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The Pivotal Career Question: What’s next?

Even though the world of work has changed dramatically over the past couple of decades, where long tenure and single careers have almost become a thing of the past, many people still hold the perspective that there’s one path they ‘should’ be taking. That once they find their one true calling, fulfillment and prosperity will follow. I agree that when you’re doing what you love, you enjoy your work more, perform better, find greater fulfillment and thus have a better chance at prosperity.  What’s misleading is the notion that we have to find that one ‘right’ career or path.

Growth is not steady, forward, upward progression.  It is instead a switchback trail; three steps forward, two back, one around the bushes and a few simply standing before another forward leap. ~ Dorothy Corkville Briggs, Parent educator

Since life is about the on-going process of becoming – learning about ourselves and what’s possible, growing and developing more of our potential – then it stands to reason that what may be just right at age 25 may no longer be a fit at age 30 or 35. By the time we’re in our 40’s or 50’s, that 25 year old path may be suffocating yet we don’t know how to get off it. It’s like our career and life are combined on a linear trajectory that eventually leads us to fall over a cliff in the unknown abyss of ‘retirement’.  Some people are compelled into a career from an early age and it sustains them for a long time. One of my brothers is a veterinarian and another is a pilot. As long as I can remember these two knew what they wanted to do and pursued it. But that’s not the case for everyone.

Serial Reinvention

In her book Chapters: Create a Life of Exhilaration and Accomplishment in the Face of Change, Candice Carpenter provides this illustration of her Model of Success along with the old approach.

While you may want to edit the success criteria that she has indicated on the vertical axis (money/status) to something that reflects success to you, the lower graph depicting life as a series of chapters that ebb and flow is a good one. It’s a more natural cycle in line with nature. Peak experiences and expending of energy intermingled with slower periods of renewal and discovery. A process of continual reinvention. No wonder burn-out happens in the scenario shown in the linear graph. Trying to climb to the top of a mountain non-stop in a straight line is exhausting if not impossible.

In Carpenter’s words, “a life of serial reinvention is a life of constant discovery.” It’s a life filled with experiments that open up possibilities. Like all experiments, sometimes the outcomes are exciting and other times the outcomes aren’t what we expected. It’s information we can use in making our choices and asking, “What do I want to try next? What else? What’s possible?” And give ourselves full permission to change our minds. When we don’t have to make a forever decision then sometimes it’s easier to make a different choice. Of course, due diligence is important in any major decision however awareness of our ability to repeatedly make or change choices helps.

I spent 20 years in a corporate career climbing the mountain in the top graph. I did burn out twice and yet it was still difficult to leave that company. What enabled me to leave was changing the questions I was asking myself. My life now resembles the ebb and flow of the lower graph and I could never go back to a linear life.

Of utmost importance is to change the question we habitually ask young people from “what do you want to be when you grow up?” to “what do you want to try first?” then “what’s next?” and “what else?” Expand their perspective and sense of possibility early on to encourage them to persevere and go after their dreams, whatever direction that may take them and however often it may change.

How do I figure out what’s next?

What I’ve learned is that the first step forward is actually pausing. Pay attention to your values. When do you feel most alive? We need to tap into our inner wisdom. It’s there inside each of us when we really listen. Take time to get quiet and hear the little voices inside that know what’s next. And take action knowing you have full permission to change your mind.

Please share your stories of where your ‘what’s next’ has taken you. We learn from hearing each other’s stories.

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We’ll move into possibility together!
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