I originally posted this article on my postgraduate careers blog and it generated some interest so I thought it would be of interest to readers of Societal Innovation too.
I love this quote attributed to Winston Churchill – it sums up that sometimes when you are facing tough times, there’s going to be no rescue squad on hand and you’ve just got to stick with it and keep on going. I’ve written about resilience before and in this post I’m returning to that theme.
Recently, I have met a number of people who have hit career lows. There have been lots of reasons for this, but largely it’s come down to the political/economic environment we are in and the subsequent re-structuring in organisations and squeeze of individuals therein. We can all experience career lows; e.g., any PhD researcher reading this will probably very easily be able to tell you about low/s within their research or similarly a student who realises they are on a course they hate; the same can be the case if you’re in the wrong job, facing redundancy or in an unhappy work environment.
So career lows are normal but it’s how we respond to them that’s important.
I recently read Peter Hawkins new book “No Regrets on Sunday”. I have seen Peter speak on numerous occasions and am familiar with the excellent Windmills programme which he jointly devised, so thought his latest book would be worth a read.
Peter Hawkins talks about lifting off from your lows and using them as a way to re-evaluate what you want. It sounds cheesy but he also argues that we do need lows as the provide contrast and help us appreciate our highs. That’s positive thinking for you.
So what can you do when you’ve hit a low? Hitting a low can provide an opportunity to really do some soul-searching about where you want to go next. Much of this is about asking yourself questions and allowing yourself time to give fully considered replies.
Below, I have borrowed Peter’s 7-day plan ideas and put my own twist on it. The 7 point plan goes beyond just work but looks at how you position your work and career within your life as a whole
1. What’s your mindset?
Be honest with yourself. Remember in many situations, the only difference between a good day and a bad day is your attitude. Think about any limiting beliefs you have, are you always saying something like… “If only”, “I can’t”, “It’s not fair”. If you recognise you do have a negative mindset, try to start re-framing events/experiences in a different way. For example “I’m devastated that I didn’t get the job I applied for” could become “I have to trust that I didn’t get that job because it wouldn’t have been the right job for me, but I have learnt a lot from the experience of going to interview”
2. Analyse how you use your time.
The Windmills programme describes the 4 parts of your life: Working, Learning, Playing, Giving (WLPG). Take time to reflect on how your time divides up now and what your ideal division of time would be. You can do this using circles. Think of the size of each of your circles and whether they overlap etc. If your Working circle dwarfs all other circles, is this something you are happy with?
3. What roles do you play in life?
You may be a student, a researcher, a parent, a son or daughter, a volunteer, a partner, a colleague, a neighbour, an employee, an employer etc. How much time and energy does each role take? Rank their importance; and reflect on whether the importance of a role is reflected in the amount of time/ energy you give to it. If roles that are very important to you are getting very little of your time or energy, what can you do about this?
4. Do you really know what you are good at?
Have you done a thorough analysis of your skills and talents and are you currently able to utilise these? Are you stuck in a rut doing something that isn’t fully optimising your prime skills? If you’re not sure what your prime skills are, do a skills audit (the No Regrets book includes one), and consider ways to fully optimise your skills, e.g. if you’re an engineer but you know you have skills in developing others, why not volunteer to coach a youth sports team. It makes sense to play to your strengths.
5. Is your life fulfilled or just full?
How happy are you? How happy were you before you hit this low? Does your work and life fulfil you? What really gets you excited and passionate and are you able to make use of this passion in your life or have you done at any point in the past? Think about your purpose in life and whether you have been side-tracked along the way. What do you do that really gives you a buzz and you can really lose yourself? When was the last time you were so absorbed in something so that you didn’t look at the time for at least an hour. You can safely assume that when you are absorbed by something you’re doing it’s because you’re bringing together a combination of your innate skills, interests and even purpose.
6. Create your goals
Take time to step back from the conveyor-belt of life; create your goals by imagining a date in the future and thinking about what you’d like to be doing. On this date in the future (it could be 6 months, 2 years, or 10 years); how would you like to describe to a questioner, what you may have done over that period of time. Start to take small steps to reach those goals. Hawkins talks about creating your own Golden ticket (thanks Charlie Bucket from Roald Dahl). He suggests writing it on a postcard and sending it to yourself – the postcard should outline your long-term vision but also create a quick-win. A quick-win should be something you could do in the 48 hours; writing/updating your CV could be a good example of this, or creating a Linked In profile to act as a vehicle to keep in touch with your extended network.
7. Appreciate and nurture your supporters’ club
Hawkins uses the “bench” metaphor to capture the idea of who is in your all-important supporters’ club. Sometimes having a career low can really help you evaluate who really is on your “bench”. Who would be there with a stretcher to take you off if you were injured and give you a morale-boosting talk after a defeat? Think about who is on your bench and be ready to appreciate them; do something to thank them. Sometimes one of the best things about having a low is that the people that matter will often help you. Very often it may be people you have helped in the past. It’s really useful to know who your supporters are as it is within that group of people that you’ll grow. So sometimes a low can make it clear in terms of relationships where you can flourish or in contrast what relationships are not fertile ground for you and will strangle you with weeds or starve you of a good soil for growth. Move away from the latter soil and plant yourself firmly in the former.
Thanks to Peter Hawkins and Windmills, as well as all the people who have shared their career lows with me – for inspiring this post.