One day I had two back-to-back interviews that ended with the interviewees asking me roughly the same question. It went something like, ‘I know where I’m at isn’t right, but I am not really sure what I want to do next.” I found it incredibly interesting because the circumstances that brought these two women to the same question couldn’t have been more different. One was regrouping thanks to a harsh corporate experience and the other was challenged by an empty-nest. This coincidence got me thinking that their experiences didn’t differ all that much from my own. After all, I arrived at transition with a deep belief that something more was possible for me. But what? How do we move forward from moments like these?
If any of you have been at this juncture, you know that it is a really humbling experience. Let’s face it. What do we do if we don’t have an answer to the question, “what is next?”
I responded to not having an answer to this question by pressing into action. I guess I reasoned that if I couldn’t be measured on all of the things I’d come to know as ‘success’ – like 60+ hour work weeks or 2 am meeting prep – at least I’d be able to measure my progress with completed ‘to-do’ lists.
I now know that this ‘do-loop’ – while comforting thanks to its familiarity – couldn’t have been more misguided.
There are three critical steps you need to take during the initial stages of transition, that stage best characterized by not knowing.
- You need to give voice to those things that hold value or meaning to you;
- You need to reflect on why you are asking yourself this question; and
- You need to begin to envision – or dream – looking forward. This last activity needs to avoid at all costs our propensity to be past-focused.
Before we explore these three steps, let me expand on the issues facing my two interviewees. Here are their stories:
- “I left my corporate job. It started because I was growing increasingly unhappy and the situation at work was getting worse,” said Kate, a single dynamic thirty-seven year old. “I needed to change the excessive amount of stress I’ve been under,” she told me. Kate knew deep down that she’d made the right decision but she was surprised at the negative impact it was having on her. “I’ve never been 100% about work.” She told me about her very real fears related to her decision, like those connected to an uncertain financial future. “It feels scary, sad and lonely.”
- Later I met Stephanie, an empty-nester who had worked full-time in-the-home for many years. Her identity was upended thanks to a radical change in her role. “I becoming an advisor more than a hands-on parent.” She said. Stephanie toggled between feelings of pride for a job well-done and hopelessness. She was engulfed in a great sense of loss now that her youngest had left home. She talked about being alone and deeply sad.
Their stories are at a similar stage. In fact this same question gets asked regardless of a transition’s trigger – like a retirement or deciding to pursue more of your potential, or a divorce. It doesn’t matter what initiated the question, the interviewees are both staring at a blank canvas. What now?
If you are thinking about a similar question, try exploring these three steps. Each is focused on bringing shape to the beginning stages of transition:
- Give voice to what holds value or meaning to you. What constitutes value for you? Answering this question can be more difficult than it sounds. Take a moment to write down true statements about yourself. Like, “I put my family above all else,” or “giving back is a daily priority.” If you are struggling, do the exercise every day for a week. Once complete, take a moment to observe how you responded. What do you notice? Can you summarize what holds value or meaning to you? Be aware, many often jump to moralistic responses to this question. The question isn’t really a morals test, it is asking you to articulate the guideposts that serve as your personal ballast. It can even be something personally meaningful that you aspire to…..
- Reflect on why you are at this moment. Can you identify the triggers or feelings or circumstances that cause you to consider transition? Try inventorying them. Write as detailed a description as possible. For example, instead of saying “my relationship with my boss,” write, “my relationship with my boss who refuses to sponsor anyone for promotion who didn’t train with him in his squadron.” Once you’ve created your list, write a one sentence summary about what brings you to transition. Note, I’ve observed that transition is rarely single-threaded. Sit with the question for a moment or two. See what comes up.
- Create your own crystal ball view. Imagine that you get to peer into the future through your own fairy tale-esque crystal ball. Draw or describe in words this window into your future. What image do you see? Can you describe the environment? How does it feel? How does it sound? Are there people or relationships in your image? Who or what is absent? Once you finish, take a moment to write down questions that you might explore about your future now that you have ‘seen’ this picture.
Hopefully you can find a quiet moment to bring your awareness to these exercises. Next time we’ll talk about a few more techniques for those struggling to put shape around the initial stages of transition.
Keep in mind that the process of transitioning is multi-step. It requires us to re-examine our assumptions about our identity, capacity and values. It involves re-calibrating our notion of who we are and how we make meaning in the world.
Here’s what I’ve learned along the way: we use what holds value and meaning to us as guard rails as we grow or transition into our next stage.
Each of our answers to the question will differ. What matters in all of this exploration is that we move in concert with what holds value and meaning to us. There is no judgment on what you come up with. Some answers will lead people to be entrepreneurs, others will aspire to a monastic life of reflection, still others will see themselves for the first time outside of their roles in relation to others (parent, grandparent, sibling, spouse).
This week may you find a quiet moment to explore the incredible talents that you alone possess. I hope that you meet the responses to this exploration with an open heart.
Of this I am certain, the world desperately needs all that you can bring forward.
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