The tension between employers’ expectation to see a ‘clear career plan’ and the uncertainty we face as part of our human existence
Don’t we all dread this interview question: “Where do you see yourself in 5 years from now?” The fact that it is still one of the questions we prepare ourselves for in a job interview demonstrates the expectations out there: we ought to have a clear idea of how our professional future should look like and how to get there. If you don’t have a realistic but ambitious and clear-cut goal as part of a well crafted career plan, you lack the necessary drive. Really?
Individuals in the working world seem under constant pressure to know exactly where the career journey is meant to go, what the next steps will look like on the career ladder in order to be successful. But how realistic is this demand? Does it not create a tension with the real life contingencies we all experience as part of the human condition?
In fact this stance is often not only counterintuitive but also counterproductive, especially if you find yourself at a career crossing at which you feel like you might need a change of direction, but can’t precisely grasp where to.
Wanting to be sure that you take “the right decision” before going out there and doing something can be the most paralysing thing in the world and kill your reinvention!
This is one key learning I take away from my own experience with career change:
1) allowing yourself not to know the answer before you act can be very freeing.
I started to simply explore different options moving away from the pressure I used to put myself under to find THE right alternative to what I had been doing.
(That is how I found the courage to try myself out as Zumba instructor for example, a challenge that helped me grow. Of course, I was in the lucky position to have some savings that helped me to focus on exploring new options after leaving my old job; it is also true though that we can all try new things out aside as well and find ways of looking into other professions whilst in a full time job.)
I agree with Herminia Ibarra author of “Working Identity” who says: “By far the biggest mistake people make when trying to change careers is to delay taking the first step until they have settled on a destination.”
I found this idea to be a great help in reducing the pressure of "making the right decision” and a way of getting around the phenomenon of ‘analysis paralysis’ (comparing and analysing different options with the aim of finding the optimal solution to the point that we feel paralysed and unable to make any decision whatsoever). Especially nowadays with so many possibilities to choose from, we can easily feel overwhelmed and get stuck in no-action mode, not taking any action at all.
There is no failure, only feedback.
One of the principles of neuro-linguistic programming is very helpful too in moving forward and daring to take action despite the uncertainty that often inherently goes along with our decision-making:
2) There is no failure, only feedback.
Adopting this philosophy can be incredibly empowering, because fear of failure is one of the things that holds us back the most from trying ourselves and new things out.
Regarding my Zumba-instructor qualification: I was not sure if I would be good at this, but I decided not to make it about that and just go for it. I’d learn from it one way or another. If it was going to be something I could discard, it would only bring me closer to what really was for me. I ended up having my own classes and loving it!
Action leads to motivation and produces more action
Sometimes we simply cannot motivate ourselves to actually do something and procrastinate instead. Research psychology shows that paradoxically enough
3) action leads to motivation and produces more action
(see Kearns, H. and Gardiner, M. (2011) Waiting for the motivation fairy Nature 472-127). The important thing is to start somewhere (anywhere!) and the rest is a knock-on effect.
Now, many theories like NLP and Business theory state that having clear and concise goals is a fundamental condition for actually reaching them (think of the SMART goals-rule: Specific, Measurable, Achievable/Ambitious, Realistic, Time-bound ). But finding them can be a goal in itself and on that way we should really not be so hard on ourselves, as this is likely to actually defeat the purpose.
I am certainly not dismissing planning altogether; I am quite a planner and list-fan ;), ask my friends! I just believe I found a healthier, more flexible approach to planning when it comes to career choices. One that helps me to develop with more freedom: It is ok to start walking even if the ultimate outcome is not clearly in sight. I trust that the destination will manifest itself along the way and the feedback I get from my experiences helps me modify the plan as I go along. After all, according to chaos theory no one can predict the impact on our lives and careers caused by the well known butterfly effect: a butterfly flapping its wings somewhere far away can bring about unattended consequences for you right here.
The point that we cannot foresee all of the possible factors that will influence our career and how they will influence it, is beautifully laid out in this youtube clip, check it out:
I personally have found myself on a very exciting journey since I left my full-time job in February 2013 and I am happy to have taken the plunge. I’d like to invite you to accompany me along, not for the sake of it, but because I intend to share useful insights I came across along the way and that, I believe, could potentially be of benefit to you too.
This blog is intended to be a pool of inspiration around careers, interpersonal communication and how to handle life’s stresses. So, do check back in from time to time and by all means, please do engage and leave comments. I’d love to hear about your opinions and experiences.