Many of us invest time once a year for an annual checkup of our physical health. But what about a regular career checkup?
Canadian author and literary icon, Robertson Davies, once wrote, “Weigh up your life once a year. If you find you are getting short weight, change your life. You will usually find that the solution lies in your own hands.”
Here are six questions to help you discover whether your career is healthy — and, if it isn’t, to help put it back on track.
Can I be real at work?
I am all for professionalism. I also like the assurance that whether I am working with colleagues in my field or buying professional services, I am dealing with a true pro that really knows his or her “stuff.” But too often “professional” is another name for impersonal. We often equate professionalism with being unemotional or not showing our true selves.
While few people want us to throw a temper tantrum or break down in tears when we might really feel like doing just that, if we can’t be real and bring our true selves to work we may be selling our soul (or at least our mental health) for a few bucks every two weeks.
When we can be open, transparent, and not put on a “professional” act, is often when we’re the healthiest and most balanced.
A key element of “knowing thyself” is sorting out what’s really important to you. Through study, meditation, contemplation, talking with close and trusted friends, consultation with your spouse, keeping a journal, taking a personal development workshop, or whatever works for you, develop a written list of your four to five top principles.
Reputation is what people think I am. Personality is what I seem to be. Character is what I really am. Our goal should be to break down the barriers between the three until they are one.
Am I growing with change?
The popular goals of security, stability and predictability can be deadly. They can lead to stunted growth and reduced learning. In today’s fast-changing world, if we fail to change, it is we who will likely be changed. If we don’t control our own future, someone else will.
Only a mediocre person is always at his or her best. If you are getting very comfortable with your expertise and skill levels, your learning may have leveled out.
You may not be stretching and challenging yourself enough. Your comfort zone could be fossilizing into a complacency zone. Are your personal habits stepping stones or stumbling blocks?
Use Benjamin Franklin’s “method for progressing.” He identified 13 virtues he wanted to develop. Each week he worked on one of the virtues for a total of “four courses (cycles) in a year.” Each night before retiring, Mr. Franklin reflected on and recorded his progress on that week’s virtue.
Join the Daily Reflect and Plan Club. You need at least 15 minutes and ideally 30 to 45 minutes each work day.
Use this time to read or listen to spiritual, inspiring, or educational material, write in your journal, day dream, review the previous day, set your priorities for the next day to sort out the urgent from the truly important, pray and meditate, continue developing your vision, values, and purpose, etc.
Experiment with many of these activities until you find the ones most meaningful for you.
Develop or join a network of colleagues who are as interested in personal learning and development as you are.
This can be a powerful source of learning from other people’s experiences. It’s also a great place for you to reflect on your own experiences and articulate your improvement plans.
Stretch outside your comfort zone a bit at a time. It will never go back to its original size.
You might try analyzing a problem in a new way, developing a new skill, meeting new people who operate at the performance level you’re aspiring to, watching or listening to an educational television or radio program, or making that tough phone call right off the top. Daily or even just weekly small stretches accumulate into powerful new habits and ever stronger discipline muscles.
Skill building starts with assessment. Develop your skills performance gap by identifying what skills you need to fulfill your vision. Then get feedback on your current skill levels.
Have I become a victim?
It’s so easy to get stuck in Pity City. Since misery loves company, Pity Parties become popular as everyone points fingers at their favorite targets on the other side of the we-they gap found in many organizations. Problems, setbacks, and disappointments are often wailed about in a rousing game of blame storming: “They’re doing it to us again.”
We can’t choose the sometimes disastrous changes that whack us on the side of the head. But we do choose how to respond. We can try to change or influence the environment to navigate difficult changes. Or we can try to work around the situation and succeed despite “them.”
Take the initiative to keep communication channels open with your boss or other colleagues. Outline your roles and responsibilities. Set your top three to five goals. Get your boss’ input and adjust accordingly. Meet periodically to review progress and reset priorities.
Try to better understand the bigger picture that “they” are operating within. Do you know what keeps them awake at night? What their key goals and priorities are? How can we align our efforts?
Learn how your organizational game is played. Any organization of five people or more is political. Politics involve relationships, trust, power, persuasion, and influence.
Don’t succumb to the “Victimitis Virus” by allowing more senior managers to disempower you. Leadership is action, not position. Be a leader. Make things happen. If you know it’s right for your team and the organization, learn how to play the system to get done what needs to be done. Remember the Jesuit’s Rule — It’s always easier to get forgiveness than permission.
Is there a moose-on-the-table?
Imagine a team meeting around a conference room table. They are reviewing progress and making plans. Charts are reviewed, slides are projected, documents are handed out, and calculations are made. Now imagine that standing in the middle of the conference room table is a great big moose. No one says a word about the moose. Everyone carries on polite conversation as if this situation is very normal. Meanwhile the moose is eating papers at one end of the table while plopping out moose pies at the other end of the table.
The moose is a problem that everyone knows about but won’t address. People are trying to carry on as if things are normal. Meanwhile, the problem is blocking progress and has caused some team members to tune out of conversations. By failing to confront the problem, they empower it. The moose grows bigger.
In some organizations, identifying the moose-on-the-table can be a career limiting — or ending — move. The most effective teams regularly ask such questions as: What should we keep doing? What should we stop doing? What should we start doing? These questions identify the moose and move the team forward.
Play with the moose-on-the-table concept. It’s a powerful and fun way to get serious issues out in the open. You could get team members at a meeting to write down and hand in a few of the biggest moose they feel are present. Cluster the similar issues and hold a secret ballot on the top clusters. If you suspect people aren’t being open during a discussion, ask: “Is there a moose-on-the-table we need to talk about?” Or if you see a potential issue emerging you might say: “I’d like to put a little moose-on-the-table.”
Contribute to authentic conversations in an authentic workplace. Speak the truth as you see it. Obviously the time and place needs to be appropriate. Diplomacy and tact are also critical. Help others (especially your peers and those above you) to see the moose-on-the-table.
Is work a four-letter word?
Years ago, I worked in a company with an emotionally intelligent CEO. A favorite motto of his was: “If you love what you’re doing, you never have to work again.”
We all have our doubt days, when we’re not sure we’re in the right job. But our jobs aren’t work unless those doubt days become as routine as getting up in the morning. If your work has become work, you’ve lost the passion. Meaningful work goes well beyond what you do for a living; it joyfully expresses what you do with your living.
Identify your strengths and passions. Assess how often and in what ways your current job is aligned with these. If the gap is large, look for ways to make changes in your work, change the work you’re doing in your organization, or leave and find work that is in stronger alignment with your strengths and passions.
Our passion for what we do — or our lack of it — tells us if we’re in the right place. To be passionate about our work, that work has to keep moving us ever closer to expressing who we truly are. The more closely “who we are” is aligned with “what we do,” the deeper is our passion and commitment.
Flight attendants instruct passengers traveling with young children that should the oxygen mask ever drop from the panel above, put the mask on yourself first, and then help your child. Our parental instinct is to do the reverse. Assess whether you’re so busy attending to everyone else’s needs that you’re failing to oxygenate yourself.
Ensure you plan and hold sacred the time to do those activities that recharge and revitalize you. It’s the only way you’ll have to maintain the energy for your work and to help others in your personal or professional life.
Do I have a job, career or calling?
In the movie “City Slickers,” Billy Crystal plays Mitch, a middle-aged man in crisis who has lost his direction. He and his friends go to a dude ranch to participate in a real cattle drive and search for the meaning of life. Jack Palance plays Curly, a crusty old cowhand whose job it is to babysit the city slickers along the dusty trail.
In one memorable piece of dialogue, Curly asks Mitch: “You know what the secret of life is?”
“No, what?” Mitch responds.
Curly holds up his index finger. “This.” Mitch looks confused. “Your finger?”
“One thing. Just one thing,” Curly growls. “You stick to that and everything else don’t mean sh-t.”
“That’s great,” Mitch replies, “but what’s the one thing?”
Curly smiles. “That’s what you’ve got to figure out.”
In typical movie fashion, of course, Mitch solves his problems by gaining new perspective on his life and knowing what changes he has to make. He learns that “it” — the one thing — varies for each of us. As Mitch tells one of his fellow searchers, “It’s something different for everybody. It’s whatever is the most important for you.”
At least once a year, spend a quiet evening of uninterrupted time “daydreaming” with your spouse or life partner. Take turns fantasizing, seeing, and describing an ideal life together while the other person takes notes. Look at family, house or home, your careers, your physical health, your financial health, community involvement, spiritual growth, and social life. Now start setting goals and improvement plans to turn your fantasies into reality.
To find the core of your deepest and truest inner desires and vision, you may need to keep a running “dream list” for awhile. Record every dream, desire, or goal that pops into your mind. Once the list is complete and exhaustive, start sifting through it to look for patterns or clusters. Begin to group and prioritize your dreams until they’re narrowed down to a manageable number. This is your personal source of energy and passion. The next step is unleashing that incredible power through visualization or imagery.
Build your confidence and reinforce your vision by keeping a private “blessings and brag list.” It should contain every accomplishment, strength, or success you’ve ever had along with all the blessings you’ve enjoyed — no matter how small. Keep adding to it. Review it frequently, but especially when you’re doubting or down on yourself.
Balance is a popular and elusive goal for many of us today. Well-balanced people pause periodically to review their progress. They know how easy it is to confuse busyness with effectiveness.