Ask the Stress Doc Q & A: How to Decide on a Career
Q. Why do some people seem to be so decisive about what they want out of life -- they set a goal and go for it -- and stick to it -- and others, like myself, keep changing our minds, never getting anywhere, going in circles? I like so many things (career wise) I can't focus!
A. As you note, some folks clearly know what they want or have a more traditional or conventional, a more confined or less complex/expansive goal path and their journey is or may seem smoother. They may be in a field, or have expertise in a skill area, that society rewards generously. (Or their mother was a doctor and mom was a great role model.) However, I've also seen such specialists be vulnerable to two developments:
a) the Bjorn Bored Syndrome (BBS) named after Bjorn Borg the late '70s-early '80s Swedish tennis great who after winning four or five back-back French and Wimbledon championships suddenly burnt out and dropped out of the circuit. Maybe after winning so many events the glamour was fading. And he still had numbing hours of daily repetitive practice. Anyway, the Bjorn Bored Syndrome: "When Mastery time Monotony provides an index of Misery! The Stress Doc's formula: Fireproof your life with variety! And P.S., people are susceptible to BBS during an MLC or MCC -- a mid-life or mid-career crisis, and
b) such decisive or one track specialists may be vulnerable when the economy or their work environment changes and their area of expertise/skill is no longer in (high) demand. And if they have been resting on their laurels, then a "niche of success can turn into a ditch of excess." For example, I recall consulting with an organization comprised of skilled mapmakers, people who had spent years developing their incredible hand-eye talents and craft. Yet many of these folks were thrown into a serious crisis with the advent of computer graphics.
So how to short-circuit the confusion and circularity of a career path when there are seemingly too many interests and potential options? Assuming that unmanageable Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) is not the main instigator, consider these four strategies:
1. Appreciate Life Being Double-Edged and the Road Being Long. Yes, it definitely can feel like both a blessing and a curse when we have multiple talents and interests. Which to focus on; which direction to go? One survival requirement is expanding your time perspective for goal-focused achievement. For example, based on my personal/professional experience, it has taken a number of years (if not decades) to sufficiently develop/hone skills as a therapist, workshop leader, speaker, organizational/team building consultant, writer, and motivational "psychohumorist" ™. (When you integrate enough skills you may have to develop a new job title or description to accommodate your new reality.) And even after you've achieved suffcient skill and integration, there's another obstacle: finding or more likely designing an arena in which to play.
2. Sometimes You Can't Do It All, at First. Clearly, carving out a career path that allows you to practice and integrate the complex mix or, at least, put into action a significant portion of your talents and interests can be challenging. And if any of your skill areas basically become inactive then it's the old survival adage: "Use it or lose it!" There's also the inner nagging of the skill-interest that's being neglected: "Pay attention to me!" And finally, this sobering reality: to truly perform at a high level in a skill area you have to practice/perform that skillset on a regular basis. Michael Jordan would not have been Michael Jordan if he only played one basketball game/month.
The following recommendation may not be totally satisfying. You may have to select a smaller numer of your job choices and skills for a period of time. Then practice and integrate these priorities and sets as best you can, hoping that at a later point you will do the same with those options and skills sitting on the bench. Nonetheless, you may have to do some emotional grieving -- grappling with sadness and anger, maybe even some feelings of rage -- as you put aside your other interests and aspirations.
Or you may have to take a part-time job to pay the bills while you are evolving an uncommon integration. Some are able to find peace with this division. I know many IT professionals who would love to be professional musicians, but know that's not going to happen. They band together with other like-minded folks and play music on the side.
3. The Uncommon Integration. I recently met a paralegal who had labored in a law firm for eight years. She enjoyed aspects of the law but dealing with Type A personalities was wearing thin. (You know the "A" in Type A stands for "Attorney.") Drawing on her experience and her analytic and synthesizing apptitudes, she finally grasped the big picture and eventually devised an elaborate yet clear and well-structured procedure for collecting and organizing legal evidence. Her original operational format increased efficiency and effectiveness for colleagues in a wide array of job descriptions.
I don't recall if she realized the far-ranging potential of her uncommon integration and promoted it or if a major legal consulting organization had heard about her work, but in short order she had a new job. Now she was being encouraged to write about her operational concepts and methods and to consult with law firms and paralegals around the country.
The point here is that people who over time grapple with complexity and integrate a number of knowledge bases and skillsets often are the individuals who make unexpected discoveries or develop innovative tools, conceptual models and procedures. And such integration and innovation also allows them to pursue a path that significantly gives play to their own passions, purposes and well-practiced skills.
4. Pursue Your Own Path. When you are juggling and integrating a large variety of skills and interests you may find that there is no employee position that allows you the time, energy and freedom to translate your uncommon body of knowledge and skills into a suitable job description. You realize it's time to explore and ultimately build an entrepreneurial path. Start talking to folks who are self-employed, in private practice or are running their own business. Ironically, developing a network of business relationships -- from colleagues and career counseors to memberships in professional associations -- is often critical when taking that personal "road less traveled."
Best wishes on the challenging journey. Hopefully, the above will help put the brakes on the confusing if not vicious circle, enable you to establish realistic limits as well as manageable options and, eventually, support your integrative breaking away while helping you...Practice Safe Stress!