Psychological Blocks to Pursuing a Better Career

I recently met with a client who stimulated my thinking for this week's post.  She's a very successful lawyer who has "burned out" on her profession, but has been unable to move forward pursuing alternatives without really understanding why.  She keeps promising herself that she will take steps to network or research her way into new career choices but finds she keeps putting off those steps.  In my first meeting with her, almost two months ago, I had detected some guilt surrounding her consideration of alternatives to the law, but in our session last week we were able to pinpoint the source of much of it.  Her mother raised a family (with modest means) of three gitls, sending two to Ivy League schools.  The third child, however, suffered from such severe developmental problems that she needed virtually constant attention, and the mother sacrificed her career in order to provide the disturbed daughter with the required care.  My client felt that it was somehow inappropriate or selfish of her to be unhappy with her career situation given all that her mother had been through, and the sacrifices that her mother had made in order to provide her with a top-notch education.  Guilt stood in the way of her taking the steps she needed to in order to find greater fulfillment in her work life, guilt of which my client wasn't even really aware.

There are several other kinds of psychological / emotional barriers that a not insignificant number of my clients encounter as they explore career options.  A common one is perfectionism - the search for exactly the right combination of elements that will virtually guarantee happiness at work.  This is a pursuit that is almost certainly doomed to failure, for several reasons.  First, and most importantly, there are far too many variables in a work setting to be sure that all of them will align in the way one would like.  Think, for example, of the importance of interpersonal relationships on the job with one's boss and co-workers.  As pleasant as they might seem in an interview kind of a setting, what kind of interactions will there be six weeks or six months, not to mention six years, into a new career?  What if the boss you went to work for quite or is fired and you wind up reporting to a tyrant? How political will the place of employment turn out to be?  How can one know in advance whether a company or organization will thrive or wither long-term?

Second, work that might be engaging initially might become tedious over time, and there's no way to ascertain the probability of that happening with a great deal of accuracy.  Yes, due diligence in asking people in your targeted career about what they like and don't like about their work, and how the work "wears" with them over time is helpful. But what may hold another's intterest for the long-term won't necessarily hold yours.

Third, one's interests change over time as well, so a field for which one had passion at age 38 might turn out to be distasteful at age 40 due to changes in personal circumstances (for example the death of a parent, sibling, or spouse).  That was exactly what happened to me at the end of my career in the advertising world - work that had previously felt exciting and stimulating became superficial and essentially meaningless.

Related, but somewhat the inverse, is the fear of making the "wrong" choice (rather than the perfect one). People who have had previous work difficulties (e.g. getting downsized or fired) are often overly particularly anxious about the possibility that they will find themselves in the same situation again.

Another psychological / emotional factor that can stand in the way of pursuing a more fulfilling career is the hovering presence of expectations: the perceived expectations of parents who have worked hard to ensure their child is successful, or of peers whose opinion of one's success is judged important, success most easily measured in monetary terms.  Or of a family line that has always worked in a particular business or profession. I say "perceived" because many clients misinterpret their circle's expectations.  In my experience people who care about you are able to sense when you are truly happy, even if you're not earning the amount of money that they think would be necessary for their happiness, and seeing that you are happy is what's most important to them. If it isn't perhaps you should reexamine the value of their friendship.

The very important first step in eliminating the blocks I've cited above is the simple recognition that they are there. Unfortunately, most people are unable to look at themselves objectively and analytically enough to be able to detect the presence of these barriers.  That's where someone like me can be invaluable - someone who's knowledgable about both career counseling and psychological variables.  




Lots of Ways to Make Your Current job Better - Part 3

This third installment of suggestions on improving your job focuses on things that will enable you to experience the job as it is more positively, as opposed to changing aspects of it. The ideas below are primarily from the Positive Psychology movement, a paradigm that stresses increasing the focus on positive aspects of life rather than emphasizing  discovering the causes of negativity, as much of psychology has traditionally done.

1. The Three Things List:

At the end of every work day, write down (by hand rather than type)* three things that went well at work that day. Ideally they should be things in which you had some role. So, for example, a water main break that caused the office to close early might be considered a positive development, but you had nothing to do with it, whereas a co-worker complimenting you on your outfit would be something you had a hand in.

2. Reframing

If something bad, or even mildly annoying, happens to you on the job try thinking about how that might represent an opportunity. For example, if an overbearing boss has returned something to you with a load of corrections, you might look at it as a chance to practice reacting less negatively (you might say to yourself “that’s just the way she is” rather than taking it as a personal indictment or attack), or look at it as a way to improve your writing skills (if you can remain open to at least some of her suggested edits).

3. Practicing strengths

Make a list of five of your greatest strengths. These could range from clearly job-related ones (analytical ability, attention to detail, organizational ability, critical thinking) to more broadly applicable ones (compassion, optimism, generosity, authenticity). Then select one of these strengths and for one week look for opportunities to apply that strength each day. Keep a written, daily record of the way you found to do so.4. Identify ways in which the work you do is beneficial to others

4. Identify ways in which the work you do is beneficial to others

Even if you feel that you’re just a cog in a gigantic bureaucratic wheel, you are making a contribution to some outcome that will positively impact a group of people. Think about (and then write about) that impact. So if, for example, you’re a statistician at the census bureau you could focus on your helping to create data that will be used to more equitably distribute government resources. Or if you’re a paralegal just reviewing documents in a patent case you could focus on your contribution to greasing the wheels of the justice system. Granted, identifying your contribution can be a big stretch…..but through stretching you can grow.


From the world of cognitive psychology comes a technique that can be helpful in turning around negativity. It requires you to analyze upsetting events in five steps, in the following manner:

A. ACTUAL event (what happened?)

B. BELIEF (what does it mean?)

C, CONSEQUENT FEELING (how does holding that belief make you feel?)

D. DISPUTE THE BELIEF (what evidence is there that your belief could be wrong or too narrow?)

E. EFFECT (what is the effect of disputing the belief; how do you now feel?)


An example: Your Christmas bonus is a lot smaller than you thought it would be (A).

B. I’m not doing well at this job

C. That makes me feel crappy

D. Maybe the bonus pool shrunk this year

E. Relief that I wasn’t singled out for negative treatment.

This technique is not designed for you to keep your head buried in the sand; there may be negative developments that call for prompt corrective action on your part. But in general people tend to “catastrophize” far more than is actually warranted.

*Handwriting has been shown to have a deeper and more lasting impact


Designing Your Life

I've discovered another outstanding career design book, this one entitled "Designing Your Life," subtitled "How to build a well-lived joyful life," by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. Yes, the title sounds like so many other career guidance book titles, but this book is truly exceptional, coming at the process in a new way that very much mirrors my approach. The underlying premise of the book is that there are MANY versions of ourselves, each of which can lead to building a satisfying career. It is full of interesting facts, valuable suggestions, and structured exercises that shed a bright light on potential career paths forward.

Another important philosophy guiding the authors is that passion for work generally ".....comes AFTER (people) try something, discover they like it, and develop mastery - not before." This makes so much sense if you think about it - until you're familiar with the "landscape" of a new career (e.g. becoming adept at the tasks involved, familiar with the field's unique vocabulary) you are likely to feel uncertain about your abilities to master your new path forward. And it's pretty difficult to feel passionately about something uncertain.

Some of the exercises in the book are quite unique. One of them is called creating a "Good Time Journal," which has you note the activities that you undertake in which you feel "engaged, energized, and in flow." It also asks you to note your "peak experiences:" those times where everything seems to be going just right. There is quite a bit of emphasis in the book on free association (the authors prescribe making a "mind map" beginning with the good times / peak experiences and thinking of ideas that relate to them. So, for example, if one of your peak experiences was participating in planning the office Christmas party you might free associate the terms "party planner," "caterer," or further afield "urban planner" or "chef." The key is to let your mind wander, and to not self-censor.

Another valuable exercise poses some very fundamental questions about the role of work in life, questions that you probably haven't thought much about. For example, What is work for? What does work mean to you? What defines work that is good or worthwhile? What do money, experience, growth, and fulfillment have to do with it? And a related one asks you to think about what kind of work you'd do if money or image were not issues.

This creative approach to career planning isn't for everyone. Many people might be more comfortable with career testing that is highly structured and provides relatively unambiguous career direction. The problem with that approach is that it tends to play back to you what you already know about yourself, because the answers you provide in the test are based on your past experience, rather than being grounded in future possibility. 

Related to this, another unique attribute of the book that I particularly enjoyed was the sprinkling of statements that limit exploration, accompanied by reframes that open up ways of thinking. For example: Dysfunctional belief: To be happy I have to make the (one) right choice.  Reframe: There is no right choice - only good choosing.

Finally, the book emphasizes the value of assembling a group of people to help you come up with ideas to explore and ways of exploring them. This may be a challenge for lots of people, but if you're willing and able to do it you will be availing yourself of multiple perspectives and experiences that can only serve to help you design a great career path forward. Or several!



Accepting Responsibility

One of the salient themes that emerged for me during the presidential campaign was the failure of both candidates to accept responsibility for the actions that, perhaps more than any others, contributed to the antipathy that so many voters felt towards each of them.

For Mrs. Clinton (and many of her supporters), the abdication of responsibility took the form of consistent attempts to try and paper over the gravity of the email controversy, either through denial, "others did it too," obfuscation, or (closer to acceptance of responsibility), regret, but never flat-out admission that she'd committed a very serious breach of procedural norms and ethics. Then there were the Goldman Sacks transcripts. 

For Trump, evidence comes in the the form of his failure to own up to virtually any of his multitudinous inaccurate statements or lies, his misogynistic statements about a wide variety of women, or how his statements contributed to a darkening, coarsening, and threatening tone that resulted in the "Lock her up" chants. Not to mention the refusal to release his tax returns.

Since I'm not writing a political blog, let me comment on how a failure to accept responsibility impacts personal development and, potentially, a career.

Accepting responsibility means being truthful to both yourself and to the outside world about errors you may have made, or hurts you may have inflicted. It's an admission of imperfection, of being wrong, of screwing up. No one likes to do that, but to NOT do it blocks the opportunity to learn, and to grow from your mistakes. What's more, admitting culpability is pretty uniformly admired as a sign of integrity and bravery, while evasion of responsibility, once discovered (which it usually is), can tarnish your image. Furthermore, a willingness to consider your own role in a screw-up reduces the distortion that blocks clarity, sharpens the ability to view situations objectively and accurately, and thereby enables you to create more creative and workable solutions to problems.

I've seen that transparency is often a necessity for accepting responsibility, because if what's going on isn't transparent, it's a lot easier to hide from acceptance. And recall that transparency means fully visible IN BOTH DIRECTIONS: externally and internally.

Turning to how this may impact your career: "throwing someone under the bus" has become a commonly used phrase in the work sphere. And those who frequently do so quickly gain reputations as dishonest, untrustworthy and potentially dangerous colleagues. They are often targeted for revenge. And their inability to "man up" (sorry, ladies, but we have not had et de-genderized that term) indicates an immaturity and lack of wisdom exhibited by the 5 year old who swears he didn't raid the cookie jar, even in the face of 5 missing Oreos, or who blames his sister.

True, wisdom and maturity are not required in many positions. But they are certainly valued in upper echelons of management, so working on more easily and quickly accepting responsibility makes good career sense.

For those of you who would say about the election "well, didn't failure to accept responsibility win out in the end?" I would say perhaps (there are, after all, exceptions to every rule) but I can't help thinking that if Hillary had "womaned up" (well, I tried) to her trespasses she would have improved her image sufficiently to win.


Healing Election Wounds

I am writing this on the Friday before Election Day, knowing that I may be in a less calm and objective place starting Tuesday night. But NO MATTER THE OUTCOME I passionately believe that we have an obligation as responsible citizens to ensure that we maximize the arc of progress. This means replacing the combative "us against them" mentality that has motivated most of us in the run up to Tuesday with 2 key questions: "What contribution can I make to healing the country?" and "What can I do to help the government resume contributing to the welfare of the people?" Where can you help build bridges with those with a different vision of the country? What compromises can you support that will help unlock the frozen gears of government?  

OK, that's my civic take on the upcoming election. My take as a therapist and coach is to remind you that the external reality of circumstances is only as powerful as we allow it to be, and that how we THINK about that reality and what we DO about it are actually more significant. Famed psychologist Victor Frankl survived Auschwitz by reminding himself of that truism (as outlined in his classic work  "Man's Search for Meaning), surely you can survive a Trump or Clinton loss. 

Fine, but if your candidate loses, what practical (as opposed to theoretical or philosophical) steps can you take to move out of a state of bitterness and resentment. If Hillary Clinton wins Trump voters need to focus on the positive things she brings to the table, which they can enumerate as they see fit. Perhaps her lifelong work on behalf of children, or the strong relationships she's built with leaders abroad, or her relatively moderate record as a senator. If Trump wins Hillary voters should be impressed that a man whom most pundits dismissed all along was able to capture the Presidency despite minimal institutional support and significant Republican defections. Or that he was able to motivate millions to a fevered pitch of concern about the political system of the nation. Or that he has built a worldwide business and a powerful brand. All of these achievements required tremendous skill and tenacity.

And try to avoid mentally demonizing the supporters of your opponent. The vast, vast majority of them care deeply about the direction of our country and simply want to do their best to ensure that they and their families get the best chance at a life of peace and prosperity.

You will need to consciously dial back your emphasis on the many faults of the winner and look for what's ok about him/her. Maybe it's only a position on an issue or two, but at least that's a beginning. You might even want to get a head start on altering your thought process by imagining the outcome you don't want and then beginning to see how you might create some alchemy to change your reaction to it.

Here is a wish that I send you: May you be gracious in exhibiting the extra joy that will come if your candidate wins, and gracious in the acceptance of your candidate's loss, but in either case coming to peaceful terms with the outcome and then rejecting division and striving for a renewed connection to your fellow Americans.


ADDENDUM: 11/9/16

The surprising outcome of the election is dismaying to millions; if you're one of them think about what you can do to in your own sphere to work towards the kind of nation you want us to be. Whether that's engaging in local politics, volunteering for an organization that helps others, donating to causes you believe in....remember that you can help make a difference.