Small children are often asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Many of us said things like a firefighter, a doctor, a nurse, or a teacher; the careers path of Fisher-Price Little People toys. As children, we instinctively looked at the world around us and recognized the careers that made the world a better place. Our 5-year-old selves didn’t dream of being paper pushers or spending our days doing data entry. But we grow up. We realize that our possible career choices are more varied than the Little People options. People around us have expectations for us; we have expectations for ourselves. For most of us, academic challenges, financial needs, family obligations fill our adult lives.
If you’ve picked up this book, even to glance through it, chances are you’re someone who is at least casually wondering, “Is this all there is?” You may have had a long and successful career but never felt that sense of purpose that seemed so obviously the right path to choose when you were a child. So often, career advice is “do what you love, and the rest will follow.” But that is wildly impractical advice for most people, particularly young people. And it also assumes that we have clarity about what we love, about where our passions lie.
We trudge through decades of some kind of professional, usually, corporate life waiting for that, often elusive, day when we can retire. The popular culture view of retirement is that it’s when you can start to live, enjoy life, travel, embrace your hobbies and passions. But retirement today is not the given it was for our parents and grandparents. The concept of working for a company for 30-years and then retiring with a gold watch and a livable pension went away for most people many years ago.
Meanwhile, the automation of many traditional jobs continues to grow. Many of our jobs and career paths have been, or soon will be, disrupted. And that was before COVID-19 hit. COVID-19 has devastated entire industries that may never come back, or at least come back in their previous form. It disrupted the world, the economy, the workforce in ways that we will be living with long beyond the end of the spread of the virus. The economic disruption caused by lockdown has accelerated disruption caused by automation. We’re now living through a perfect storm of human-made and natural disruption. This disruption rivals the industrial revolution.
Many people find themselves with skills and professional experiences no longer in demand in this new digital economy. COVID-19 and lockdown fast-tracked digital transformation efforts for many companies. This expedited digital transformation only exacerbated the existing angst that “robots are coming to take my job.” Learning new technology skills is the answer for some people, but it’s not the answer for everyone; not everyone can or wants to become a coder.
But a real opportunity is emerging out of all this disruption. With the automation of an increasing number of “traditional” jobs, what’s left unautomated are the most human of activities. Activities we do better than computers: empathy, creativity, innovation, communication, relationships. People can reinvent, or at least future-proof their careers by utilizing these very human capabilities. And in the process, have careers that bring them more joy and give them more of a sense of purpose? COVID-19 lockdown caused many people to appreciate having more freedom and flexibility in their daily work lives. Beyond questions of work/life balance, people are questioning their relationship to work. Now that many of us can go back to the office and return to something like our pre-COVID lives, it turns out we don’t want to. We’re echoing the conversations with our 5-year-old selves and asking, “What do I want to be when I grow up?”
We’ve found some themes emerging by identifying some of these people and collecting and reflecting on their stories. We’ve created a framework from the themes that we identify to help you, the reader:
- Identify what your bedrock skills are and which of them will be fit for purpose in this new world order.
- Identify your values. Many people have a pervading sense of ‘there must be more to it than this.’ They want careers and lives that have a purpose and align with their values.
- Be agile enough to reflect on and then pivot your career and life to reinvent themselves. Regardless of age, it’s never too late to align our skills with our values and passions.
- Develop an openness to learning new ways of thinking about building on your existing strengths and experiences.
This book will explore the career and life stories of people who’ve made pivots in their lives. Some of these pivots are by choice, sometimes reacting to opportunity or challenge (or both). But in all cases, they led to more meaningful careers that make the most of the person’s strengths and experiences. And most importantly, align their strengths and experiences to their passions and values.
Some people navigate life’s serendipity and challenges and survive, and even thrive, better than others. Each chapter pulls out of those stories some of the pivotal moments, mindsets, and behaviors to reflect on why. We also draw out some common themes, mindsets, and behaviors of these stories. We used these to create a framework, our Storytelling Wheel of Reflection. Using our framework, you will then have the tools to interrogate and reflect on your own stories.
People have different working definitions for strengths, passions, values, and experiences. This is, even more, the case for safety and security and resilience. Unlike other writing in this domain, we are okay with that. What matters is that you think about these concepts. That you have a personal working definition that can help you reflect and capture and build your story. We don’t need to take a stance and tell you this is or isn’t what this part of the wheel should mean to you.
We decided to use Sarah’s story to explore our process and begin to look for themes. Sarah told her story to Catherine, who interrogated it further to help pull out threads and insights. As we looked at the output of this work, we began to get a sense of the kind of stories that interested us and a sense of those that would engage our readers. And we knew the stories that weren’t a good fit: Some people know that they’re interested in a career such as medicine at a young age. They study for it for years and then have long and successful careers as doctors until their retirement. These people are fortunate; they have a clarity of purpose early on and can have meaningful, stable, and secure careers. We in no way mean to minimize such careers’ value and meaning; those are not the stories that interested us for this book.
Instead, we looked for stories that had more twists and turns. People who often had some plan but took constant pivots as life threw opportunities and roadblocks at them. We were very interested in how some people respond with more agility and success to their roadblocks than others. What are the mindsets and behaviors that such people have? How might other people use an explanation of these mindsets and behaviors to reflect on their own lives and careers?
We found that there are certain traits that some people have that predispose them to experiment and seek fulfillment. These predispositions can come to the forefront anytime across a lifespan.
The stories we chose to focus on are from people in their 40s and 50s because they’ve already lived enough life to have rich career stories. But the audience will be adults at any stage of their lives who are questioning their career path.
As we talked to our storytellers, our questions could be quite probing and personal. More than one person likened our interviews to a cathartic, helpful, and clarifying conversation. We drew on decades of coaching prowess. Most people found the insights and observations that we made to be helpful. Occasionally, someone wasn’t as open to the observations and wasn’t willing to dig further into an event in their lives. We’re not therapists and had no desire to open up painful wounds for people. When it seemed like we were touching on such issues, we backed away from using the story. For the stories to be helpful, our storytellers needed to have a degree of openness and willingness to explore their motivations. Not everyone is at a point in their lives where they’re willing to do that with anyone, let alone a couple of writers. This is a mindset worth considering as you reflect on your story: be open and honest with yourself.
One caveat we want to make to all our wonderful stories is that they’re the storyteller’s viewpoint. With the best will in the world and being as open and transparent as possible, everyone has their view of events. As we talked to each storyteller, we tried to peel away layers to get closer to “the truth,” at least to their truth, of the narrative.
How you might use this book
We want you, the reader, to use other people’s stories to think about your own story. And then to use our Storytelling Wheel of Reflection. We hope you can use it to reflect on your strengths, passions, experience, mindsets, values, and capabilities. As we have gone through writing this book, we have also been in constant learning mode. We have learned that some people prefer to start with the stories. Some people prefer to read the stories and then the reflections together. And others prefer to start with the model and begin with an initial understanding of their own story. Of course, we hope that people find this book compelling and valuable enough to read cover to cover. But we’ve written each chapter to be self-contained so that you can also dip into it and read one or two stories and then reflect on them.
This book is not a diagnostic to discover, label, or categorize anyone’s story. It’s a collection of conversations with courageous, extraordinary, ordinary people like you, people who have chosen to pursue their dreams and make a difference in all sorts of ways. Most of all, this book should encourage and inspire, or at least reassure you. We’re all agents in our own lives, particularly in these unimagined times.
After reading this book, we hope that you’re able to articulate your own story or journey. We encourage you to reflect on it using our reflection questions and our Storytelling Wheel of Reflection. There isn’t a single way of using the wheel; you can start anywhere. You may be at a pivotal moment in your life or career and unsure what’s next for you. You may be starting on your career journey and not be sure which path you want to start down. One of the interesting things that we found was that this wasn’t all about career changers. Some people were career confirmers: I’ve gone through this process and discovered that I am happy where I’ve ended up. Other people were expanders or adjusters: I’m satisfied with my career for now, but I want to add to it, perhaps preparing for a different future. Then there were the career explorers: I want to experiment and test and see what is possible. Many people were more than one type at the same time. Wherever you are in your journey, we hope this book is useful whatever age you are.
One observation that many storytellers made to us was how helpful it was to say their story aloud to someone else. With that in mind, one suggestion we have is that you tell your story to a trusted confidant after thinking through your timeline somewhat. Ask them not to interrupt you if they can help it. But that at the end, to ask some probing questions so that the timeline, meaning, and motivation become clearer. It may even be worth recording the conversation. Honesty is vital. Missing out on essential aspects of your story because they’re embarrassing or painful is understandable. But it’s these moments that are often the point of greatest reflection and, therefore, learning and growth.
Your trusted confidant could be anyone in your life or extended network. Anyone who is patient, present, and has a sense of connection with you. Sometimes immediate family members are too close. But the attendant behind the desk at the municipal library is probably too remote. We would refer to these trusted confidants as trusted advisors, and there may be more than one of them. You may also want to return the favor if they enjoy the process.
Throughout the storytelling process, we continued to reflect on our reactions to them. We had conversations between ourselves and with the storytellers about our reactions. Sometimes, the storyteller would then reflect on our reactions. Some admitted that they’d never considered that interpretation and that it was insightful for them. This process, listening to our storytellers’ stories, then reacting will happen when you tell your story to another person. The dialogue that comes from this can be rich and valuable.
Telling your story can be a powerful tool, revealing things you know and things that lie somewhat hidden. Some events have a profound impact. Yet you may have overlooked them. You may even have set them aside for a future time when you have the time and luxury of thinking through what they mean. But now that you’re considering pursuing your passions or greater purpose, it may be that ideal time to revisit them and to walk back through all the steps of your own wonderful impromptu career journey.
These questions draw on our coaching experience and our authors’ responses to the stories. It is by no means exhaustive, and we would encourage you to add to it. As you read our reflection questions, think about a time in your life when a very simple yet powerful question acted as a catalyst, when it moved your thinking and created an opportunity for further reflection or action.
When considering each of the themes and subthemes, recognize that your reflections may fit in more than one place. There will be immense insight and power in the interconnectivity between one, two, or more themes.
These reflection questions apply to each theme: Passions, Strengths, Experiences, and Mindsets.
- Start with either of these four main themes; start where you feel the most alignment.
- Wherever you start, write down a definition of what this theme means for you. Our brief description can help you but shouldn’t limit you.
- Think about what that definition means in a practical sense. How do you think about or experience each of these definitions of the theme? What emotions do you experience when you first think about this theme? What might other people say about you around this theme?
- When you move from thinking about one theme to another, notice the overlaps or connections. Some will be much more interconnected for you than others. Other connections will reveal themselves over time. Give yourself time and space to dwell.
- Then start to think about your Resilience and Safety and Security. What keeps you safe? What makes you courageous? What helps you energize and stay strong?
- Then take time to think about who you are: your identity, Guiding Principles, Beliefs, and Values. What are your non-negotiables, and how do you make decisions and seek advice?
- Finally, try to put yourself in the shoes of being your own coach and advisor; what else would you ask yourself to think about?
This book is a means to help you explore, understand, and get meaning from your personal story. This book is for people who are thinking about what matters to them and how their career fits into their greater life purpose. This is not a diagnostic tool. It’s not a handbook to help you get the next big job, the mega pay rise, or the corner office. Although these might result from your reflections and later actions if these are the things that will make you fulfilled. We hope it will help you build a life and career with more alignment between your passions and purpose.
If you are keen to make the most of your strengths, experience, passions, and mindset, the best place to start is to think about what they are. From there, anything is possible as you further develop a fulfilling career.
This book is more than anything about courageous people making the ordinary extraordinary. Real people like you. We hope it inspires you whether you want to be a career changer, confirmer, adjuster, or explorer.