What to Do With an Avalanche of Choices

We like having lots of choices.  Yet with each option, there is always the lurking possibility we’ll make the wrong choice.  And, we hate being wrong.

Which is the absolute right choice?

In her book, Being Wrong, author Kathryn Schultz points out that, “As a culture, we haven’t even mastered the basic skill of saying “I was wrong.” Instead, we justify our choices and actions with false apologies and rationalizations: “I was wrong, but” … or “mistakes were made.”  She explains that, we do it so that we can “distance ourselves from responsibility.” (Schultz references statements by Nixon and Reagan.)  Yet our choices continue to impact our lives.

What’s more, she says, “Our default attitude toward wrongness — our distaste for error and our appetite for being right — tends to be rough on relationships.”  (Here’s her intriguing Pop Tech video.)

Given our distaste for being wrong, what can we do to make better choices? 

What can we do to increase our success and happiness — at work, in our relationships, and maybe even improve the world a bit along the way?  

1.  Limit your choices.  Yes, it seems counter intuitive.  But Sheena Iyengar, author of The Art of Choosing, makes a good case. But it’s not easy to do in a world of seemingly endless choice where you’re faced with literally dozens of toothpaste options or hundreds of dating choices on Match.com. She says, “more choice leads to less satisfaction or happiness.”

Meaningless minutia” bogs us down so that every little difference matters way too much.  We end up constantly second-guessing our decision: “How do I know that there isn’t something better?”  Your enjoyment of this avalanche of choice, Ivengar contends, “will be diminished by your regret over what you had to give up and leaving you less satisfied than you would have been if you had had less choice.”

The perfect is the enemy of the good. — Voltaire

Fearing that you’ll make the wrong choice, your anxiety increases. “We exhaust ourselves in the search,” she warns us.  “Even the most unbiased source can’t promise that a new finding tomorrow won’t reverse recommendations. The more information we seek out, the more confused we become.”  In a study involving 401k investments, “more choice, had, in fact, lead to worse decisions.” Of course, there are times where we really need more choices and do our research, such as weighing job choices or considering surgery. (Check out Iyengar’s TED talk.)

In Acquired Tastes, author Peter Mayle takes you on a journey with the wealthy and their choice dilemma. He says, “I’m not at all sure that they enjoy themselves as much as we think they do.  And why?  Because, damn it, something is always not quite right.”  He explains, “expectations tend to increase in direct proportion to the amount of money being spent, and if you are spending a fortune, you expect perfection.  Alas, life being the badly organized shambles that it so often is…perfection is rare.  Details that we would consider trivial assume enormous significance: the breakfast egg is inedible because it is marginally under boiled…the list of maddening blots on the landscape just goes on and on.”

Regardless of our financial situation, this search for perfection infects most of us. Not only do we hope to find the perfect job, life partner, or doctor, we expect to find perfect all around us:  the perfect cell phone contract, romantic restaurant, or pair of shoes.

2.  Know who you are.  This sounds ridiculous at first.  It’s not the trivial choices that require you to know yourself; it’s the decisions without any easy answers.  Just think about the decisions you’ve had to make recently — about healthcare, a mortgage, a job change, or a relationship conflict.  All too often we don’t know what we want until a situation arises.  Ivengar says, “we don’t bother to mull over the tough questions until we’re caught between a rock and a hard place, and by that time, we’re in no shape to give the answers most beneficial to us.”  We’re so busy racing around that when the time comes to make a tough choice, we’re usually too overwhelmed, exhausted, and stressed. 

Often there isn’t an obvious right or wrong choice. So “it becomes exponentially more difficult” to choose.  Paradoxically, she says, asking for more options proves that we don’t really know what we want.

For important decisions, Ivengar recommends that we do some honest soul searching — and be open to thinking and acting differently.  But that takes time and reflection.  Most of us aren’t willing to do that.  Then we only have time to react, and fall back into our “I was wrong, but” excuse.  While keeping the status quo seems easier, it’s unlikely to improve our choices — or our happiness. Habits acquired over the years don’t change easily. It is hard work! If we are truly interested into thinking better and improving our decisions, it’s worth it.

3.  Get your automatic brain under control. Ivengar reminds us that, “even when you know what you ought to be doing, what you would prefer in the long run, you can find yourself distracted and dazed by options that set off the automatic system.”  So you over-indulge at the dessert counter, or worse, sabotage a relationship and end up paying the price for a bad decision for years.

Jonathan Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis, refers to the automatic brain as “the elephant.”  It’s enormously helpful because it effortlessly, subconsciously, operates our bodily functions and more.  But for many key decisions, you need more — logic and reason — or what he calls “the monkey” brain.  Your logical brain is “completely absorbed in looking out for problems and opportunities.”

Unless you make an effort to control the elephant brain, your automatic thinking will kick in about 95% of the time according to Gerald Zaltman.  The elephant brain can get you into trouble — reacting instinctively to pleasure (over-indulgence) and danger (anger). Oscar Wilde said, “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.”   Imagine how much happier and successful you’d be if you could just engage your logic and reason a bit more often.

4. Learn to be an expert in the process of choosing. It sounds complicated, but it is easier than you might think. Ivengar recommends borrowing the knowledge of others because they can help you develop insights and expertise more rapidly than if you attempt it on your own.  Find a mentor to help you test your thinking.  That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t trust your judgment — but rather test your judgment where you know it needs improvement.

Ivengar says you need to “find reasons not to choose what you’re immediately drawn to. Have a heavy dose of skepticism about your own thinking.”  Work with your mentor to probe into how and why you make choices. Start by paying attention to your decisions (which is easier said than done!). Brainstorm about ways to reduce your reaction mode.

Having an outside expert doesn’t solve the problem of your having to choose, she warns. “Given how many ways one can go wrong when choosing, it’s tempting to pass off a choice I’m supposed to make as an opportunity for another person to express an opinion.  This way, I don’t have to take responsibility for the choice, and the person I ask often enjoys giving advice.  Your mentor can’t make decisions for you — or make perfect recommendations.  They can probe deeper, recommend alternatives, and share decision-making successes and failures.  Over time you “can learn to simplify, prioritize, and recognize patterns.”

Don’t start with your most complicated choices.  Instead, begin with something easier so you’re willing to take risks and it will be easier to see progress.  Simplify your decisions and decision process. Invengar and others recommend limiting your choices to 3 — or groups of 3s. (McKinsey consultants apparently use this with their clients.) In a New York Times article, Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice, says, “When looking for a new camera, limit yourself to 3 Web sites.”  (That makes sense, unless you’re a photographer.) Or if you’re wrestling with something bigger, such as a career change, break down the decisions into groups of 3s.  Instead of thinking of all the possibilities at once, consider categorizing them into types of organizations:  nonprofits, government, or social enterprise.  Then repeat the process of creating job categories.

No one can make the right choice all the time.  But you can stop wasting time on meaningless minutia.  Instead, invest your thinking time in decisions where you feel that you’re making progress in your life.  Leverage them to your best interest — and best self.  Feel more in control and less on automatic pilot.  Get there faster with a supportive mentor who can accelerate your ability to learn and grow.

How I Took the Leap: My 9 Steps

Taking the Leap: It takes both optimism and thoughtful planning

by guest blogger Angela Bushman

I recently left an enviable, reasonably well-paying job at a Fortune 500 company in favor of a free-fall into the great, unknown landscape of opportunity.

The sort of role I (until recently) occupied offered splashy, exciting projects, travel and connections with people of mind-blowing talent. It was, as many have told me, “a dream job.” It just wasn’t my dream. And that dissonance made it stressful.

I am a blend of free-spirited idealist and responsible mother and homeowner. Yet my own experiential evidence supports what might otherwise qualify as irrational optimism. I have been hired during hiring freezes, in poor economies, in dire times, when pundits and public alike have preached doom and gloom. Others in my circle have made recent moves that have offered both higher pay and reduced stress. Even the LinkedIn newsfeed notified me that a rather significant percent of my connections had made a move in the past year. Thus, I am choosing to believe in great possibilities based on the tremendous value I offer, my network of supporters and luck.

Each day I face a kaleidoscopic range of emotions, from confidence and excitement to fear and doubt. Even my optimism has a pragmatic bent — I’d begun networking and found positive support among outside colleagues even before I leapt. I have a financial cushion, and there are folks I know I can call for freelance, contract, and project work. My resume, bio, and online profiles had been diligently updated.

I struggled in my recent job for some time. Even when I began, I knew my stay would be temporary. A position in an established department of a large company calls for a narrow set of skills.  I’m better at creating something from nothing, synthesizing disparate ideas or programs and establishing the structures and systems to support what I’ve built.

And yet my ego told me I wanted this recent job on my résumé, even if for only a short time. What I planned to be a two-year stint turned into nearly four years as project after project came at me, causing a hamster-on-a-wheel effect. I had no idea how to get off. Developments in my personal life made the relative stability of staying put a necessity. Now that I am a single mother of two, established in a new life routine, I’m re-prioritizing my own health and happiness.

Within days of having made the decision to take this leap, friends and colleagues began asking me what was different?  Was I in love? Had I lost weight? Did I do something different with my hair? I was immediately happier and more joyful — and those around me could easily tell. Stress no longer plagues me. I’ve begun sleeping restoratively through the night. And I actually crave healthier foods. Even if this leap of faith seemed crazy, I know I’ve made the right choice for me.

Are you ready for a major life or career transition? If so, give yourself the gift of planning:

  1. Prepare the tools you’ll need for next steps. Update your resume, LinkedIn profile, bio and other tools you might use in your search.  Or have your business plans drafted.
  2. Start networking. Ask colleagues for recommendations, connections and contacts. Go even further:  tell everyone you know what you’re looking for and what makes you great!
  3. Plan your finances. Save or negotiate a financial cushion.  Six months of expenses is often recommended.
  4. Craft a personal marketing plan. Identify your key strengths, competencies and types of roles and organizations you’ll target. Be sure to think about what skills or services you might be able to offer on a freelance or contract basis.
  5. Notice cues in your environment. When you stop hearing “Are you crazy?!” and begin hearing, “Good for you! Let me give you some names,” — you know change is afoot. Allow yourself to be fueled by the positive energy around you.
  6. Look for evidence. I’ve recently seen a number of colleagues not only find a better work-life balance but also achieve higher earnings. There’s a trend I can embrace!
  7. Consider your total compensation. Evaluate your salary and benefits and find ways to discover how you can leverage your strengths in growing industries.
  8. Build a support system. You may experience times of uncertainty or self-doubt. Have a plan for managing through these times. Find a mentor — or counselors, colleagues and friends who can affirm your value and skills.
  9. Adopt a sales mentality. Every “no” means you’re one step closer to “YES!” in theory, but here is a link for practical tips to help you in the process.

So what’s my plan?

  • I’m taking my time and re-focusing my career direction to better leverage my strengths and achieve greater work-life balance.
  • I’m viewing opportunities in the way I view dating:  I’m not a great fit for everyone, and not every one is for me. Still, I can always get excited about meeting new people and learning about new opportunities. I’m working on finding a match that’s rewarding for both of us.
  • I’m searching for an opportunity that values and rewards my strategy, program-building, communication and relationship skills.
  • I’m connecting fearlessly by reaching out to people in decision-making roles and expanding my network.
  • I’m exploring how to publish the children’s books I’ve written.
  • I’m researching the costs and potential market for two new products.
  • I’m writing business plans for two or three business ideas that I believe have potential.
  • I’m blogging.

I wish you the very best on your next leap of faith, and I hope you’ll return the favor.

Angela Bushman is a Minneapolis-based writer, marketing communications consultant and mother. Contact her at writetouch@gmail.com.  


Your Best New Years Resolution: Find a Mentor

Get the insight and support you need to move ahead.

National Mentoring Month just happens to coincide with our annual ritual of making New Years resolutions.  As we reflect on the frustrations or lost opportunities, and all that we dream about, it is the ideal time to take stock in what we really want to happen — this year!

All too often, we do nothing more than make a good list and attempt a few weeks of effort.  Then, little changes.

Life is about moving; it’s about change.  And when things stop doing that, they’re dead.  — Twyla Tharp


This year, try something new: Find a Mentor! Research shows that going it alone isn’t the quickest or best path to success. So regardless of what you do in 2011, a mentor can help you get there. They can help you be more effective, encourage you during setbacks, ask thoughtful questions, help avoid problems, offer real world solutions or realistic alternatives you might never have even considered.

Finding a good mentor is like finding a good job.  If you know what you want, and set clear goals, you’re more likely to find what you’re looking for — and make changes that are important to you.

3 STEPS TO HELP YOU GET WHAT YOU WANT

1. Set Goals — What’s On Your List of New Year’s Resolutions?

Mentors can benefit you in so many ways that it’s important to think through what you want.  Make sure you look for a mentor that has the skills, experience, or insights that are right for you.

What do you want your future to look like? What do you dream about? What do you want to achieve? Do you dare to radically raise the bar? What would you like to change or improve? Are you unhappy at work? Career passion shouldn’t be an oxymoron. If you’re not sure what you want, a mentor can help you figure it out too.  Crystallize your goals to narrow your search:

  • I’m frustrated in my current job. I need help figuring out if I should stay or if I should make a change.
  • I want my own business. I have an idea but I’m not sure how to get started.
  • I’m really unhappy at work, burned out. I could use help figuring out how to juggle my job, my family, and having a life.
  • I run a nonprofit, but I’m having trouble managing my board.
  • I think I’m ready for a promotion, but my boss doesn’t think so.  What can I do?
  • I’ve been looking for a job for nearly 2 years.  I need someone to help regain my confidence.
  • I’ve always thought about working for a nonprofit. I’d like to talk to someone who switched from corporate life.
  • I’m doing okay as an artist, but I need someone to help me get to the next level.
  • I’m great at marketing, but I need more management experience.
  • I like my job right now, but I want to explore my options.

2. Select Criteria — What type of mentor do you want?

What makes a good match?  Think about a teacher or boss who made it easy for you to learn, and helped and encouraged you to achieve more than you thought you could. What type of person was it that helped you open doors, see strengths you didn’t know you had, or kept you focused and on track? What were the key things they did that led to your success?  Identify your top 3-5 must-haves. Narrow down your criteria so you don’t waste time interviewing mentors who aren’t a good fit.

Consider what’s really important: chemistry, communication, conflict of interest, experience, pet peeves, similarities, time commitment, trust, and values.

Example: Business Start Up I’m seeking a business owner who successfully operates an organic restaurant.  I would like one, like me, who is enthusiastic and positive, though a bit more down-to-earth.  I will probably need to meet every two weeks for a few months until I get my business plan figured out, and then monthly for the first year.

Example: Accelerating the Career Ladder I want a mentor with 10+ years of marketing experience in the health and wellness area who has been very successful in her career.  I prefer a woman — someone like me who is working long hours in a demanding job and yet still manages to have a great family life and take time for herself. I need to make sure it isn’t someone who works for one of our competitors, and I would like it to be someone who isn’t in the healthcare industry.

Example: Burned Out, Exploring Options I am hoping to find a practical person who has opted out of the fast track and simplified their life. Ideally, it would be someone who has retired early and switched careers to something they really enjoy. I certainly don’t need someone lecturing me — a know-it-all. I’d like to meet every week at first, until I’m on my way. Then monthly. Probably 6 months would do it.

3. Evaluate your options

You’ll be investing a lot of yourself.  Your mentor will be, too  — volunteering their time, insights, and experience. So  it’s essential that you carefully evaluate your options.  And be open.  Don’t be surprised if you end up refining your goals or selection criteria as you gain more insight into what you really want. Remember: the best relationships are give-and-take. Choose 2-3 candidates to initially talk with, and then select the one who will support you — make real progress toward your goals.

Find a mentor and you just might achieve those New Year resolutions!

Is it crazy to consider a career shift in this economy?

Is now the right time? When would it be a good time? Certainly there are valid reasons not to change. The economy is tough and if you’re earning a decent living it is easy to rationalize staying where you are.  All too often we put this decision off.  We wait for the perfect time or for the perfect opportunity to come to us.

Interestingly enough, many of us are living in limbo. We aren’t fully committed to our current career or to figuring out what might be a better option.  Isn’t life too short to linger in a career that isn’t a good fit anymore?  Why wait — until you’re too locked into your current situation to change, you can’t stand your work situation any longer, or you’ve actually lost your job — before you actively consider a career shift? Exploring options while you’re in your back-up mode — worrying about finances or feeling like you’re living in limbo — isn’t an ideal environment to be open to new possibilities or actively take a risk.  (It can work, but the stress can be stifling.)

Time is life’s real currency. Are you living your life’s currency wisely?

Why not invest in yourself now? Doesn’t it make more sense to do it while you have the energy to thoughtfully evaluate your possibilities?

Time is life’s real currency.  The heart of the question is: Are you living your life’s currency wisely? Many of us start our careers optimistically, without much analysis of our choice.  Out in the real world, we gradually figure out that it was nothing like we had imagined.  Few of us did more than rudimentary skills testing.  Perhaps only a fraction of us found a mentor to help us provide real-world insights to see if we were making a good choice.  Maybe you loved your job for years; only now it has lost the excitement or the meaning it once held.  Perhaps you’re fortunate enough to be quite successful, too well, in fact, so that you don’t even consider what might make you happier — your “best self.”  Let’s hope we don’t sell out for golden handcuffs, especially if the salary isn’t all that great to begin with (or even if it is), because it’s our lives we’re talking about here!

Why not raise the bar? Consider a career change to find one that is more interesting, rewarding, and meaningful — perhaps one that is “more livable” too.  Naturally all careers have trade-offs, but the trouble is that we don’t often take the time to find a better match for ourselves.  We stay where we started just because it seems easier.  On reflection, and once we’ve made the shift, we wonder why we waited so long!  (Some of you may find that this process helps you determine that you’re in the right career; all you needed was a little rejuvenation!)

Take the time to imagine what your life would be like if only you could make a shift. According to Civic Ventures, more than 8 million Americans between 44 and 77 are embarking on new careers. We’ve all heard stories, but somehow we can’t see ourselves — our options.  So stimulate your thinking with a few real life examples:

  • An intellectual property consultant switched to his love of the ocean and now sells sailboats.
  • A banker opted out of corporate life; he prefers to work on his own, remodeling houses.
  • A computer programmer went back to school for a degree in nonprofit management; and now works in energy conservation.
  • A beautician went back to school to become a massage therapist.
  • A stockbroker now teaches fitness and relaxation.
  • A photographer’s representative switched to planning travel for touring musicians.
  • A public relations consultant who loves language, is now a teacher (teaching English to French students).
  • A copywriter went back to school to become an acupuncturist.
  • A dancer/actress became a marketing consultant (also farms part-time).
  • A marketing strategist became a stay-at-home dad, web entrepreneur, and real estate investor.

Don’t start exploring career options with the job market.  Start by asking the more important question: “What do I really want?” Career experts often recommend evaluating the future growth in a particular field, researching potential employers, estimating income and advancement options, etc.  That’s vitally important, but that’s actually the easy part — and it shouldn’t be where you start.

External analysis should come AFTER your internal analysis, which is often more challenging. You know yourself better than you did right after college or your first job. All too often, we know what we don’t want rather than what we want.  Knowing what we don’t want helps us cross options off the list, which is good. Getting us out of our routine and into the more exciting, dynamic world of our passions, possibilities, and motivations is what’s key.  Of course, money matters.  But it’s not solely about the money.  As Henry David Thoreau said, “Wealth is the ability to fully experience life.”

According to Jonathan Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis, you’re more likely to be successful when you find a strong convergence between these two factors:

  • a career that taps into your values (meaning), interests, and abilities and
  • a vibrant field with plenty of job options and upward mobility — and one valued by society.

Start exploring career options by expanding your network. One of the biggest barriers is your existing network. Colleagues know you only in your current role — which is a very narrow view of your potential. Schedule informational interviews with people outside of your current circle — people who are open to seeing you in new roles.

The good news is that it is fairly easy to network these days. Even though everyone is busy, most people want to expand their network too.  Make a commitment to yourself to meet at least one new person each week — with the precise intent of helping to identify what you value, your deepest passion, and your strongest interests. Meet in person, over coffee or lunch, so you can truly to get to know one another in a meaningful way. Be sure to help them expand their network too.

Remember to document what you learn from each interview. Keeping track of your efforts will help you feel like you’re making progress.  It’s likely to take time to piece together all the components of a successful career move. Unless you’ve been training as a concert pianist since the 2nd grade, and built up 10,000 hours of practice, chances are you’ll be in the research phase for a while.  If you’re typically used to making quick decisions, try to enjoy the process and allow yourself time to dig past the first good idea.  For people that love thinking about options, find someone that will help keep you on track so you don’t get lost in the options — a colleague, a coach, or mentor.

It’s important to remember that your career isn’t limited by your direct experience. Sure, many employers are looking for someone with a perfect fit.  But more and more, smart business people know that skills can be taught.  What matters more is a person’s ability to learning and adapt.  As the senior editor at Inc Magazine, Norm Brodsky says, companies should “hire for attitude not skills.”

Career Passion Shouldn’t Be an Oxymoron

Work, we spend most of our waking hours there — and a majority of our creative energy.  You’d think more of us would choose something we truly cared about.  If so many of us are unhappy at work, why not do something we love? There are many reasons, even seemingly good reasons. We settle in, glad to have a job, and doing something we excel in.  It’s familiar.

But, what is the price we’re paying? Are we setting the bar too low, selling life short in a career we don’t value?  You can’t ever get that time back.  Ever. Today it isn’t as though we have only two choices:  making a decent living and barely getting by.  Actually most of us have more career options than ever before.

What's Your Career Passion?

In a recent Forbes article, Lisa Earle McLoed says that when you love what you do it “delivers just about the best return on investment you can get.  Because when you show up with your heart, your mind works at a far greater capacity than when you leave your heart at home.” It’s tough to solve problems and face harsh obstacles when you aren’t fully engaged.  Sure, many of us do amazing things at work, even under really difficult circumstances.  But imagine what you could accomplish if you had more career passion.

In a Harvard Business Review article, Job Versus Vocation — What I Didn’t Learn in B-School, Andrew J. Hoffman stresses the importance of career passion — “There’s pure joy when you take a risk to pursue your dream and find work that you deeply connect with.”   Well, his definition of “pure joy” might be different from mine; but I agree with Hoffman’s point —  take time to think about what you want.  Do you want a job, a career, or a calling? “A calling” might be too strong a word for many of us, but why not seek out a career to be passionate about?  It’s the passion that says you’re leading a life worth living, worthy of all your hard-earned knowledge and your genuine interest.

Cynics might criticize this approach as being too idealistic, too impractical. But as author Seth Godin says: “impossible and perfect” are the two biggest principles stopping people from making progress. I think he’s right. We think it’s “impossible” to have our dream job (or anything like it), and so we focus on all the obstacles.  Or we look for the “perfect” career,” one that’s an absolutely sure bet.   

Often what is really holding us back is a lack of commitment to ourselves.  Figuring out what we’re passionate about can be hard work. Not all of us know what we want.  All too often we only know what we don’t want — and we’re too burned out, frustrated, or busy to make time to think about it.   Or we have a few ideas, maybe even a clear picture of what we want, we just don’t know how to get there. Sometimes it takes trial and error. Gone are the days when our destiny was tied to whatever our parents did or being stuck to one career. Instead, we have a torrent of possibilities even if it doesn’t seem that way. The good news is that today’s career options are so varied; the bad news is that it’s confusing to sort them all out.

THREE WAYS TO RE-ENERGIZE YOUR CAREER PASSION

1. Can’t quit your current job? Re-energize yourself by taking on a new project.  At first glance, this appears to be counter-intuitive.  Even if you’re working long hours, according to research psychologist Dr. Steve Wright, people are happier when they have a job that fully engages them. So find something that’s interesting, challenging, and a good match to your strengths. Find a project, or better yet create one, that you find stimulating.  Or, if you’re passionate about your job, but the environment is sour, mentor someone that could benefit from your expertise.  It won’t fix your current situation, but it might make it more interesting and expand your network.  Or make yourself the new project, and find yourself a mentor. Seek out someone in your field that might reignite your passion for the job or help you start thinking about possibilities.  We all have options though they seem illusive when times are tough.

2. Don’t have a clue what to do? Try a few tools to help you get to know yourself better.  There are almost too many to choose from.  As a place to start, here are four very different approaches to consider:

  • Gallups’ StrengthsFinder 2.0, is a book that gives you a code to take their online test, which automatically generates a personalized Strengths Insight Report and Action-Planning Guide.  Ranked #1 bestsellers by both the Wall Street Journal and BusinessWeek, the book costs $25.
  • The Artists Way and The Artist’s Way at Work are both popular 12-week workbooks.  You complete detailed exercises each week to “rediscover your creative self.” which I think all of us need to be innovative at work.  I found they are more interesting than many career-focused workbooks. The Artists Way has sold over 2 million copies worldwide, so you can easily find them for under $25 too.  They encourage people to work together, in groups, to provide support while you explore options.
  • Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is “the world’s most widely used personality assessment,” with roughly two million assessments taken every year. You can take the assessment test online, free http://www.humanmetrics.com/cgi-win/jtypes2.asp It is so popular that there are other tests, books and resources available on line, compete with career suggestions by personality type; many are free or under $25.
  • Find personal support — books and tools can only go so far. Often what we need is a person to help us sift through the options — a life coach, executive coach or mentor.  Each approach has pros and cons, but what’s important is that you find the support you need to figure out what’s next.  Life coaches often charge $100-$150/hour, executive coaches may charge more.  Mentoring, on the other hand, is free.  With either option (fee or free), it’s important to find a person that fits your values, interests, and personality.

3. Know what you want to do, but don’t know how to get there? If you’re passionate about a career option, then finding support to help you on your way is key.  Often our existing networks aren’t as effective to get where we want to go.  Instead, I recommend finding a mentor to accelerate your transition.  They have the direct, real-world experience and insights you need that are relevant to a specific job.  What’s more, they have a network to help open doors to vital connections. If they specialize in the area you’re interested in, life coaches and executive coaches might be useful too.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have several careers I was passionate about.  There’s an ebb and flow. What I wanted, worked for a time.  Then as I learned more about the job and myself, I gained courage. I was willing to ask important questions about what I really wanted. Each time, I’ve been grateful for the chance to try something new — and live more of the life I envisioned. I’m hoping you’ll be inspired to make the time to invest in yourself and explore your career passion.

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Are We Notoriously Bad at Knowing What Makes Us Happy?

Take a minute to think about it.  Haven’t we all jumped into something — started a new job, moved to a new town, gotten married, retired early — only to find out it wasn’t what we expected.

Fortunately, according to Stumbling on Happiness author Daniel Gilbert, we are far more resilient than we predict.  Unfortunately, Gilbert’s research finds that “most of us spend so much of our lives turning rudders and hoisting sails, only to find that Shangri-la isn’t what and where we thought it would be.”

The Lament For Icarus, by Herbert Draper (1898)

That’s why Gilbert strongly recommends against relying on our limited experiences and our imagination alone when we make decisions. Instead, we should take a closer look into the experience of others. Attempting to rely on our own imagination doesn’t work because we can’t imagine all the pros and cons.  It is significantly better to rely on another human being, someone who is actually doing precisely what you’re considering.  Memories aren’t that reliable either, they fade or are altered by other experiences.  It’s the current experiences that are so valuable. Gilbert goes so far as to say “perhaps we should give up on remembering and imagining entirely and use other people as surrogates for our future selves.”

I think that may be taking a good idea a bit too far, but getting real-world insights from others certainly does make sense.  Firsthand knowledge can help shape our imagination with concrete examples.  Talking to someone who’s doing whatever you might want to do allows you to dig deeper and learn about things you never even considered.

There are no guarantees of course. There are pitfalls to gaining input from others. They might not give you a completely honest response. Your actual experience will be different because the circumstances will be different.  You can talk to one person that loves their job and another person, in the same job, who hates it.  But Gilbert goes so far as to say “the experience of a single randomly selected individual can sometimes provide a better basis for predicting your future experience than your own imagination can.”  (Since this is difficult to believe, and he agrees it was difficult for him too, Gilbert gives a well thought out example in his book.  Refer to page 247.)  His point is that we’re more similar and have more in common with others than we might think.  That’s why their input can be so relevant.

What I find encouraging is that Gilbert points out how easy it is for us to increase our chance to find happiness. All we need to do is find one person that is actively doing whatever it is that we’re considering and talk to them. But will we?  We’ve been relying on our own judgment for so long.  The good news is that most people are typically quite willing to talk about what they’re doing.  And it’s more common to find a mentor to support you all along the way — someone with real-world experience.

So, before you consider jumping from your current job to another one, talk to someone who actually works there.  If you’re considering retiring to Naples, Florida, talk to someone who lives there right now.  Maybe you’re thinking about running for a political office, talk to someone who is currently running.  Sure, they won’t be totally objective, but you’ll have more real-world information to go on.  And a second opinion wouldn’t hurt.

All that said, let’s not lose the adventure.

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There are things I’ve done that, had I known all the challenges going in, well, I might never have dared to jump. A little more insight certainly would have increased my happiness factor, especially during the tough spots.  Here’s one of them, where I should have followed Gilbert’s advice before buying a house in France. Instead, all I did was skim a few books. The romantic notion of living part-time in France and a strong dollar was all that was needed. Lost in my imagination of what it would be like, I didn’t pay close attention to the clues. The first one should have been seeing so many partially completed restorations.  Listening to the real estate agents talk about pending divorces should have gotten my attention too. Fortunately, we avoided one potential mistake when my husband had spent a month alone looking for houses.  That firsthand experience avoided buying a place in the countryside, miles away from anyone, where we would have felt too isolated.

After a long search, we bought our “dream home” in a small village in the Loire Valley.  During our first night in that 15th and 19th century house, an unusually strong storm blew in — shaking everything — including our nerves. Buyer’s remorse kicked in.  It was a large house and literally every wall, floor, and ceiling needed to have decades of “improvements” removed or renovated. What’s more, the cultural differences were daunting. We were certainly not French and weren’t even British! We knew nothing about working with limestone walls, slate roofs, or historic preservation regulations. We knew no one other than a British couple who lived 30 minutes away.  And we didn’t speak French. What in hell were we thinking? Fueling our fears,  an introduction to the village mayor ended with “bon courage.”   We knew it wouldn’t be easy; logically we knew there would be challenges, but the magnitude of it all was something we never anticipated.

Le Puy Notre Dame, France

We were fortunate to receive so much help — it’s a true testimony to the kindness in people.  A local French couple really took us under their wing. They helped us find contractors, sort through restoration requirements, and learn about all things French (not to mention enjoying their delicious organic wines).  Our elderly French neighbors are practically family.  And we have friends that have relocated too: from Britain, New Zealand, Holland, etc.  It’s been three years now, and the restoration is nearly done in the main house.  We’re thrilled to have weekly renters. And when we travel back and forth to the US, we know our friends are taking care of the guests, the garden and the house until we return.  Yes, we’re quite lucky it worked out so well.

In hindsight, I should have found a mentor to help me through it all.  Sure, we made friends, but having someone to talk to that knew me, and actually lived overseas part-time too, would have changed a lot.   I would have avoided a few headaches, assimilated into the culture faster, and been happier all around.  I’ve relied on mentors in my business life, but three years ago, it never occurred to me to find one in my personal life. Having a mentor to count on during the early days and months after the initial enthusiasm wore of, yes, that would have made a world of difference.  Next time.

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I’d Love to Change the World, But I Don’t Know What to Do

Cynicism and ambivalence are fueled as easily today as they were in the early ‘70s when the rock band Ten Years After wrote those lyrics. Forty years later, our endless media blitz spews out a dizzying array of global problems — yet another war, billions living in poverty, millions displaced by earthquakes, devastation from climate change — you name it.   Add that to what’s happening in your own neighborhood — high unemployment, gang violence, political corruption — and any effort to change the world seems nearly impossible.

And it’s not all bad news. Every day, every aspect of life is being explored. Billions and billions of possibilities exist — understanding how the mind works, extending life past 100, searching for other life in the universe, and more. The world is changing in astoundingly positive ways.  Through the internet, anyone can access all of MIT’s lecture notes, exams, and videos for free.  There have been vast improvements in economic and social development, as Dr. Hans Rosling shows us in his video: “the best stats you’ve ever seen.” Because more people want to make positive change, there are many more nonprofit start-ups. Even the U.S. Government is getting more involved; Obama created a new fund to invest $50 million in promising, results-oriented non-profits.

With all these problems and opportunities, it’s daunting.

Where to start? What can any one person do?

Help one other person. Help them directly, person-to-person. Be a mentor.

Anyone can be a mentor because all you need to do is be your authentic self. It’s as easy as sharing what you already know.  Share your real-world experience, knowledge you’ve acquired in your career, and personal insights you’ve gained at work or in your personal life.  Ask questions. Actively listen. Share your successes and your struggles. No one ever achieved anything without having to tackle roadblocks along the way. Give someone a window into your world, so they can better visualize their own way. You don’t need to be a celebrity, leading expert, or world-renown expert.

While we could argue about what is the most accurate definition of a mentor, in my opinion, a mentor is NOT someone…

  • That offers a few hours of her time over lunch.
  • Answers a chat room question.
  • Who knows “exactly” what someone “should” do.
  • That is selling something — a consultant, a life-coach, or a therapist.

Instead, I think of a mentor as a smart friend — a blend of head and heart. A good mentor cares; someone that is truly invested in another’s success. They are there for the long haul, supporting someone for six months or more.  They help someone sort though options, tackle tough problems — and make meaningful change in their lives.

A good mentor takes time to get to know the person they are mentoring, beyond the veneer. They know it’s essential to build trust in order to present one’s true self. Discussing strengths and successes is far easier than talking about the sensitive areas of inconsistencies and weaknesses. A good mentor offers more than objectivity. They go beyond the quick-fix and get on to the hard work of finding out what might actually help. That’s what it takes before you can ask questions with greater relevance — so you can provide insightful responses.

A mentor is someone that is there for the long-haul, supporting someone for six months or more.  A mentor helps someone sort though options, tackle tough problems, and make meaningful change in their lives.

That’s why I’m launching Mentor Planet.  I believe we all could use a smart friend, someone that cares about us — our struggles and helps with our success.

I believe we all could use a smart friend, someone that cares about us — and helps us lead happier, more authentic lives. Look for MentorPlanet.com, coming soon (before the end of 2010).

Imagine a world where everyone had a mentor.  Imagine how we could change the world.

So this Earth Day, be a changemaker. Start mentoring.

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