If you're feeling stuck in any part of your life, chances are you are locked in to two assumptions:
As a coach and HR professional, I've watched careers flame out because people didn't ask for help. They stayed in their bubble, held themselves back and let their skills deteriorate. Eventually they found themselves in a deep hole, exhausted by the prospect of climbing out.
How To Ask For Help
1. Your Armor Works Both Ways
(If you're not reaching out, you're also not letting others reach in. Get comfortable sharing your truth so others (colleagues, bosses, loved ones, your dentist, anyone!) can help spark new opportunities. Many years ago, I told my truth to the very corporate and buttoned up Chief of Staff of my organization.
I said, "HR has been really good to me and I know it's time for me to leave it behind. I want to be certified as a coach and I'm looking a holistic program that embraces mind-spirit-body."
It was frightening to share my "touchy-feely" side with her but my mind was blown when she sent me a link to Coaching for Transformation. It was exactly what I was looking for and it eventually formed the foundation of my coaching career. And now I am on the faculty of that very program!
2. Vulnerability Is Strength
I can't say this any better than Brene Brown does so here's some of her wisdom. How can you be more vulnerable (and courageous) in asking for what you need?
3. Let Yourself Off the Hook
Here in the U.S. and particularly in my hometown of NYC, we drive hard to be self-sufficient and to not need help. We celebrate self-made people like Oprah Winfrey and Bill Gates, but they will be the first ones to tell you they didn't do it alone.
In my South Asian culture there's a hierarchy that makes it deeply uncomfortable, even verboten, to ask for help. I grew up in a family where we simply did not share our struggles with others and certainly did not ask for support even when we desperately needed it.
I notice these dynamics operating in me all the time and they are powerful. I have to practice stepping out from behind the armor in service of real strength and the many possibilities that lie in front of me.
What will you ask for today?
I first met Jim in 1996 when he interviewed me for a Human Resources Manager position at the Associated Press, a job I desperately wanted. To work in Rockefeller Center, for the world's oldest and largest news-gathering organization would be a dream come true. As head of the HR department, Jim was the final interview in what had been a long process. I knew if I hit it off with Jim, the job would be mine. Luckily, I did.
That was the beginning of a decades-long professional bond and friendship that I have treasured every day. After I left the AP in 2000, we stayed in touch and Jim eventually hired me back for a year-long project that helped sustain MadhuCoach in its infancy. He then helped my business blossom with many generous coaching referrals and words of wisdom.
Jim helped me and many, many others grow professionally. My colleague Robert Naylor wrote after Jim's death, "Jim Donna was a mentor who approached me with the far-fetched idea that I should be an Associated Press bureau chief. He was a diversity champion. It was he who appointed me chairman of the AP Diversity Council. Above all else, he was a very decent man."
Jim often said, "I've got a lot of little boy in me." He showed us his playful side every day.
One project I worked on was a management training program for AP's domestic bureau chiefs. My colleagues and I came up with the idea for a "baseball game" to capture the learning of the two-day seminar. We'd have the managers take turns "at bat" while one of us workshop leaders would "pitch" them questions. Easy questions were singles and harder ones were doubles, triples or home runs.
We weren't sure how such a game would go over with a skeptical crowd, but Jim had no doubts. He cheered us on to great success in the program and set us up to become trusted partners to the bureau chiefs, some of whom remain my friends to this very day.
Shine from the Sidelines
Jim didn't need the spotlight; he knew how to make things happen from behind the scenes. He was a master influencer who used his keen intellect, winning smile and practicality to solve everyday problems while reshaping the entire AP.
Jim was the reason there was an HR job for me to interview for in the first place. He saw that AP needed to build its HR capacity and made the case to hire "outsiders", people who were trained in HR, to bring the department and the whole AP forward. Before Jim, HR was called "Humans" and was mostly staffed by journalists who had risen through the ranks. He helped us "outsiders" acclimate to AP's unique culture and paved the way for us to do our jobs well.
From Jim I learned that leadership doesn't mean being the loudest voice or having the highest title. He showed me how to shine from the sidelines.
In these three ways and many others, Jim redefined my ideas about leadership and power. He showed me that leading should be full of fun and in service of others. I learned that no matter what my role, I can and should make a difference.
In 2010 Mamta Prakash was unhappily in business with her husband, longing for freedom and new horizons.
She now has seven years of experience as a finance professional, advising non-profits on how to utilize financial information towards creating resilience and long-term sustainability. (Oh, and she is a really happy person.)
How did she do it?
Mamta's biggest lesson has nothing to do with networking or skill-building or going back to school. In fact, the thing that had the biggest impact on Mamta's success was a physical challenge: signing up for the NYC 5-boro Bike Ride.
"I completed the full ride. I was exhausted but thrilled. I felt if I could accomplish that I could do anything in the world. And that confidence was darn important at the lowest point in my life. I think back and that was the most important part of my transition."
"I would advise other people to take up a challenge unrelated to their main journey and make it happen. The courage and confidence will buoy them."
In order to train for this ride, Mamta did several key things that changed the trajectory of her entire life and allowed shifts to happen in her career.
You may not take on a physical challenge like Mamta did, but what will you do?
While navigating my own career change, I took improv classes. I found a support network of really fun friends, took risks in every single class, committed to performing in a few shows and got back up out of my chair even after totally freezing up.
It turns out that improv is what fueled my ability to be a really good coach. It taught me how to be in the moment and respond with curiosity to whatever my clients bring.
Take a moment now to brainstorm a list of 10 non-professional challenges you can take on within the next 90 days. And check in with the following questions:
For years I've invoked Dolly Parton as my very own Goddess of Courage. She's consistently modeled fearlessness and a fierce belief in herself over her long career in a male-dominated industry. While there are countless reasons to follow Dolly's lead, this story illustrates why she's my go-to inspiration when I feel small and stuck.
Drawing from Dolly's bold decision to turn down Elvis, I now ask myself regularly,
"If I say no, what am I saying yes to?"
This question prompts me to take on a longer term view, to open my mind to possibilities beyond what's right in front of me and most importantly, to consider my deepest values.
When I Said "No"
Here are three times in my life I followed Dolly's lead and said no to things that seemed impossible to reject.
Your Turn To Say "No"
Identify three times in your life when you said no.
Vision without action is a daydream.
Action without vision is a nightmare.
- Japanese proverb
In early 2002 I was laid off from my corporate VP job after almost two decades as a Human Resources professional. For the next year, I danced with vision and action, explored possibilities and took risks, all while I figured out how to keep paying my bills with long-term projects and consulting work.
Eventually, in early 2003, I was able to cautiously articulate my vision,
“I want to use my voice to help people.”
One of the first times I said this out loud was on a blind date with my now-husband. I was getting over a cold so my lofty vision statement about using my voice came out sounding all sniffly and nasal-y. Still. It felt really good.
I loved my vision statement and I craved to know what it really meant. WHAT would be doing? HOW would I make a living? WHO would I help?
That is where risk-taking, curiosity, humility, trust and being like a cloud** came in. It is from these things that the right action emerged to make my vision a reality. These are the key actions that gave my vision wings and made it fly:
Fifteen years later, my vision statement continues to enliven me even as the actions that support it have evolved.
Here's a resource list of some of the things that supported my journey.
**My deep gratitude to Liz Kimball for introducing me to the work of writer and philosopher Alan Watts, who writes: Clouds never make mistakes... And if you will treat yourself for a while as a cloud, you’ll realize that you can’t make a mistake whatever you do. Because even if you do something that appears totally bizarre, it will all come out in the wash somehow or another. Then through this capacity you will develop a kind of confidence. And through confidence you will be able to trust your own intuition.
The metaphor of the job hunt is inherently dis-empowering.
It casts you as a hunter, stalking prey which is doing everything in its power to elude you. It requires you to camouflage yourself, to hide your true colors in order to capture something.
I don’t know about you, but this does not seem like a good way to envision developing one of the most important parts of your life.
So how about creating a new, more empowering metaphor? Here are a few some of my clients and I have created:
Job Happy Hour
This framing allows S to enjoy the process. She’s a social animal so this metaphor helps her relax and stay confident. Just like at happy hour, there’s always one more person to talk to, one more lead to follow. Whether leads “pan out” or not, she’s having fun meeting people, making connections and mixing things up. And when she does hit upon a promising lead, it’s a result of her being more herself so it feels easy.
This is my metaphor for career management. I love putting different ideas and elements into the crock pot for a long, slow cook. When I first started imagining my post-HR life in 1996, I knew I wanted to use my voice, to support others in transforming their lives, to do something different every day and to work outside the corporate office environment. That's all I knew. Over time, these elements simmered and blended with my experience and actions to create my current work life.
What metaphor will inspire you to create the work life you most desire?
Creating meaningful work is a lifelong process, not an event.
Do you have the skills and stamina needed to take charge of your career for the long term?
I've started over many times in my career. In fact I'm in the midst of a big career change right now.
Over and over again I've come back to what I know is true about career change. And I've used this knowledge to support myself and my clients to create work lives that more fully align with their most important values and beliefs. Here's what I've learned.
My Four Key Truths to Creating Meaningful Work
1) You don't have to find a new job to start changing your career
In fact, you can start changing your career right now by changing how you relate and react to your current work. Make a list of things at work that are positive. Even if there's just one thing on the list, focus on that one thing. Make time for it. Savor it. Shift all your mental resources to appreciating and building on that one thing.
2) Urgency is your enemy. Take your time.
Career management is like using a crock-pot. We mix in ingredients and let it simmer. We come back and check on it, adjust seasonings, add what's neeeded and let it sit again. Too often, people approach their careers with a microwave mentality. This creates stress and panic.
3) Curiosity over passion.
I trust my curiosity and tend to follow it, even when I don't know where it's leading. Even when it seems to be taking me on a major tangent. It's no surprise that I met my husband on a blind date! In this podcast, Elizabeth Gilbert, the author Eat, Pray, Love, explains the superiority of curiosity better than I ever could.
4) The resume comes last. Long-term career fulfillment begins with inner work.
A resume created out of urgency, fear and stress will not reflect your truth. A resume created out of alignment, excitement, confidence and curiosity will open doors.
By following these key truths I have navigated several career changes and started a business. Last year I decided to give up my biggest, most predictable source of income in order to create space for something more meaningful. And just last week I was awarded work that will more than cover the income source I'm leaving behind. This new assignment will also allow me to travel and work in an industry I'm fascinated by.
What would you do if these truths were guiding your career?