“Know your lines and don’t bump into the furniture” – Spencer Tracy’s response when asked about the secret of great acting
Rick, is a quick witted, charming, client of mine, who seems to have it all. He went to an Ivy League school, has an MBA at Stanford, an impeccable resume which reflects his achievements at well-known technology firms, a fancy title and makes a salary that most of us would envy. His boss gushes over him and his colleagues will tell you that he’s killing it. He’s bright, has a knack for relating to people and has a super bright future in his field.
When we met casually and I asked him about his work, he smiled and proudly told me about his latest projects and quests. So I was really surprised, when he contacted me a few days later for a career strategy session. When I asked about what prompted the call, Rick blurted “Actually, I’m feeling really stuck. Everyone tells me how lucky I am to be in my position but to tell you the truth, the thrill is gone. Frankly I’m going through the motions…and I hate working without passion. I’d love to do something else where the work I do makes more of a difference, but I feel that I can’t give this up.” Rick is in career jail. And only he has the keys to escape.
“You had the power all along, my dear” – Glinda the Good Witch when asked by Dorothy how she can return to Kansas
Over my 30+ year corporate career, I’ve observed so many talented people who over time unwittingly became a member of what I call the ‘walking dead’. You know the type. Somehow they manage to hang on for years just doing enough to keep their job, but don’t have much impact. They devote most of their energy to keeping a low profile, out of danger’s way. They may have been bright stars like Rick, who are now burnt out shells of their former selves. These poor zombies never escaped. They are not happy, and they look older than their years, just dragging themselves to work each day.
As a career coach, I work with clients like Rick, who outwardly seem to be doing well, but feel an ache in their soul - a wanting to express their true selves and to feel fully alive again. But they feel trapped.
“You have a masterpiece inside you, you know. One unlike any that has ever been created, or ever will be. If you go to your grave without painting your masterpiece, it will not get painted. No one else can paint it. Only you.” ― Gordon MacKenzie
So if we have so much to gain by making a jail break then why the heck don’t we do it? The darn keys are within arm’s reach of the door and most people don’t even reach for them! What is going on here?
As it turns out, much of this seemingly bizarre behavior has its roots in the way we are wired, literally. While we may think we have evolved from our evolutionary ancestors, our brain still has some of the same internal circuitry of Neanderthals. Keep in mind that for almost all of Homo Sapien’s history, life was short, very dangerous, and usually ended violently. In a world where saber-toothed tigers and other predators quickly could make minced meat out of us, our brains were wired for two major concerns, both related to survival: attack (don’t get eaten) and lack (make sure there is enough to eat).
So how is this related to getting out of career jail? Research shows that people have a negative bias, meaning we detect negative information much more quickly than positive or neutral information. In other words, we are much attentive to what can go wrong, than what can go right. When things don’t go our way (“I applied for 20 jobs online and didn’t get a response”) this tendency often causes us undervalue positive feedback (‘I had a great informational interview’). This bias also leads us to work much harder to avoid a loss (e.g. good paycheck, familiarity with role and people) than to seek a gain (e.g. opportunity to do more fulfilling work). An example of negative bias: If I get an extra $100 dollars in my paycheck I will get some momentary satisfaction which will fade quickly; if I am shorted by $100, I will become quite agitated and not let it go until it is remedied.
The amygdala is an almond-shaped section of nervous tissue located in the temporal (side) lobe of the brain. There are two amygdalae per person normally, with one amygdala on each side of the brain. They are part of the limbic system within the brain, which is responsible for emotions and survival instincts, among other things. The amygdala will do all it can to keep you are safe, using fear as its primary tool. To be clear the amygdala is not concerned with your happiness, self-actualization or desired contribution to the world. It just wants you to survive (and to pass on your genes but we are not going to get into that here!). The bigger the change you contemplate, the more aroused the amygdala will be. It will conjure up all the possible worst case scenarios to prevent you from moving forward. And the amygdala is very cagey, sounding like the voice of reason at times and screaming at you at other times. All of this undermines your confidence, gives you anxiety, and saps your will to change. In short, the amygdala is an excellent prison warden.
To be fair, the amygdala is not all bad. When you stroll in a dark alley and you tense up, and quickly reverse direction, you can thank your amygdala. When you are at the edge of a cliff, your amygdala will send signals to have you back off. When you pick up danger vibes from someone on a bus, yep, it’s your amygdala sizing up the situation. Again, the amygdala wants you to survive - and does not care at all about you wanting to thrive.
So how do you get out of career jail? Glad you asked. Like Glinda said, you always had the power, my dear.
Luckily, the brain is actually quite flexible and can be rewired (a term called neuroplasticity) to serve you instead of hindering you. Here are three techniques that have given clients the keys to break out and do work that lights them up.
Once you’ve gotten to know your jailor, write him/her a letter using a pen and paper, and respond to each fear. (It doesn’t work as well with a keyboard). You’ll find that there are fewer fears than you thought there were and that when examined under the light, the fear(s) are quite exaggerated, perhaps bordering on absurd. Let your jailor know that you are in charge and that you are quite capable to manage the risks. Be specific on how you will manage the risks (e.g. ‘I will build up my savings account over the next 4 months by cutting back on expenses so I will have a safety fund). Let your jailor know how important making this change is to you, how you are committed to do fulfilling work, and that you will not let fears block you. You write out the job description for the jailor (‘you can give me feedback on my decision but only if you speak civilly, and by no means will you make the decision.’)
Doing this exercise will put you in charge. As you move forward in the face of your fears, the power of the jailor will weaken.
Over time you will be able to discern when it’s your jailor talking or your true voice. Eventually this inner critic will be tamed – and you will be free to live the life you are meant to live, with the impact only you can make.
You have the keys to be free and do the kind of work that lights you up. As Nelson Mandela so eloquently put it: "There is no passion to be found in playing small - in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living."
Are you ready to start painting your masterpiece?