“How do I move forward?” Asked a mid-thirties woman who sat in an audience of leaders. “I don’t know what I want to do next. I know where I am now is not right.” She had a great job, one that had instant credibility with everyone who sat in the room with her that night. She told us that she knew she needed to explore something else. Her current role wasn’t right. But she had no answer to the question of, what’s next? That was the show stopper. She’d been facing that decision for quite a while. Stalled. Unhappy. Ready to move. Or was she?
In can’t tell you how often I’ve heard that same statement. It comes from career professionals of every age, from stay-at-home moms, from recent college grads, from empty-nesters, and from people exiting relationships they’ve long-dreamed of leaving. They all seem to be locked in a holding pattern, wondering ‘how’ to move forward.
Early on in my transition I thought the answer to this question was all about process. Yes, I am a process wonk. I love, love, love process. That said, one event that occurred at the start of my transition convinced me that the answer to this ‘how’ question is about much more than process…
Soon after leaving my conventional c-suite existence, my husband and I volunteered at a community service event in our town. Picture folding chairs in a school hall basement. At the day’s outset, teams were asked to stand and introduce each other.
In introducing me, my husband turned to the audience and said. “This is my wife, Linda. She is a great mom.”
I was momentarily stunned by his introduction. Good thing I had introduced him first otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to speak. I am not sure what else he said after the word, mom. I was furious.
By the way, I am a mom who loves parenting. My dedication as a mother had nothing to do with my reaction that morning.
My reaction that morning was all about a disaster brewing around my identity. I stood in the basement of the school rudderless. I was completely irrational. Unglued.
All of a sudden, all the ways in which I’d come to know myself seemed to be missing. Leader. Business Executive. Entrepreneur. Boss. Colleague. Harvard MBA.
Without these familiar identity tags, who was I?
Thanks to that experience and to listening to hundreds of others just like me via my research, I now understand that moment very differently.
I believe that our questions about ‘how’ have more to do with the risk of losing our identity, and the real fears associated with that loss, than with process steps.
Identity is something we cultivate over time. We start young. Very few people exit college or leave adolescence with an iron-clad vision of their future. It requires work. To do that work, we try on what are called provisional identities. These trial balloons are typically driven by:
- genuine interests, e.g. ‘I was always a competitive athlete so I think I’ll go into sales’; or
- happenstance, my neighbor’s cousin was looking for a technology geek for her start-up;
- targeted effort, ‘I wanted to learn more about business so I applied for the audit training program at GE.’ or
- expectations, ‘all of my friends were getting married so I felt as if I needed to find a spouse and get married before I turned 30.’
Even though the term provisional sounds temporary, these try-on identities rarely are.
Provisional or not, identities serve as critical connective tissue as we establish ourselves in our communities. Your provisional identity may be focused on an occupation, like being a customer service czarina or a stay-at-home mom. Occupation in its role as connective tissue links us to our communities via things like status, or job title, or even social circles.
The switching costs related to the connective tissue feel incredibly high.
One mom, a West Coast tech-executive, summarized this best for me. “I don’t like what I do anymore. I’m not sure it was ever for me. But my daughter is in school here. I’d love to leave tech but I want to keep her in this community.”
I’ve observed again and again this hesitation of changing an element of who we are, like a job, for fear of its impact on another element, like our friendships.
If you want to explore the impact of identity shifts on ‘how’ further, try bringing your awareness to what constitutes your personal eco-system; like your occupation; your family; the community where you live; your faith. Then spend a moment or two exploring how each factor influences you. This simple exercise might help you reframe the list of things you need to think through as you begin the work of moving forward.
I’ve come a long way from the school basement. I can gladly tell you that the most important elements of who we are show up regardless of our decisions about transition.
Yes, I am still an executive and colleague.
But now I make more time to be a friend.
How will you choose to show up?
This week I hope that you embrace the unstoppable power that is resident within you. My suspicion is that what lies ahead for you – while unknowable today – will be grander and more perfect that you can even imagine. The only requirement?
Deciding how you will begin…..**
** For those who are process wonks, my next few posts will feature more process steps for moving forward!
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