Sleep is always the first casualty of anxiety, and as Selene stared at the neon glowing 4:34 AM of her alarm clock she knew she wouldn’t get much rest before she had to get up and face the conversation that had her stomach tied in knots.
Selene had known that taking on the role of Project Lead for the organization’s latest Africa project would have challenges, but when she pictured it in her mind she always saw herself handling tight deadlines with grace and delivering inspiring pep talks to a team of eager and talented colleagues. Instead she found herself struggling to manage a gaggle of conflicting personalities and coping with lackluster work as a result. Her team had missed a number of early deadlines because people couldn’t agree on mundane details, and Selene had started to feel that formulating a coherent direction for the project amongst an array of divergent visions might be impossible.
When the clock read 5:00am, Selene gave up on sleep and got out of bed; she made a pot of coffee, showered, and headed into work early. She went over in her mind the meeting she would call at 9:00am to have the difficult discussion with her team about their lack of progress and the changes she felt were needed.
When she had awoken from a fitful sleep so early in the morning, Selene realized that having this conversation with her team was the real source of her anxiety. She knew she would face resistance, even hostility. People didn’t like to be told that they were part of a problem and Selene didn’t particularly relish the idea of being the one to tell them, but she knew it was her role as Project Leader to do exactly that. Finding a way to do it productively, to keep everyone engaged and to inspire positive change, would be her biggest challenge of the project.
When she arrived in the office, she walked purposefully to the boardroom and started setting up. She brought in coffee and juice and the muffins she had picked up from a local bakery nearby. She opened the blinds to let the morning sunshine in, mostly to boost her own mood and confidence. Then she sat down to consult the notes she had made during the hours over the weekend preparing for this moment.
Begin by thanking everyone for their work so far, and acknowledge the good ideas that we’ve generated.
Explain the purpose for the meeting, and be blunt about the problem.
Tell them you want the team and the project to be successful and offer the opportunity for people to express their concerns.
Selene knew better than to criticize anyone directly in a public forum. She planned to explain to the team that she would meet with each of them individually over the week to discuss their individual contributions, and that on Friday they would reconvene as a group to form a plan going forward. She hoped that offering this face-saving measure would enable the team to put their personal egos aside and come together to work on the project more effectively.
The toughest part for Selene would be getting started. The idea of facing her team with the problem, knowing that they may become defensive or upset, made her stomach turn. She reminded herself that her role was not to be a perfect Project Leader but rather to be one with integrity and purpose, and she headed back to her office to send the meeting invite that would convene them all together that morning.
Selene stood gazing at a wall of shelves. Each book’s spine, unique in height and colour and thickness, represented a doorway to something more. She had come to the library, like so many times lately, and roamed through the various sections hoping to find a book that opened up like a map to a future that she was impatiently awaiting to arrive.
The feeling of uncertainty was completely foreign to her. After graduating university and beginning her career, Selene had felt nothing but driven and challenged and excited for the professional road ahead of her. In those early years, she happily spent hours at the office perfecting her policy proposals, reading extensively on the international affairs impacting her company’s clients, and volunteering for extra projects. It had come as a surprise when she realized that she no longer felt energized by her work but instead left the office as soon as the clock struck five and headed home, exhausted.
Selene wasn’t sure when her career had shifted from an exhilarating challenge to eight plodding hours of daily work. Her disillusionment sat with her like a lead weight and leached into every part of her life.
When Selene finally talked to her best friend Breanne about it all, she felt like a guilty person confessing to a crime.
“I spent so much time worrying about landing my first ‘real’ job and then I threw myself into it completely, and for a long time I really loved it. But lately, it’s more tedious than exciting. I never imagined that I would feel this way so early in my career”, Selene told her over red wine.
“Your job always sounds so awesome!” Breanne replied. “Maybe it’s just a phase, a dull time at the office? Maybe you just need a vacation!”
Breanne had smiled with encouragement but Selene sensed Breanne's discomfort. It was jarring, after having started out so confidently, to find yourself at a crossroads and not be sure which path to take. She didn’t blame Breanne for not knowing how to handle it. For a long time, Selene herself had not known what to make of her feelings and she had considered all the same possibilities that Breanne was suggesting.
Finally, though, Selene confronted herself with the truth that the problem couldn’t be fixed by changing something within her job - that the problem was her job itself. It just wasn’t a good fit for her anymore. Her interests and priorities were changing and she was ready for new challenges.
After her conversation with Breanne though, she had hesitated to tell anyone else of the big changes that were on her mind. If Breanne had a hard time understanding it, what would everyone else think? The thought of leaving a thriving career felt illicit, almost radical. Wouldn’t her family, friends, and most importantly her partner Morgan also assume that Selene was just in a slump and was acting on some crazy whim?
It seemed for every new opportunity that might come from leaving her job that two new worries came along with it. Her identity had been wrapped up in her professional persona for so long - who would she be without it? Could she find the same success down another career path? Would her friends from the office drift away from her once they didn’t have anything in common anymore? Could she and Morgan manage financially without her growing salary? And even more scary - could Morgan embrace a new lifestyle and still feel proud of her?
So Selene did what she always did when confronted with something she hadn’t experienced before. She started doing research. She spent lunch hours scrolling through online articles and blogs about career change, she secretly did calculations to figure out if they could survive without her salary, and she came to the library to look for inspiration in others who had walked down this path. The world was full of countless stories of people doing incredible things in unconventional ways - surely Selene could be the author of her own unconventional story?
When you read Selene’s Story…
What thoughts came up?
What emotions did you have?
What similar situation have you faced when deciding on a career direction?
How did you decide what to do?
What emotion did you feel afterwards?
What could you have done differently?
What can you do in the future when you have questions about what you “should do” with your life?
join the conversation and hear other people’s reactions at www.facebook.com/groups/SelenesStory
For more Information on the “Is the Grass Really Greener” question, which Selene is confronting in her decision about whether to stay in her current career. As you read these articles, bear in mind that you may or may NOT be experiencing this syndrome. It’s crucial to spend focused time considering whether you are making fear-based or conscious-based decisions (see the 5 tangible tips below)
If you think you may be stuck in a ‘grass is greener’ phase, consider booking a strategy session with me (first is complimentary). And in the meantime, here are 5 tangible steps you can take to help you decide whether you need a career change, or whether you are having a “Grass is Greener” moment:
“C’mon, do you really believe that there’s still sexism in our workplace?”
The question was innocent but Selene felt a bubble of anxiety start to form in the pit of her stomach. She hadn’t really meant to turn their conversation in this direction; they had gone for coffee after presenting their latest evaluation of the Mali project, and talk had turned to speculation about which of their managers would be promoted into the vacant Managing Director position and then quite naturally to their own career aspirations.
Mark was her colleague and they had been working closely together lately on a new project proposal for senior management. He had been with the team several years longer than her, and Selene considered him both a mentor as well as friend. She had started to trust him with some of her more vulnerable career hopes and project ideas, but when he questioned her concerns that her gender would hold her back, she immediately felt off-balance.
“Well, yes I do actually!” she replied, with more confidence than she was feeling. Or was it too much confidence? All of a sudden, the sound of her voice seemed to be at the wrong pitch and her reasoning, so certain in her mind, started swimming away from her. She felt her shoulders tense up as she persisted.
The last six promotions to executive positions had been comprised of five men and one woman.
The team selected to present at the conference in Europe was almost all men.
One executive shouted hearty hello’s to one of her male colleagues while Selene usually got a smile and a nod.
The examples tumbled out of her; she worried she sounded shrill and despised herself for the thought. She took a breath.
“Don’t get me wrong,” she continued. “I’m not trying to say every man’s a sexist and we’re the living embodiment of Mad Men,” she laughed. (Why am undercutting my own argument? She silently chided herself).
“Ha! No, of course not” Mark replied.
Selene snuck a side glance at Mark’s face as he drank his coffee. He seemed perfectly calm. So why was she worrying that his silence was dismissive? That by being honest about her convictions and her concerns, he would suddenly see her not as a believer in feminist principles (of which she was proud), but that in in his mind she would be cast instead in the role of the strident and brash capital-F Feminist?
After a moment of silence, Mark moved the conversation on to other office gossip leaving Selene both relieved but also overcome with questions about the impact of her words and why she had expressed them in the first place. Should she have just let the subject pass without comment or should she have been fiercer in her condemnation of an issue that she felt passionately about? How should she proceed with Mark from here?
Selene is engaged with global or social issues. She is early-to-mid career and highly motivated, successful and ambitious - in an emotionally healthy way. She joined the workforce as an eager, energized, young woman who wanted to change the world. She had graduated with a socially conscious degree -- maybe international affairs, political science, sociology or environmental studies.
She joined an organization dedicated to "doing good" in the world. Maybe it was a large NGO, maybe it was a government department, or maybe even a private sector company -- whatever her choice, she was passionate in her desire to Make A Difference.
She threw herself into her career and somewhere along the way she has started to feel like she's lost her way. She still believes in her organization's mission, and she wants to become a stronger leader - especially to see a better, more positive culture in her workplace, but she has SUCH a big workload and receives SO little mentoring and professional development, that she doesn't know where to get started.
So now she feels stuck and frankly overwhelmed in terms of HOW to become a more confident leader, and she's become unsure about her career purpose. Selene is a changemaker - she joined the organization to make a difference, but she can't see what difference she's making, either within the organization itself or in terms of her mark on the world.
She also works hard to balance between work and home. She is committed to her personal life - spending time with friends and loved ones. She especially loves travelling and the outdoors, and she has some kind of creative hobby - maybe it's indie music, photography, writing or even singing or acting. She may be having internal conflict, feeling like she needs to choose between her personal and professional lives. She may feel so stressed, some days she feels like just giving up on her dream of being a Changemaker. Or, she thinks, maybe she will be more fulfilled in another company - possibly even another career.
So she starts surfing LinkedIn for potential job offers.
But she's not quite ready to give up on her mission to improve the world around her. She's a changemaker looking for support in developing her own unique path to career success.