The Chasm vs. the Puddle

A little while ago I posted an entry entitled “Small Steps that Can Lead to Big Change“. Relatedly, this past Christmas I posted about psychological barriers to moving ahead with the search to improve one’s work situation: “Psychological Blocks to Pursuing a Better Career.”

Today I’m going to advance some additional thoughts on these subjects, prompted by my having met in the last couple of weeks with a few clients who have found themselves frozen in their attempts to move forward on pursuing new directions in their careers. The common element in their situations is the perception that moving forward will ultimately result in such a disruption in their daily routine, and such a dramatic change in their circumstances, that they’ll be unable to handle it. And the truth is that if their job situation changed as dramatically as they wished they probably would be unable to handle it.

But generally progress in life as an adult doesn’t occur in great leaps. It happens in small steps, and with each step a shift in perspective occurs, and new knowledge and skills are gained. As these steps are taken, the new knowledge or perspective gained is integrated and solidified. This process can be observed in all kinds of learning (whether a foreign language, improved sports technique, or on-the-job training). Sometimes the step taken may actually be a step backward, but even that step can offer valuable learning.

Another aspect of the small step that is often overlooked is that small steps begin to have a cumulative effect and create a momentum that is greater than might be expected by totaling up the individual moves forward. This effect occurs because of the internal shift that accompanies progress: as new knowledge and perspective are gained confidence increases, energy increases, and outlook brightens.

Getting Unstuck in Your Career Search

Let’s take a couple of examples.

1) You’re a 38 year old GS-14 working in the Department of Energy on clean energy initiatives. You believe in the work you’re doing but find the bureaucracy frustrating and your co-workers just “going through the motions” – the environment is simply not stimulating enough for you. You think about making a change but the leap seems like a huge one and you aren’t even sure in which direction (private enterprise? consulting? policy? going back to school to burnish your credentials). And of course you’re loathe to give up the relative security of the government job, so you are stuck. I would ask “what’s one small step that you could take that would increase your knowledge just a bit about some options available to you?” Perhaps it would be talking to your wife’s cousin who works at Booz Allen to learn more about the life of a consultant. Or googling “fastest growing clean energy companies” and reading about a few of them.

2) You’re a 24 year old paralegal, feeling underutilized, undervalued, and underappreciated. You don’t have a J.D. and really have no interest in getting one, even if you had the necessary hundreds of thousands of dollars it would take to go back to law school and support yourself without a job. You have no idea what kind of work you’d like to do, nor are you sure that you have appropriate qualifications for engaging employment (your undergraduate degree was in medieval studies). Perhaps you could contact an institution offering paralegal training and talk to an advisor about what paths might be open to a paralegal. Or go on Linkedin to find out if anyone in your contact network used to be a paralegal.

3) You’re a 51 year old senior manager at the World Bank earning an excellent salary and enjoying the numerous benefits but feeling burned out, although nowhere near ready (or able) to retire. You have numerous interests (golf, travel, wine, airplane model building), but none of them seem to be suitable as foundations for a new career. What’s more, is a new career even possible at age 51? How could you succeed in competition with people half your age with twice the energy? I’d recommend that you pick up one of a number of excellent books on career shift (e.g. “Strategies for Successful Career Change” by Martha Mangelsdorf or “One Person / Multiple Careers” by Marci Alboher), not for the answer, but as stimulation for a new way of thinking about your situation.

The search for a new career can feel like standing at the edge of a chasm. but if you look down you can see that all you need to do to begin is to step across the puddle.