Breaking Away

19 Jul

At my new employer, there’s a saying that goes like this:

In school, we get the lesson, followed by the test.

In real life, we get the test followed by the lesson.

Oh so true! And I can speak from personal experience. Back in 2004 and 2005, I was at a “mid-term” (okay, yes ,”mid-life”) point, soul-searching in both personal and career matters. On both fronts, there were situations that tested me more than I’d ever been tested.

Up to that point in time, I’d been pretty lucky. Happiness had not been difficult to find. I’d married the man I loved, had two lovely kids, a house in the suburbs and a respectable career. I didn’t have to fight to reach any of those classic milestones in life. Not saying that I didn’t work hard and deserve my lot in life. Just saying that my path was never unnecessarily complicated or challenging.

Then, suddenly, I felt the need to ask myself some pretty deep personal and professional questions:

Do I like where I am?
Do I like who I am? Is this what I want to be when I’m ‘grown up?’

Because ‘grown up’ is now.

Annoyingly, a mentor of mine kept asking me this:

What is the lesson?

At the time, I’m not sure that I knew what the test OR the lesson was! The only thing that I had in mind was:

Gee, life is really difficult right now, and I’m not really having all that much fun.

I felt like reading a lot of Sartre, and I’m glad I didn’t do too much of that. Enough existential angst running around my head already!

Now, looking back on that time, I can better understand the test, and the lesson. The substance of it doesn’t matter, but the process does.

We’ve all had these moments in time. For me, they’ve hit at predictable developmental points in my life and in my career. Like my mentor’s question, this is also annoying. Because it just goes to show that I am not much different (aka better) than anyone else. That’s the first part of the lesson.

If you are at a point of feeling “stuck” in life, with family or career questions bombarding you, you may have reached a critical turning point–a time that will define what’s next.

Here’s a good checklist to help you build up momentum again and head in the right direction:

  1. Know thyself (and don’t snow thyself). Everyone is capable of lying to him- or herself. Don’t fall into this trap, because it’s a deep hole and requires a superhuman effort to climb out. Be clear about and stay true to your own values, and the choices you make will reflect them.
  2. Keep close friends (and friends close) and listen when they question you. Trust the counsel of your allies, even when it’s hard to take in.
  3. Change is a funny thing. Sometimes is best made quickly and cleanly. Other times it requires a lot of endurance and has to be made over time. Before you make a change, consider the short- and long-term consequences. Think through all of them and imagine yourself there. While changing can be cathartic in the moment, it may not feel that way after a few years. Think before you leap. Conversely, sometimes slow change creates needless pain over time. Better to yank off the band-aid than to draw out the agony. What type of change would this be for you?
  4. Seek out evidence that will help you to “pass the test” and “learn from the lesson.” If you get past an obstacle and it was just by luck, you’re going to run into that obstacle again. Guaranteed. So save yourself some heartache and learn it the first time, even if the lesson is painful.

One last piece of advice from another mentor of mine:

Keep your head on straight, and be true to your heart.

In the midst of even cataclysmic change, this will not steer you wrong.

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