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Sunday
Mar292015

Attitude

A couple of weeks ago I sat with a client in her early 50s interested in changing her career focus but unsure about which direction to move. She has been in the same Department in government for the past 15 years, working in the broad area of "environment," and seemed quite bright. Her track record attested to her competence: she'd received numerous promotions over the years. But everything about her appearance shouted "I've given up," from her posture to her facial expressions to her clothes to her hair.

I began to dig into her job and personal history to try to understand the root of her defeatism and soon realized that she is holding on to a few negative stories: first, "no matter whom I will talk to ( in job interviews ) they're always going to go with a younger person." Second, "I've been doing the same type of work for a decade and a half so people are going to question my ability to move into a different field." Third, "I'm not any good at selling myself." The counter arguments I raised during the session were summarily dismissed with very little reflection.

Now, I can accept partial responsibility for the impasse. After all, my job is not merely to deliver advice, but to deliver advice in a way that is embraced by my clients. And people vary widely in the way they accept guidance. Most respond quite well to the way I generally deliver advice: clearly articulated, often backed up by examples of how that advice has led to success in various initiatives (whether that be improving a LinkedIn profile, interviewing techniques or changing hair styles). But some clients are so firmly wedded to a particular view of themselves that to suggest that the view might be inaccurate or distorted feels very threatening. Donning my psychotherapist hat, let me hypothesize that they aren't prepared to revise their identity. A "I am less....(intelligent, experienced, outgoing, etc.)" story about themselves provides for them an explanation of why they're feeling stuck and unhappy. The problem with that explanation, of course, is that it becomes self-fulfilling.

I often write about the stories people tell themselves, because time and again I've seen how the story shapes their lives, whether in career, family, relationships, or self-image. Now this is not to say that their stories are untrue. It's just that the story is constructed from a particular (negative) perspective. Changing the perspective (by doing such things as focusing on past successes - even if small - or by learning about others with similar or worse issues who have managed to overcome their barriers to success) is imperative for forward movement.

I also recognize that there are certain realities that may seriously hamper one's prospects. For example, In many career situations, all other things being equal, a younger person, a Caucasian, someone who graduated from an Ivy League school, or a person whose parents are well connected will have a much easier time landing a job. But one can't change one's age, race, educational history or parental connections. People MUST learn to play the cards of the deck they're dealt (War being the only major exception I can think of...even Go Fish can be played strategically). As in poker, you may need to bluff, acting confident even if you're not. But for God's sake don't sit out the game!

For some very specific tips on changing your attitude, please go to my blog posts "Showing Up" (from 1/15/12) and "More on Shifting Your Attitude towards Your Work" (from 3/16/13).

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