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. As children, we instinctively looked at the world around us and recognized the careers that seemed to have purpose, making the world a better place. I can’t imagine that many 5-years olds dreamed of being paper pushers or spending their days doing data entry. But we grow up. People around us have expectations for us; we have expectations for ourselves. We might have academic challenges, financial needs, family obligations. We see the world and the careers open to us as more diverse and as more challenging than the Fisher-Price Little People figures that characterize the world for a child.
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 along the lines of “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.
Many of us, maybe even most of us, have trudged through years, even decades of some kind of professional, usually corporate life, trying to take care of ourselves and our loved ones and just waiting for that day when we can retire. The popular culture view of retirement is that it’s when you can start to live, enjoy life, travel, really 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, for the last decade, the digitization of jobs, primarily through automation, has been an exponentially disruptive force. And then COVID-19 hit. COVID-19 has devastated entire industries that may never come back, or at least come back in their previous form. It further 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 the workforce displacement already underway due to automation and other technology disruptions. We’re now living through a perfect storm of human-made and natural disruption that will cause as much reordering in society as the industrial revolution did, perhaps more so.
At this intersection of global megatrends, greater human longevity, health, increasing automation of many job functions, and economic disruption caused by COVID-19, many people find themselves with skill sets and professional experiences no longer in demand in this new digital economy. Learning new technology skills is the answer for some of these people, but it’s not the answer for everyone; not everyone can or wants to become a coder. Increasing workplace automation was already causing angst that “robots are coming to take my job” COVID-19 just exacerbated this angst, and for a good reason in many cases. Also, during COVID lockdown, we all had a lot of time on our hands to reflect on what truly matters to us and question the path our lives were on pre-COVID. For many people, there’s an even more pervading sense of ‘there must be more to it than this.’
But a real opportunity is emerging out of all this disruption. As an increasing number of “traditional” jobs do become automated, what is left are the most human of activities and talents that, at least for now, we do better than computers: empathy, creativity, innovation, communication, relationships. How might people reinvent, or at least future-proof their careers by utilizing these very human capabilities in ways that bring them more joy and give them more of a sense of purpose? In particular, we know that people in or approaching middle-age often have cause to reevaluate their lives and careers as they realize that they’re at least half-way through their lives and the clock is ticking. For many people, spending the last 30-years of their lives gardening or playing golf is neither viable nor desirable. That there are a lot of people taking stock and echoing the conversations with their 5-year old self, “What do I want to be when I grow up?”
For the authors, the idea began to emerge that if we could identify some of these people and collect their stories, we might find some themes emerging that would enable us to help other people reflect on their values, skills, and passions. Then we could create a framework from the themes that we identify to help you, the reader:
- Understand in your terms what made you who you are today: your ambitions, hopes, desires, and hesitancies;
- 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 yourself, no matter what age you are, to align your skills and values with the things you’re passionate about in life.
- A constant openness to learning new ways of thinking, working and extending existing strengths, and building on experiences.
These conversations and musings on possible people whose stories we might be interested in capturing led us to the idea of writing this book. As it began to evolve, we came up with the concept for “The Impromptu Game Plan: The purposeful but also opportunistic careers of people like me.”
This book will explore the career and life stories of people who’ve made pivots in their lives, sometimes through choice, sometimes as a reaction to opportunity or challenge (or both), to create more meaningful careers that utilize their strengths and experiences and speak to their passions and values.
Each chapter will pull out of those stories some of the pivotal moments, mindsets, and behaviors that help some people navigate life’s serendipity and survive, and even thrive, through its challenges more successfully than others. We have drawn out some common themes, mindsets, and behaviors of these stories to create a framework, our Storytelling Wheel of Reflection. Using our framework, readers will then have the guidance, support, and ideas to get started on reflecting on their own stories, mindset, and ambitions and build greater purpose going forward.
One of the things we realize is that 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 and 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, and she 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 and, normally stable and secure, careers. We in no way mean to minimize such careers’ value and meaning; we just don’t believe that those are the stories that we’re interested in exploring.
Instead, we were interested in stories that had more twists and turns. People who perhaps 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?
The stories we chose mainly focus on people in their 40s and 50s because they’ve already lived enough life to have rich career stories. But the audience is adults at any stage of their lives if they’re willing to take accountability for living their values, actively learning through reflection, and with an orientation for action or personal responsibility.
As we talked to our storytellers, our questions could be quite probing and personal. More than one person likened our interviews to a cathartic conversation, an intense and meaningful, helpful, and clarifying session. We drew on decades of coaching prowess, with a particular focus on positive or appreciative lines of inquiry. Mostly, people found the insights and observations that we made to be helpful. Sometimes, they weren’t as open to the observations and weren’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. We realized we needed a degree of openness and willingness to explore their motivations from the storyteller for the stories to be intact and valuable. Not everyone is at a point in their lives where they’re willing to do that with anyone, let alone a couple of writers.
One caveat we want to make to all of 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 iterated through multiple drafts with the 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 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 the stories and subsequent reflections, 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 relatively self-contained so that you can also dip into it and read one or two stories, reflect on them and then put it down.
This book is very deliberately not a diagnostic to discover, label, or categorize anyone’s story. Instead, it is a collection of conversations with courageous, extraordinary, ordinary people like you who have chosen to pursue their dreams and make a difference in all sorts of ways. Most of all, this book is meant to encourage and inspire, or at a minimum reassure us, that we are 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 and 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 not be sure 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 career expanders: I’m satisfied with my career for now, but I want to flex and add to it, perhaps preparing for a different future. Wherever you are in your journey, we hope this book is useful whatever age you are.
One observation that multiple storytellers made to us was how helpful it was to say their story aloud to someone listening intently. With that in mind, one suggestion we have is that after thinking through your timeline somewhat, you tell your story to a trusted confidant. 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 more apparent. 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 who is interested, patient, present, and has a sense of connection with you. Sometimes immediate family members are too close, and possibly the attendant behind the desk at the municipal library is 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 process of hearing the stories, reading our notes, then writing up the stories, we continued to reflect on our reactions to them. Catherine and I had conversations between ourselves and with the storytellers about our reactions. Sometimes, the storyteller would then reflect on our reactions and admit that they’d never considered that particular 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 may be overlooked or even intentionally put aside for a later point when you have the time and luxury of thinking through what they mean. Now that you’re considering pursuing your passions or greater purpose, it may be that ideal time to walk back through the formative, the profound, the forgotten, the sad, and sometimes highly amusing steps of your own wonderful impromptu career journey.
This short suite of questions draws on our coaching experience and the formulation of our authors’ responses to the narratives. It is by no means exhaustive, and we would encourage you to augment it. As you read our reflection questions, think about a time in your life when a very simple yet powerful question acted as an unblocker, moving your thinking and creating a platform for further reflection or even action.
When considering each of the themes and subsequently 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 and concentrate primarily on the 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 immerse in this reflection? How do other people perceive you concerning these experiences? How do you notice this?
- When you move from thinking about one to another, notice the overlaps or connections and let these build as you go through all four. Some will be much more interconnected for you than others. Other connections will reveal themselves over time when you stop actively thinking. 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, consider yourself in the shoes of being your own coach and advisor; what else would you ask yourself to think about?