Feeling Overwhelmed?


You know you need to be tackling a challenging career-advancing assignment:  reaching out to your network. Updating your LinkedIn profile. Reading a book on career advancement and doing the exercises therein. Redoing your resume. Starting a blog. Searching for posted jobs. Investigating new training or educational opportunities. The list of potential initiatives is a long one. And too often you just can’t manage to buckle down and begin.

I’ve found there to be two primary and related reasons for stalling out. Either you’re pretty sure you’re not going to do a satisfactory job (a manifestation of perfectionism). Or you become mentally exhausted imagining the amount of work required getting to your goal (I'll call that anticipatory fatigue). Let me examine these two separately. 

The perfectionist in you naturally wants a great finished product, but if you’ve had occasions when you’ve fallen short (and who of us haven’t?) you’re likely to be gun shy, reluctant to embark on a path with which you have little experience. Here’s what you need to keep in mind: your initial efforts are a first draft. Perhaps a decent one, or perhaps a really crappy one. But a draft. An initial effort. NOT the finished product. NOT where you’ll wind up. 

As for anticipatory fatigue, it arises from a misapplication of Steven Covey’s First (?) principle, “Begin with the end in mind.” If you focus too much on where you want to wind up you may well become discouraged, knowing that dozens or hundred of hours lie between where you are now and where you ultimately want to arrive. 

I see these two issues as related because in both cases the trick to making progress is to focus on the very next step rather than on the final “deliverable.” If you know you need to start reaching out to your network, select the one person it would be easiest to contact. Just one. Having done that there’s a good chance you’ll learn something that will make reaching out to a second contact more comfortable/less intimidating.  

Want to start a blog? START one - that means writing a few sentences on an appropriate topic of interest, letting them “marinate” for a bit, and then perhaps redoing or adding to the original. Don’t post that initial writing until it’s in a place that you want it to be. And don’t feel you need to post something weekly (again, a possibly overwhelming thought). You might want to wait until you’ve written several items before posting them.

Need to redo your resume? You could begin by Googling “resume tips” and reading one or two entries, then mentally applying those tips to your own employment story. Or take a look at some online resume templates to see which ones look appealing.

The other thing to keep in mind is that there’s practically no such thing as an original thought. There are people and resources out there that can guide you, whether that’s a career professional like myself, a trusted friend or colleague, an online forum, or an advice column or article.

So, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, take a deep breath, and then a first step - even a teeny little one. The important thing is to get started.



Two Ways to Help Prolong Career Success as You Age


As Baby Boomers enter their 50s, 60s, and (for the "leading edge" of that generation, 70s), they are being increasingly studied in an effort to understand how to prolong their health. Until quite recently, "health" was primarily defined as physical: ambulatory, respiratory, circulatory, Immunological, etc. But the explosive growth of Alzheimer’s and dementia has placed increasing emphasis on cognitive functioning. And interestingly a number of recent studies have conclusively demonstrated that exercise not only aids in maintaining physical health, but also helps people preserve their cognitive abilities. It is those abilities that can help older workers remain competitive in a workplace that increasingly emphasizes problem solving and creative thinking. 

"Overall, longitudinal studies show that people who exercise - whether young, middle-aged, or older - score higher on cognitive tests than those who don't. Why would exercise make you smarter? Scientists are still figuring it out, but they have some clues. They do know that exercise creates new brain cells in the precise spot that handles new memories; it's called 'neurogenesis.' Ordinarily, cells in this area simply die off. Scientists have also found that exercise greases the rails of white matter as it sends signals to various parts of the brain. It is like moving from a dial-up Internet to broadband."* 

Somewhat counter intuitively, exercise, rather than mental workouts (more on that in a moment) appears to offer the greatest return on time investment. That is not to say, though, that intellectual "exercise" isn't valuable. It is. But it needs to stretch your mental capacity, not merely engage it. You are indeed using your brain when you read the Washington Post or this blog, but you're not really challenging it. And it's challenge that helps maintain and build cognitive abilities. 

What are the best kinds of challenges? Learning a new language probably tops the list. Learning how to play a musical instrument is another excellent choice. And of course solving puzzles - whether crossword puzzles, Sudoku, Words with Friends, or Candy Crush - is great mental exercise. 

Finally, sustained, deliberate practice of the chosen activity (whether physical OR mental) appears to be a key ingredient in improving cognitive abilities. "For four decades, K. Anders Erickson has studied internationally ranked chess players, world-class athletes, musicians, writers, scientists, foreign language interpreters, and even typists, to see why some rose to the top while others remained good but unremarkable. His theory has been incorrectly abbreviated to suggest that genius springs not from genes or innate abilities but from practicing ten thousand hours or ten years."* He would not, in fact, deny that factors such as family support, discipline, a skilled teacher, and starting to "train" early are important. But most important of all, he found, was focusing on weaknesses until they are mastered. "Doing something novel and complex is going to take some time, it's going to be painful, it's going to hurt, you're going to cry. But as we clear out that brush, we develop new neuron connections...speeding up the amount of time it takes (for neural circuitry) to fire and receive."* 

Speeding up as you age rather than slowing down - now that is a sure fire way to prolong success in your chosen career, or in launching a new one!

*Excerpted from "Life Reimagined...the Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife" by Barbara Bradley Hagerty, published 2016.



How Cultivating a Service Mentality Will Help Your Career


This post is not about volunteering, assisting, or contributing. It's about shifting perspectives in your interpersonal relationships to a service mentality, from a primary focus on yourself to a focus on the OTHERS' narrative. In a career context that OTHER is your “customer” - whoever you are called upon to interact with*.

I've written fairly extensively about the tendency to emphasize YOUR story/side/justification when dealing with others. This is the "natural" approach, of course. But you need to strengthen the ability to quickly pivot into the shoes of others if you are to excel at resolving disputes, finding effective compromise, placating anger, and, most importantly, advancing your career development. 

What triggered today's post was a series of interactions I've had this weekend while traveling to and visiting Fort Lauderdale (though the same kinds of interactions could have occurred in Ft. Worth, Ft. Wayne or Ft. Knox.) The pleasant ones were those in which my take on a situation was acknowledged in some manner and, not surprisingly, the unpleasant ones were those in which my perspective was either ignored or contradicted. Yes, these interactions took place in a classic "service" context (i.e. at rental car agency, at airline check-in, at a ticket booth), not on the job. And it's certainly easier to see how this pleasant/unpleasant difference would impact your personal fame of mind more than how it would impact your career advancement. But one of the four most important pillars on which career advancement rests is relationship development (the other three being expertise developed through experience or learning, work ethic, and innate talent). Whether you're applying for a job, interviewing for one, or performing one, it's essential to constantly remind yourself that you're looking to create a positive relationship by building "customer" satisfaction (the "customer,"  looked at from a career perspective could be a colleague, a boss, a client, or a hiring manager - see asterisk below). 

Paying more attention to where the other, your customer, is coming from will certainly yield dividends. To take an obvious example: if an interviewer asked you to name three strengths of which you are most proud, you'd be foolish not to first think about which strengths would be most relevant for the job you're interviewing. Generosity or bravery, for example, might well be strengths you are proud of, but if you didn't make it clear how those strengths would benefit the employer you'd be hurting yourself. 

Another example, much less obvious: let's say you're late in producing a deliverable. Defensively explaining why it's late provides no benefit at all to the party awaiting the delivery, but presumably benefits you by covering your behind. How could you get this situation to provide a benefit to your "customer"?  Perhaps by explaining how you intended to avoid this problem in the future, which would have the benefit of reducing your customer’s anxiety about your reliability. 

To put this advice into practice, try to pay particularly close attention to where your mind goes in difficult situations; you will see that it immediately goes into a defensive mode - evolution saw to that as a means of self-preservation. But except in rare instances you should be emphasizing not self-preservation but advancement. Putting yourself in your “customer’s” shoes will help make that happen. I promise. 

*The dictionary’s second definition of “customer” is: “A person or thing of a specified kind that one has to deal with”


The Three Stages of Career Exploration


Although I’ve written before about the process of career change, I recently conceived of a simple, 3 stage model that can serve to assist you if you’re wondering about switching careers.  The essence of it is outlined below:


Realization is the first stage, the realization that all is not well with your career.   Realization can come in a wide variety of forms, and often several realizations converge at once to launch this process.  There are lots of obvious realizations: I realize that I dread waking up on Monday and going into work, I realize that I need to make more money, I realize I’m not going to get promoted, I realize that I’m not doing work that excites me, etc.  But realization can begin with subtler cues: I realize I’m really interested when my friend tells me about the kind of work he does, I realize that I daydream a lot on the job, I realize that I’m getting more tired than I used to at the end of the week.

Realization often creeps up on people somewhat slowly, but this first stage can be initiated through a methodical process of self-examination, investigating the thoughts mentioned above (“Do I dread waking up Monday morning; do I daydream a lot on the job?) as well as some others, two of which are:

a) Is my career heading in a direction that will land me close to the place in which I dreamed of being when I first launched my career?  If not, the answer may not be to switch careers, but it is certainly a call for you to examine what you’re doing right and where you could improve so as to get on track towards that dreamed-of place.

b) Do I aspire to be in a much more senior position on my career track (i.e. “Would I like to be the president of this company, a partner in this law firm, the executive director of this NGO)?  If not, you may not be on the right track.


Exploration is the second stage.  Once you have a firm realization that you’re interested in exploring an alternative career path (or, more commonly, several possible candidates), it’s time to begin exploring.  The exploration can (and should) take two basic forms. 

One is internal: what aspects of the work I’m doing or have done, or what activities, bring me joy, fulfillment, or satisfaction?  The answer(s) might be “working as part of a team towards a common goal” or “making sure projects move ahead on schedule’ or “creative problem-solving” or “being outdoors” or “helping others” or “making a difference in the world” or “getting rapid feedback on my efforts” or “acting as a role model,” or “organizing things,” etc. Internal exploration should also most definitely include contemplating the possibility of a potpourri / composite career also known as a slash career, as in psychotherapist / singer.  You may want to add a new layer to your life by allowing a hobby or interest to "go commercial".

The second is external, searching to stimulate new thinking about possible career directions by looking to outside sources.  Of course, working with a career counselor/coach, or life coach/ consultant is one important source because such a person can suggest many different avenues of exploration.  Some of them are:

a) Talking with close friends, or even e-mailing them, about what they think you’re good at and what they might see you doing in 2 or 3 years.  Ask them to concentrate on function (e.g. “selling things,” “Working with people,” or “making sure things happen on time”) rather than specific occupation.

b) Talking with people who are doing, or who have recently done, what you think you might be interested in. LinkedIn is the ideal tool to do this (see my "Linkedin Primer").

c) Searching job listings using the keywords, or variations thereof, that you identified as a result of your internal exploration.

d) Reading one of the books recommended in the career section of my website and completing the exercises contained therein.

e) Spending investigative time on that treasure trove of information, the internet.


Stay as present as possible in the experiences you begin to encounter as you move down the paths of exploration.  What aspects of the exploration did you look forward to?  What stimulated your curiosity?  On the flip side, where did you encounter fear or anxiety?  Talking through the fears with your spouse or a trusted friend can help you determine whether the path you’re exploring is destined to be fruitless because of some deep-seated barriers, or that the barriers are surmountable, in which case continue the exploration.  As you move further down the paths remain open to the possibility that an adjustment needs to be made in your original thinking, and that a “branch” of the path may be worth investigating.  In the final analysis, though, you will be seeking the inner sense of “rightness” that will tell you that you’ve identified the answer(s) to your quest.

Keep in mind, though, that you're highly unlikely to know whether the shift is the right one until you've spent some time with it. Which is why it's so valuable to "Beta test" a new career path if you can - volunteering, shadowing, or working part time outside of your current job to start to get a feel for what it would be like.



“Midlife Crisis” and Career Satisfaction 


This post is inspired by an article (actually the cover story) in The Atlantic magazine, entitled 'The Real Roots of Midlife Crisis." It's a misleading title, because the article in fact devotes quite a bit of emphasis to deconstructing the entire idea of midlife crisis, focusing on what social scientists increasingly see as a "Happiness U Curve."

When plotted on a graph in which the X axis is the level of self-reported life satisfaction and the Y axis is age, the curve looks like a cross-section of a bowl, with satisfaction higher in the late teens and twenties, gradually declining through the thirties and hitting a low point in the forties. Somewhat surprisingly then, satisfaction begins to increase through the fifties and sixties and is actually highest when people hit their seventies, until serious health problems multiply and begin to significantly impair physical and mental activity. This pattern is seen across a wide variety of cultures and geography, and is even purported to hold true for apes (their "life satisfaction" being measured by zookeepers).

There are a number of factors that contribute to the shape of the curve; here are some of them:.

1) The unlimited time horizons of youth shorten as people age into their forties and fifties; they realize that time is not unlimited, and so they tend to adopt more realistic goals. They also tend to become more involved with ongoing activities and experiences that bring tangible and enduring satisfaction (such as membership in groups and pursuit of hobbies) rather than the acquisition of material objects that provide a short-term “fix."

2) Spirituality increases with age. This phenomenon is due to a greater sense of mortality, and a greater interest in the "meaning of life." Greater emphasis on spirituality is an important contributor to finding a sense of peace and contentment with life.

3) Perhaps related to evolutionary biology, younger people tend to be more competitive, spending a great deal of mental and emotional energy comparing themselves with peers. This tendency to compare generally tapers off when people hit their late forties and early fifties. Why? It may relate to a kind of mental exhaustion and a realization that there will always be someone who is richer, smarter, fitter, better looking, or generally further advanced. 

4) Older people tend to be less inclined to be upset about things they cannot change. This is an important component of wisdom - I frequently teach or remind clients about the Serenity Prayer: "Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage (or strength) to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." Again, some form of mental exhaustion may contribute to this wisdom, as the realization that effort after unsuccesful effort to influence unchangeable outcomes only leads to unhappiness.

5) Older people tend to be more open with others about the difficulties and disappointments that they've faced in life - an openess that helps them to realize that they are not alone in these experiences. That realization is comforting and can help put the inevitable low points of life in perspective.

6) As one ages one certainly sees examples of others leading lives that are deserving of envy. But most people see at least as many lives that turn out not so well, and are often marred by tragedy. In the relatively evolved person's mind, then, gratitude builds and satisfaction with the life that they're living increases.

7) Young people's time horizon is almost unlimited, and so they see enormous opportunities in the future. Often these perceived opportunities are chimeras of wishful thinking, rosily colored by ignorance of how the world actually works and by not having experienced the kinds of setbacks more familiar to older people (e.g. the death of loved ones, personal illness/injury, career disappointment). As a result, younger people consistently overestimate their expected future happiness, while older people consistently underestimate it. Thus things tend to turn out worse than expected for the young and better than expected for the old, and as those realizations sink in the curve measuring life satisfaction bends towards that bowl shape. 

"Midlife Crisis," then, is a point of inflection, where the accumulated impact of the above hits people, generally in their 40s. The great news is that, for most people, life will be experienced as getting better as they age. Hard to imagine for the young, but true.