‘just can’t do it’. Without these concerns clouding your judgment or sapping your energy, we can engage in a form of ‘career Jujutsu‘. Like the martial art, we take the opposing event or force, and manipulate it in our favour. See your goal as an organisational objective, audit it with information from the ‘no’s’, and get the input of a dream team.
Get a piece of A3 paper (A4 will also do) and lay it down landscape. On the far right-hand side, write down your key goal. To the left of this, wherever you like on the page, write down in bullet points what you have done to achieve your goal, or what you are currently doing to achieve your goal. Next:
(a) Review your goal. What about it do you want? What’s the motivation for that? What has informed those motivations? Beneath your goal, write a brief summary of what’s behind it
(b) Look at how you have laid your page out. If you have written everything down along an axis, question how you can introduce more side-moves and non-linear actions to help create your desired outcome. If you have a very scattered mapping of bullet points, ask: how can use structure to aid my efforts? Create two new actions based on your answers, and write them down on the paper.
(c) Add events to the page that represent ‘blocks’ and ‘setbacks’ you have experienced. Mark them in red. Ask yourself: What have I deduced about my chances, or myself, based on those? If I were to see each of those blocks/setbacks as unique opportunities, how else might I interpret them? What does this mean in terms of new behaviours or actions I can try going forward? Create one new commitment to yourself, and write this down somewhere on your page.
Next, get another piece of A3 paper and lay it down portrait. Now think of 3-5 ‘dream team’ characters you would want working alongside you on your change. These characters can be real-life or fictional, contemporary or historical. You may need to take some time and do some research to find characters that would resonate for you. In choosing these characters, consider whose advice and abilities you want and need. Now organise and write the names on your page as if you were constructing an organisational hierarchy. Do all the characters have equal say? Who leads the dream team? Who manages or advises on what? Accord each character a distinct place on the team and role on it; beneath each name write bullet points for each character’s main responsibilities.
Now, put your two pieces of paper side by side. Go through each one of the characters on your dream team list and, like an audit, get their ‘take’ on your goal and approach. Work out what changes you need to make and assign concrete actions to achieve this. Where the changes are to your attitude, create regular practices to support the new change in mind/heart. Where the changes are to what you are doing, articulate clear goals (SMART ones, of course) that constitute meaningful actions on your path forward.
The most important part of this entire exercise is that you change something about your goal or your approach. If following up on all the changes created by your dream team audit is too much, just choose the most important one and commit to doing it in the week ahead. One step at a time will create more change than exhausting yourself too early in the game.
Pushing and pushing for your next change is not only exhausting, but it also crowds out the possibility of new elements entering the frame, which, ironically, is just what you need when you find yourself caught in a repetitious or stale situation.
Thus, what you want to avoid is being like a racehorse, where, with blinkers on, you miss what happens on the sidelines, or quickly deem it unrelated to, or useless for, your key goal. In fact, what happens on the sidelines may be intimately relevant, if not urgent, to your key goal. It may be the beginning or emergence of just what is required to ‘change the game’ for you. Creating space is almost the inverse to doing your dirty laundry. While doing your dirty laundry is active and about making sure that you have the time and space to act upon new leads, wishes, or information, creating space is passive and about making sure the time and space is there for new leads, wishes, or information to enter your frame and get noticed by you. It’s about making sure that you’re not only ready to give in order to effect a change, but that you’re also ready to receive a change or its emissaries. Yang and yin. Hence, if you are just pushing and pushing, you are only working one of the two necessary angles to effect change.
Without this dual-orientation to change, we can end up not achieving what we want, or, which is worse, coming to regret that we did achieve what we wanted and in so doing missed something else which is of greater value to us (occasioning the idiom ’be careful what you wish for’). This often happens with people who achieved great success in their careers, and who, looking back, wish they’d given themselves a chance at what they really wanted to do (usually coming to understand that who they were made them successful at what they did, rather than what they did making them a successful person). It also tends to happen with negative situations or one-off opportunities (involving doing something slightly different than you usually would), where people regret not having exited sooner or not having just taken the chance.
Method: Pursuing a goal relentlessly can be like climbing a mountain: striving, reaching, exerting. With this in mind, ask yourself: What does relaxing, letting go, and falling look like for me? It could be switching your phone off for a morning, accepting whatever cr** comes with declining a favour you really don’t want to do, being okay with not finishing your to-do list. At first, ‘falling’ may induce more anxiety, as you fear things will pile up, that you’ll never achieve what you want to, or as repressed concerns have the space to bubble up to the surface. Let it happen, and just as you keenly follow the emergence of positive developments, observe developments that don’t look quite so sunny and let those have a space in your awareness too. Without sounding too glib or faux-spiritual about it: roses thrive with some manure, and diamonds are chiselled from ‘worthless’ rock. Creating this space and acceptance not only allows new elements to enter ‘the game’, but it also allows you to experience different sides of yourself, which in itself opens up fresh possibilities.