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How Do I Avoid a Career Plateau at Midlife?


MURIEL WILKINS: I’m Muriel Wilkins, and this is Coaching Real Leaders, part of the HBR Podcast Network. I’m a longtime executive coach who works with highly successful leaders who’ve hit a bump in the road. My job is to help them get over that bump by clarifying their goals and figuring out a way to reach them so that hopefully they can lead with a little more ease. I typically work with clients over the course of several months, but on this show, we have a one-time coaching meeting focusing on a specific leadership challenge they’re facing. Today’s guest is someone we’ll call Sabrina to protect her confidentiality. She’s an HR leader at a global company and has been in the industry for a few decades.

SABRINA: I am a striver, and so I’m always looking for something new and challenging, a new hills. What was new for me when I made the transition to more broader HR was that it was something I had never done because I had such a strong technical background. I started my own business shortly after that, and what was exciting about that was the fact that I had to work with multiple clients. I reinvented myself multiple times during that time, and I think what just keeps me moving is that my desire to want to grow, I want to learn something new in every role that I take on.

MURIEL WILKINS: Now that she’s further along in her career and in a different place in her life, Sabrina wants to continue to pursue new interesting opportunities, but in a different way. She feels like she isn’t learning as much as she used to and is itching for that new challenge.

SABRINA: When I look at the first half of my career, the striving felt different because I was in my 20s, then my 30s and raising children who are now grown. I still am a single parent. The motivation was to make sure my family was very well cared for because I’m their sole provider. I think it’s a different point of view now than I had in the first half of my career. The striving feels different. I characterized the first half of my career as a hustle, like I was hustling a lot. And I don’t feel as motivated to hustle, but that doesn’t mean I don’t still have drive and ambition to do well and to do more things and to have greater impact in my work. And so, as I look at this, I guess I call it the back half of my career, I’m more looking at how I want to end it versus where I want it to go, which feels like a different perspective to look at my career. And so, I’m less clear what it looks like to strive at this phase in my career.

MURIEL WILKINS: Sabrina recognizes she’s still ambitious, but wants help in navigating what that ambition means at this stage in her career and life. So, let’s start the coaching session as I ask her how exactly she’s feeling about her work right now, and how that’s different from previous years.

SABRINA: I’m feeling less certain about what the next step should be, which is unusual for me because I’m a planner, although I know there’s not a straight path to anything because if anyone knows anything about my history, it has lots of curves and bumps. But before, I always had a vision for what was next, and right now, I don’t have a super clear vision, and so that feels different to me and uncomfortable. I usually know what mountain I’m climbing, and this time, I know I want to climb a mountain, I’m just not sure which one.

MURIEL WILKINS: What if this is the mountain?

SABRINA: It’s a great question.

MURIEL WILKINS: I don’t know. You said it’s uncomfortable.

SABRINA: Yeah.

MURIEL WILKINS: It’s challenging right now.

SABRINA: It is. I finished something really big last year and I have a lot of really big accomplishments in my life and people ask me when I’m going to just rest and be content in what I’ve achieved. And I did that for about a year, maybe a year and a half now, and now I’m just ready for whatever’s next and I’m just not sure what it is. And maybe the challenge is that I knew to be content. I’m thinking about when I end my career in 15 years, what do I want that exit to look like? Say for example, I exited my career now and stayed in my current role for the next 15 years, which I just don’t see happening, but let’s say that did, this wouldn’t be where I want to exit, it doesn’t feel like it’s the place.

MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah. You used the term content, it’s not what you’re feeling is your motivation right now. And in no way when I said maybe this is the mountain, I said the mountain for now doesn’t mean that it has to be the mountain forever, but it’s feeling challenging to you right now. So, I’m curious about a word that you’ve used to describe yourself is as a striver. So, what does that even mean to you?

SABRINA: To me, it means it’s hard for me to be happy with where I’ve gone, like there’s always one step further I should have gone. This has been ingrained in me though since I was young, an A was never good enough, it was why wasn’t an A+? That wasn’t an A in an AP class. So, I think that that kind of mentality is still in my mind when I think about, I’m always striving for, I don’t want to say good enough, but maybe that’s what it is. Is this good enough? Am I happy with what I have now?

MURIEL WILKINS: And so, how does that notion of always wanting to go for something else that will make you happier because where you are right now is not good enough. How does that work out for you?

SABRINA: It’s gotten me where I am. I have a lot of track record of successes. I guess if I looked at the shadow side of that, it might be that I rarely have this sense I used earlier of being content because I’m always looking for the next big thing around the corner. And that’s why I said this last year where I took a pause and didn’t do that so much was good, but I’m antsy again.

MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah. So, let me ask you a question. What would it look like for you to be content and look for what’s next around the corner?

SABRINA: That’s a good question. I don’t know. I’m trying to think of what that would look like. It’s funny, I studied paradox, so it feels like a paradox to me. I’m trying to figure out a situation where I could be content and strive.

MURIEL WILKINS: Well, I didn’t say strive. I said look for what’s around the corner. Because inherent in that is, and I don’t know, I’m just playing around here.

SABRINA: Yeah. Yeah.

MURIEL WILKINS: Inherent in what you’re saying is that the two are mutually exclusive. You’re either content or you’re looking for what’s next. And then inherent in that is also that there’s a causality. The only reason you would look for something around the corner is if you’re not content. I don’t know. I went to a phenomenal restaurant this past weekend. I was very pleased with the dish and I was looking at the menu like, what else could I have?

SABRINA: Yeah.

MURIEL WILKINS: If not today, maybe next time we come.

SABRINA: Yeah.

MURIEL WILKINS: But I was very, very satisfied. But looking forward to what’s next.

SABRINA: Yeah. It’s a good perspective. And to say it that way, and I think about what I’m doing, I do think being content is, for example, I really do like my current role, enjoy it. I like the level of impact. I, a 100% think I could be delivering more and have higher level impact where I am. So, I feel content and proud of the work that I’m doing where I am, but at the same time, I’m having conversations outside of my organization and they’re not necessarily interviews, but it’s more of conversations with people externally to understand what’s happening in other places. And that to me is a little bit of looking around the corner to seeing what’s available, what my opportunities might be in my next step.

MURIEL WILKINS: And what does it feel like for you to do that?

SABRINA: That’s hard for me because I worry that it’ll distract me from the good work I’m doing in my current role. And I don’t want to distract from that because like I said, it’s a high impact role that delivers a lot of value to the leaders that I work with. And so, I don’t want to adversely impact that. But at the same time, it also excites me. I’m learning again by going external and just talking to people outside of my own organization.

MURIEL WILKINS: Okay. Yeah, you said you have kids. It sounds like they’re adult grown, launched-

SABRINA: Mostly launched-

MURIEL WILKINS: Mostly launched, mostly launched. Hallelujah. I’m looking forward to the day. And that brings up a good point. I don’t know, as you were raising your kids when they were younger, were there ever moments when you could enjoy them for where they were at that age and look forward to when they would launch?

SABRINA: Yes, all the time.

MURIEL WILKINS: All the time.

SABRINA: All the time. Although I think with them in particular, it was more present, I hope. It’s interesting to compare the two. Sorry, I’m having a reflection on-

MURIEL WILKINS: That’s okay.

SABRINA: … all the great times that I had raising them.

MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah. But you said you were more present.

SABRINA: Felt that way.

MURIEL WILKINS: And what I’m not hearing is if I thought about the future and I thought about when they would launch, it would mean that I’m not being present, that I’m being distracted.

SABRINA: Yeah, it’s true.

MURIEL WILKINS: And so, what’s the difference between that and being able to apply the same thing at work?

SABRINA: I don’t know what the difference is, but it definitely feels different. So, there’s this interesting duality I feel when I go outside of my organization just to explore, because I’m exploring. It feels like I have two motivations. I’m exploring to learn more that I can bring into my current role and grow it. But I’m also have a second layer of my listening and exploration where I’m listening and being attuned to what are the opportunities out there and how am I fostering these relationships outside. So, there’s a small piece of me that feels duplicitous in that way. And so, that just, I am trying to negotiate that piece a little bit.

MURIEL WILKINS: Duplicitous to who?

SABRINA: To the organization that I work for. And then the opportunities I’m looking for potentially outside of the organization.

MURIEL WILKINS: Because the organization you work for, I’m trying to understand why it would be duplicitous to them.

SABRINA: I think every organization hopes that the people that work for them have some level of, I hate to use the word loyalty, but loyalty to the work that you’re doing there and focus to the work that you’re doing there. I think that’s where that comes from.

MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah. So, then what is causing you to listen to it for yourself as well?

SABRINA:

Because I don’t feel content. That’s why, this is the part where I’m just trying to navigate it. I like my role. I love the people, at the same time there is that, is this it? Is this all for me? I can feel there’s more. I’m wanting to take that next step, whether it’s within my organization or outside, and I think I just want to be more secure in what that next step should be.

MURIEL WILKINS: Okay. So, what I’m curious, we’ve used the word, we’ve thrown around the word content for quite a bit. What does it even mean for you to be content and to know that this is a… What is it?

SABRINA: I’m not sure. What I’m pausing with is there’s a question that pops up in my head, which is I’ve been the kind of person that about every two to three years I want to do something new. When I ran my own business for a long time, it really worked out well because while I had long tenure as a business owner, I had multiple clients. So, it was always something new. And I wonder if the contentness has to do with, I just feel like I’m stagnating somehow in the current role. I just have this urge to do something new.

MURIEL WILKINS: And what would that newness look like for you?

SABRINA: I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I wonder if I like the… I don’t know if it’s adrenaline. I’m having a parallel experience where I think about my upbringing. I have a military upbringing where we moved every two to three years. I had to make new friends, start new relationships. And I’m wondering if there’s something around that, because I do enjoy the onboard part of my roles where I get to meet new people, where I get to learn about the business that I’m supporting and really dig in with leaders. I really enjoy that. And I’m not saying that there isn’t way more to learn in the organization I’m in, but I do feel that I’ve plateaued in the current role, and that’s why I’m saying I’m missing that opportunity to learn something new and grow into something new. My inclination or habit would be just to move to another role in another company versus try to build something new within the company I’m in.

MURIEL WILKINS: So, what’s holding you back from doing that?

SABRINA: Going external?

MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah. From doing what you have been doing, which is, it sounds to me like what you’ve been doing that’s worked well for you at least up until now. I’m just self reflecting back, is you get a role, you do well in it, you learn, you grow. It’s challenging. You get to the top of the mountain, you plant the flag, and then you’re like, okay, next mountain.

SABRINA: Yeah.

MURIEL WILKINS: That keeps it fresh, and then it’s next mountain. Let’s keep it fresh. And the mountain is all about the learning, the newness, the creating, the growth. So, if you know that, right?

SABRINA: Yeah.

MURIEL WILKINS: What is it that’s holding you back from continuing down that place? Why are we even having this conversation if you know that that’s the formula that’s been working, that you feel has worked for you?

SABRINA: I think my question circles back to the whole first half of my career, back half my career. I feel like in the first half I was more of a risk-taker, which is interesting being a single parent, I took a lot of risk to move around and make sure that I could raise my family. I think the biggest thing that’s different for me or that feels different for me goes back to my age. I don’t know if it’s a thing or if it matters, but I worry about ageism. I worry can I continue this as I continue to age? Can I continue to be in a role every two to three years? Do I have the stamina and will to do that?

It’s funny because every time I take a new role, at least in the last five years or so, I think, okay, this is the role I’m going to stay at this company until the end of my career. And then I’m there a couple of years. I’m like, I’m ready for my next thing. And so, it’s trying to manage this success formula that I feel like I’ve had with the prospect of what does it mean to age in my career as a woman with that same habit? Will that formula still work for me? I just don’t know.

MURIEL WILKINS: I think that’s what it is. Will that formula still work for me? And I think what’s happened is because it has worked for you, there’s a bit of hesitation of letting it go that if I let it go, I don’t know. To you, what’s the opposite of a striver?

SABRINA: Complacency.

MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah. If I let it go, will I become complacent? And what does complacency look like to you?

SABRINA: Someone who gets overlooked, someone who in a fast-growing company like what I’m in will soon become obsolete and not a values driver. And those are just all things that I don’t want to be.

MURIEL WILKINS: Because if you’re those things?

SABRINA: In my head, my HR head, I’m out of a job.

MURIEL WILKINS: You’re out of a job.

SABRINA: Because I’m there to deliver value at the end of the day, and I know that, and I want to do that just from my own personal ethics point of view and my work ethic.

MURIEL WILKINS: So, I think it is, A, are you willing to let go of the formula? I don’t know what the new formula is, but are you willing to let go of the formula? And you don’t have to. That’s why I kept saying, “what’s holding you back?” You don’t have to. You keep doing it. You can keep using the formula that you’ve had. You really can. I really have no skin in the game, which way you go. But what I’m hearing from you is I don’t know if I can keep this formula up. So, if you feel like it’s not sustainable, are you willing to let it go and open up to potentially a different formula?

SABRINA: Yes. And I think that’s the motivation for this conversation. I don’t know that I’m willing to keep up the formula. I don’t know if it’ll continue to work. I feel like I’m hedging my bets. I think it’ll work maybe.

MURIEL WILKINS: So, here’s the thing, if you change the formula, you can’t expect the same outcome. I am an avid, or was an avid runner, been running for over 25 years. I got news earlier this year that if you keep running, this is what’s going to happen, X, Y, Z, and you don’t really want that to happen right now. So, you have a choice. You can keep on running and this is what it’ll be, but you will be a runner, which is what I strongly identified with. Or you can do these things. One doctor was like, “You should become a swimmer.” I was like, “No, thank you. What’s next?” So, I decided, “oh, I’m going to become what’s called a rucker.” I’m going to walk with weights on my back. So, now I’m a rucker, and I’m a walker, and I’m a hiker and a sometimes jogger, but I am for now – no longer and probably in perpetuity – no longer a runner. It’s a different formula because the goal is I want longevity.

So, the formula you’ve had up until now has been your formula to be a striver. If you change the formula, I can’t guarantee you that the outcome will be a striver. What I’m curious about is how would it feel to you to no longer be a striver?

SABRINA: So, two things came to mind. The first was I felt my shoulders relax and go, what a relief. I don’t have to strive. The second reaction was, well, the heck, what am I going to do? What does that mean? I’m just going to float around in space. So, that feels like complacency. And so…

MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah.

SABRINA: Yeah.

MURIEL WILKINS: So, we don’t know. We don’t know if it’s complacency. We don’t know what it is, but we already know you don’t want it to be complacency, so we know it’s not going to be that. I knew I didn’t want to a swimmer, so let’s just not even include that as part of the options. Okay.

SABRINA: Yeah.

MURIEL WILKINS: There’s a whole bunch of other options that we can go after. But I think in order for you to be able to start seeing more clearly what this next phase looks like for you with self-cander, and with commitment, you’ve got to be able to also let go of what the picture has looked like for you up until now. And it doesn’t mean that that picture has been bad.

SABRINA: Yeah.

MURIEL WILKINS: Look at it with gratitude and appreciation for how far it’s brought you. And as I said, you can continue with it. You don’t have to change course. You really don’t. But there’s something in you that’s saying, I think it’s time. I think it’s time for me to change course.

SABRINA: Yeah. Yeah, it is.

MURIEL WILKINS: So, let’s not fast-forward towards what’s next without fully examining what we’re leaving behind or what we’re building on.

SABRINA: Yeah.

MURIEL WILKINS: Sabrina came to this coaching conversation at a point in her career that many face, a time where she felt like she had accomplished a lot, but was looking for something more exciting and wasn’t sure she wanted to strive in the same way she did when she was younger. In the early part of the conversation, it might have felt like we were going in circles a bit, but I kept pressing and asking questions to get to the bottom of certain phrases she was using, and certain assumptions she seemed to have. It was only after prodding a few times, a few different ways that some underlying concerns started to unearth themselves.

Sabrina is concerned about ageism in the workplace and worried if her blueprint for moving through her career in the past could even continue to apply as she looks toward the future. She felt connected to that formula she used previously because it had served her well. But I thought a helpful next step for her would be to explore what a different formula might look like. We’ll dive back in now as we explore some of her assumptions piece by piece and see if we can imagine what a different scenario or approach might look and feel like to her. This notion of… you mentioned you’re a little concerned about ageism. Ageism from who?

SABRINA: I think prospective employers, if I were to look outside or even potentially internally, if I think about, do people look at me and say, well, how much runway does this person have?

MURIEL WILKINS: And how have you dealt with isms in the past?

SABRINA: I just stomp them down and overcome them.

MURIEL WILKINS: Okay. You strive through it.

SABRINA: I just do. Yeah.

MURIEL WILKINS: So, what’s different this time?

SABRINA: If I’m being completely transparent, I physically feel different. I feel it differently than I did before. So, there’s that piece too. It’s funny because when you said, how do I deal with all the isms? Because there have been plenty of isms that I’ve done in my career, but there’s a piece of me that’s tired of fighting the isms. You just get to a point where I don’t want to resign to it just yet. I’m not there yet. And I do feel like I have enough experience, perspective and ability to continue to, I don’t know if I want to strive through it, but continue to move through it. And the other point is that I’ve never faced this ism before because it’s the first time I’ve been this age. I don’t know how to navigate it because it’s new.

MURIEL WILKINS: Okay. So, this is really interesting. You’re right, you’ve never navigated it. So, it’s new. And what do you look for? You look for what sounds like it really juices you up are new opportunities, new challenges. So, when I said maybe this is the mountain, I think just the phase that you’re in, in and of itself, if you approached it as you did in the past, your new roles, which is, Ooh, it’s new. There’s a place for growth, this period of discomfort that you’re in, this tipping point, this inflection point in and of itself feels like it’s giving you exactly what it is that you always want, which is it’s new. It is soil for growth. I have to learn how to navigate it. The only difference is it’s not wrapped up in a nice pretty bow of a position within a corporation with a title and a team and metrics and a performance review and maybe a bonus and a reward at the end of the year.

But it has all the components that you said you’re looking for. It’s like, again, going back to the restaurant analogy, if you were to ask me, “Muriel, what do you like to eat?” Man, I like spicy food, savory with a touch of sweetness. I like complexity. You take me at a nice fancy restaurant and I’m like, oh my God, this is great. But then you hand me a dish with the same components, but it’s in a brown paper bag, and I’m like, Ugh, why? You just told me these are the things that you like.

SABRINA: Yes, and I like them packaged and all the other things that we talked about.

MURIEL WILKINS: You like them packaged and all the things.

SABRINA: Yeah. So, I get it. I think you’re totally right. But the first thing that I thought of even before you said it was, well, gosh, you’re right. It is new. It’s a challenge. It’s different. It’s all the components. But the first thing I thought of was those are internal things that I need to work with, and I’ve never been a person that needs external recognition. But I guess the way that I receive that external recognition, it’s packaged in my title, my role, my greater impact and visibility in the organization. And so, yes, I can certainly tackle all of those, but who will know?

MURIEL WILKINS: But let me ask you a question then. Let’s fast-forward to 15 years from now, 20 years from now, because you said you see maybe another 15, 20 years in your career. So, 15, 20 years, career ends, and so then where do you get your motivation from?

SABRINA: That’s a scary moment. I don’t know yet. I think about that too. It’s a great question. I don’t know.

MURIEL WILKINS: Okay.

SABRINA: I tease when I say this, I tell people, I was like, I’ll probably work until the day I die. But at the same time, I know that I don’t physically want to work until the day I die. I would love to retire and literally sail off into the sunset.

MURIEL WILKINS: Don’t we all. Let me know when you’re leaving. I’ll be right there with you.

SABRINA: I might not be content on the sailboat. I think that too.

MURIEL WILKINS: You might not be content because you know why? Because the things that you said make you content actually, the new challenges, growth, feeling like you’re learning. You are basically saying they only make me content under certain conditions. And those conditions, Sabrina, are not conditions that are going to stay around forever. It’s like saying – and I’m just going back because you have kids. It’s like saying, “oh my gosh, when I hear my kids laugh, it brings me such joy. But you know what? I only liked it when they were under six years old. Now that they’re 20, I don’t want, it doesn’t count anymore.” I don’t know, still the laugh.

SABRINA: Yeah.

MURIEL WILKINS: So, what is it? So, the packaging is the external piece, and that changes. We don’t have control over that. We do not. But you and I are both aging as we speak. There is no control. Somebody’s trying to figure out how to stop that process from happening, but it ain’t us, and it is not happening in this coaching session. But what remains the same is whatever it is that brings you a sense of meaning and what brings me a sense of meaning. The container of it though might change over time. So, I think the real question is how do you maintain what you have identified as important to you, as valuable to you, as what provides you a sense of purpose, which is what motivation is. You find meaning in what you’re doing, you find a sense of purpose. How do you maintain that even when things around you might be changing? And in your case, what’s changing is your physical energy, your physical stamina.

So, what do you do? Do you keep pushing and saying, damn it, I don’t care that, that’s like me saying, “I don’t care that my body’s telling me not to run anymore. I’m going to keep running.” Sure, you can do that, but we all know where that leads to. Or do I say nope. What I love about it is the sense of energy that I get and the community that I have from it, and the sense of accomplishment. Okay. So, I want a sense of accomplishment. I want community and I want energy. I want endorphins. In what other ways can I get that besides running? Or do I say, you know what? That was good, but now I value something different. But sticking to it has to look a certain way in order for me to be content, is telling yourself a magical story, which has worked for you for a long time. The math ain’t mathing anymore, because there’s something in that story that is not following the storyline, and that’s your physical energy. In order for that to work, the physical energy has to be there based on your experience.

SABRINA: Yeah, I think that one of the analogies used that resonated was the container piece. So, I’ve spent my whole career, the container being the role, the compensation, the title as I continue to move through my career. And so, when you broke it apart and said, well, the hurdle I’m in right now, that’s newness, that’s challenge, that’s learning, that’s growth, that’s difference. But it doesn’t have the container of that professional container. And so, I’m just processing whether or not, or how to shift my perspective on the container that all of that’s in.

MURIEL WILKINS: Stop looking for the current container that you’re in to provide you with your full source of contentment. Because right now, it’s not giving it to you. That doesn’t mean you can’t be in it, but you’ve got to find another purpose for it.

SABRINA: Yeah.

MURIEL WILKINS: You told me in the past, Hey, what enabled me to really do what I did is my purpose was I took care of my family. I was the provider. Okay. So, now that’s gone, you don’t have to do that as much maybe, or you have to provide in a different way. So, then it becomes, oh, but I still need something meaningful, something that I’m learning that’s new, that’s growth. Okay, but it’s not happening in my current organization. Okay. So, you have a choice. You can either go look for it in another organization, but then you said – I’m just pulling back everything you said. You said, “but I don’t know if I really want to, I don’t know if I want to keep climbing the corporate mountain because I don’t know if I have the stamina, but I still want something that’s new and that helps me learn.”

And so, all I’m suggesting is, okay. Then option number three is you get the newness and the learning opportunities and the growth, but it doesn’t happen within the container of being within the corporate job. It doesn’t mean you leave the corporate job. You don’t have to. All it means is that might not be what gives you the thing that you’re looking for.

SABRINA: Yeah, no, it’s good, because you also alluded to another point. The first part of my career, the motivation was raising my kids and providing for them. And now there’s a shift in, I always say I’m a halfway empty nester, because I feel like one, but not fully, but I am essentially one. And so, now the motivation is different. The why for working and striving in my roles feels different, but I’m just so used to how I’ve done it for so long that it’s tapping into a different motivation source.

MURIEL WILKINS: It’s tapping into a different motivation source.

SABRINA: And I don’t really know what that is exactly right now.

MURIEL WILKINS: And I think you have to figure out what that is before you figure out what the container looks like. And so, when you describe motivation, because right now you’re saying, “oh, if I’m motivated, it means I strive. I climbed the next mountain. That’s what it looks like. Or I get motivated to climb the next mountain.” What else could you be motivated to “fill-in-the-blank,” do you think at this point in your career?

SABRINA: The word that comes to mind is impact. That could be in my professional container, but it could be in other containers as well. I am questioning myself. I am not sure if it’s about seeing, am I shifting from growing for my own personal use so I can grow my career or growing as I teach others to grow and learn in their own careers? I don’t know how motivated I would be. I love doing that as a mother, raising my kids that way. I’m in a helping profession right now as a leader in HR, and so I do that professionally. I don’t know, maybe that’s my innate motivation, but I also, I’ve always been in a helping role professionally and personally. There’s a piece of me that’s tired too from that. It can be energizing at the end of the day to have to hold space for so many people all the time.

And so, I’m just pausing too, and this goes back to when I think about the second half, do I have the stamina and the will to continue to be in this very intense helping profession really? HR is not an easy space to be in.

MURIEL WILKINS: I think there’s a question around, because you also used the word teaching. The shift that I’d propose to you is to reframe it as thinking as what would it look like for me to help others while also helping myself? Because you framed what you’ve done up until now as a helping profession in helping others fully, and that that’s tiring. And I don’t know what that profession is. I don’t know what container it’s in, but I think it’s like where can you find your motivation? Would it feel more motivational now to say, I want to continue helping others, but I have to do it in a way where it’s also helping me?

SABRINA: Yeah. I’m just trying to picture what that is. I know we’re not going to, we don’t have the answer-

MURIEL WILKINS: We’re not there yet, Sabrina.

SABRINA: Yeah. I know.

MURIEL WILKINS: We’re just now just envisioning the possibilities of what the parameters might be right before we get concrete and start picking out the paint colors. But you’ve got to have some guiding principles.

SABRINA: Yeah.

MURIEL WILKINS: The guiding principles that are going to motivate you. What is the new sense of motivation, as you said? So, I think that that’s part of the work is if this being the provider from my family, that’s not it anymore, and helping others in a way where it’s fully giving out, but not really receiving anything back beyond compensation title, all that stuff, that’s not it anymore. It doesn’t mean it’s bad. It’s just it’s not it. It’s not what is moving you, which is, it’s not giving you a sense of purpose and meaning. Okay, so we crossed that off the list. I think you need to go through just an exercise of saying, “okay, what else could it be that would, oh, by the way, still give me a sense of learning and growth?” And my sense is anything that you do that’s new is going to give you that sense.

SABRINA: Yeah.

MURIEL WILKINS: Have you ever read the book From Strength to Strength by Arthur Brooks?

SABRINA: I’ve heard of it. I haven’t read it yet.

MURIEL WILKINS: Strongly recommend you reading it. But in the book – just so you know you are not alone – in the book, Mr. Brooks, he talks about the fact that we go through two phases in our career. And by the way, the first phase happens in our twenties, thirties, fortyish maybe. And the second phase is, usually hits in the forties and then in their fifties. And the first phase – and I don’t know if he made this up or if he leveraged some research, so don’t fully fully quote me on this. Vut he says, the first phase is built on what we call fluid intelligence. And it’s when we have this energy to focus and work and deliver and drive. We don’t tend to understand, but the data bears it out, is that that fluid intelligence is not in perpetuity. By the time we hit different age for different people – but there is a point in time where it starts being on the decline.

But instead of accepting that and saying, “how do I now recreate my work, my career, or how I operate, how I walk in the world in a way that aligns with where I am in that curve,” we resist it and then feel potentially burned out or whatnot. But what also happens is while this fluid intelligence happens, there’s a different form of intelligence that also kicks in, in the second half, and this is what he calls crystallized intelligence. And crystallized intelligence is all of the intelligence and the knowledge, and he calls it wisdom that you have built up over this span of time. And the real key is rather than resisting that the fluid intelligence is on the decline and trying to force fit it, the key is actually figuring out how do you leverage this crystallized intelligence that you’ve built as your career work, or just way of being in the second half. So, when I share that with you, and again, you should read the book because I’ve probably blasphemized what Mr. Brooks has to say, but when I say that with you, how does it land with you?

SABRINA: It makes a lot of sense because it’s funny that you used the words wisdom, because that was one of the first things I think about is I have so much to learn, but I have so many experiences and I’m able to connect so many different dots of that experience. There’s layers to it that there is a sense of wisdom that’s associated with it that I would never have had in my twenties and thirties because I can pick up books that I read 20 or 30 years ago, and I read them today, and I’m like, you have all the pieces to have all that content make sense. And I think, gosh, am I destined for a career as a professor? Is that my…

MURIEL WILKINS: But I think what’s happening though, SABRINA, is you’re rushing to try to figure out what’s the title associated with that?

SABRINA: That’s the container piece. I’m used to one container for all this. Yeah.

MURIEL WILKINS: And I wish I could tell you, “Hey, by the time we get to the end of this coaching session, we’re going to name what that container is,” and I would be irresponsible as a coach to tell you that’s what’s going to happen in the next 30 minutes.

SABRINA: Yeah.

MURIEL WILKINS: But what I can tell you is I think you’ve cracked open that you’re in this new phase. You’re understanding that in order to fully immerse into this phase, which by the way, you’re not alone in. Okay.

SABRINA: Yeah.

MURIEL WILKINS: In order to fully immerse into this phase, there’s somewhat of a letting go of the previous phase. Not in a bad way, not because it was bad, but it’s just not where you are. And now figuring out, okay, all this wisdom, as you said, this experience, this knowledge, what is it? Number one, and how can I use it in a way that gives me meaning, that still brings me a sense of accomplishment and newness and oh, by the way, last thing, and then what container does it need to look? Do I want to get paid for it? Do I want a title with it? Do I want to be in a corporate environment? Do I not want to be in a corporate environment? Those are the finishing touches. So, it’s almost like you’ve got to stop picking out the pillows and the candle, the candles, and the lighting for the houses before you’ve actually even come up with the architectural plans for the house. Okay, because that’s just going to distract you.

SABRINA: Yeah.

MURIEL WILKINS: So, this notion of crystallized intelligence of being in this place where you yourself are recognizing, I do have this knowledge. I do have this experience. I’m tired of expending the type of energy that I have expended. I’m still willing to spend energy, but not the way I did before. Okay. So, how do you want to use it? Where do you want to use it? What kind of energy do you want to spend? What do you want your life to look like? So, it’s actually a pretty exciting place to be because I think this is a time when you said, “Hey, I’ve been helping other people.” I think part of the helping you is maybe it’s one of the first times where you’ve been able to say, “oh my gosh, I get to choose what my life can look like right now.”

SABRINA: I think you’re right, because I do think about that, the decisions I can make decisions on where I live, for example, are going to be different than I would’ve made 10 years ago, 15 years ago, because it would’ve been tied to my children and where they went to school and those types of priorities. So, it is different.

MURIEL WILKINS: It is different, but I sense a non-excitement about the difference.

SABRINA: Yeah. It doesn’t feel as exciting, and I am not a hundred percent sure why, except that it’s going to be different, which should excite me. But yeah, it just feels like, okay.

MURIEL WILKINS: I think it’s coming back to me when you said, “is this it?”

SABRINA: I guess it doesn’t feel big enough. I think that’s why I immediately go to the solution of, well, what is it? But it just feels like more of the same. So, it feels like complacency a little bit to me still.

MURIEL WILKINS: Let’s pause here, because even within coaching sessions where we make a lot of progress, it’s easy to go backwards a bit, to loop back to some of the previous worries or focus on the same challenges again. This is common and very natural as we start to coach towards a new way of approaching a problem, that we go back to the same concerns. It’s not always a linear progression, and though we’ve opened the aperture a bit on possibilities, there’s still a long way to go. Change is hard. It can be frustrating, and it takes being iterative. Since this is natural, I wanted to dig in more to these concerns that Sabrina had, that were resurfacing, because returning to the why might just help us take another step forward.

Here’s the thing, I think you started off this conversation even by saying nothing ever really feels good enough, and I’m not judging that in any way, but if your mindset is that nothing is ever good enough, nothing is ever big enough, then guess what? It’s no surprise that this doesn’t feel big enough or good enough. You know what I mean? If I always think string beans are nasty, doesn’t matter what you do with them, I’m going, tell me it’s a string bean, I’m going to say it’s nasty. I don’t think string beans are nasty, but I couldn’t think of a different example.

SABRINA: Yeah.

MURIEL WILKINS: So, it’s your perspective, and I think you’re also at a place of choosing, is that the perspective that you want to continue to carry? Because it is not going to bring you the sense of contentment that I also think you’re seeking. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t think nothing is good enough, and yet I want to feel content and satisfied.

SABRINA: And that’s a newness that I need to tackle. That’s a challenge in and of itself, and I feel like I have been doing it progressively year over year trying to be more content with as is versus not good enough. But I think it’s something I just need to settle in, and it’s a mindset shift, obviously.

MURIEL WILKINS: And this notion of if you are feeling like, Hey, this might feel a little too restrictive for me, not a big enough impact, although we haven’t even really defined the impact. So, I think you’re assuming that that’s what it might, then maybe where you’re is good enough, but you’re not going to know unless you explore.

SABRINA: Yeah. I think there’s one last thing that I think about, and maybe I used to be a runner too. So, it’s funny that you use an analogy and I could no longer run because it just did a havoc on my knees. So, I’m a walker, although you gave me an idea. I was like, I’m going to put weights on my legs –

MURIEL WILKINS: On your back, on your back.

SABRINA: …On my back. On my back. What I thought about is what we prescribed so far is I don’t like watching people pass me by, that I know that I could pass them. There’s a little bit of competitive edge in me a little bit that I need to navigate past too, and I don’t want to call it FOMO, but maybe it is a little bit of that, but I don’t want to watch people passing me by when I know it’s like, gosh, I could have climbed that mountain.

MURIEL WILKINS: Sure, you could have, but do you need to?

SABRINA: No, not all of them.

MURIEL WILKINS: Do you want to?

SABRINA: Some of them.

MURIEL WILKINS: Okay, so climb the ones that you want to climb. Not every mountain needs to be climbed.

SABRINA: Yeah.

MURIEL WILKINS: I think the way you’ve been operating is, oh, there’s a mountain. I’m going to climb it.

SABRINA: Yeah.

MURIEL WILKINS: Why? Because it’s a mountain. It’s a mountain. It’s high. It’s a challenge. And if I get up there, I won.

SABRINA: Yeah.

MURIEL WILKINS: And now you’re saying, “but I’m tired.”

SABRINA: Yeah.

MURIEL WILKINS: Okay. So, then what does winning look like for you right now? Does it mean climbing every mountain and does it mean climbing the highest mountain?

SABRINA: Yeah. It’ll be a mindset shift. And I think if I think about it from a professional branding perspective too, it’ll be a brand shift. It’ll be different for people to see me not climbing big mountains. So, yeah, it’ll just be different.

MURIEL WILKINS: So, I think part of what I’m hearing also is a concern, going back to this word complacency that you talked about. Oh my gosh, if I don’t climb mountains, I’m going to be the person just chilling on the side, not doing anything, being a slacker, God forbid. Listen, I want to be a slacker. Give me this. I’m just kidding. Sometimes. I-

SABRINA: Yeah.

MURIEL WILKINS: … sometimes. But again, I go back to the two aren’t mutual. I don’t think you’re seeing the middle ground.

SABRINA: Yeah, you’re probably right.

MURIEL WILKINS: Which is you are at a place where you can define what it means to win, what it means to… And I’m using the word “win” because you said you’re competitive. If it is to continue doing what you’re doing, then do it. But I’m hearing you say that’s not it.

SABRINA: Yeah.

MURIEL WILKINS: And so, maybe you’re at the moment right now actually. I always think – somebody told me this a long time ago, and I think they were right. I resisted it when they said it. They said, “Look, you know what it means when you’re not ready to make a decision.” And I was like, “No, what does it mean?” And they said, “All it means is you’re not ready to make a decision. You’re just not ready to do anything right now, and it’s probably because you haven’t spent enough time, not in a negative sense, but grieving what it is that you may be letting go, and getting excited about what’s coming. But if you’re looking at what’s coming with this dread, it may not be time.”

SABRINA: Yeah.

MURIEL WILKINS: Nobody’s forcing you to do anything right now.

SABRINA: No. No one’s forcing me. Goes back to my age. I do feel, I don’t know why I’m so stuck on it, but I do feel like there’s a clock on it in some ways. I don’t want to say I’m rushing to figure out what’s next. Like I said, it took a year, but that year was a long year of me, and now I’m just coming out of it and I’m like, I can’t just sit around and wait for this epiphany to come, and is there anything intentional that I can do?

MURIEL WILKINS: But what we’re doing right here is very intentional.

SABRINA: Yes, agreed. Agreed.

MURIEL WILKINS: Okay.

SABRINA: Yeah.

MURIEL WILKINS: So, I would encourage you to not think that pausing and being reflective and thinking through this and at times not doing anything about it, just letting it marinate till you know what to do immediately next, that that’s not part of doing the work. That is part of doing the work around this.

SABRINA: Yeah.

MURIEL WILKINS: This is why if I had a huge ego about me being a coach and I was like, oh my gosh, I need to perform and I need to give a result right now, we would be trying to come up with a list of, here are the 10 different roles you could take on next. But I don’t know if they would answer your question.

SABRINA: No, I’m smiling because I’m thinking about when I did run and when I was training for all these half marathons that I did, that as part of the training they tell you, you probably know this, that you need to take your rest days. So, you can probably imagine how I approached that, the high achiever that I am. Do you think I took rest days?

MURIEL WILKINS: No.

SABRINA: No. And so, as a result, look what happened. I can’t run anymore. I ran my knees till basically I can’t run. It hurts to go over three miles. And so, if you layer that onto this, what I’m managing now professionally, I think that if I keep running in the professional sense, they’ll come a point too early. I wasn’t ready to retire from running when it happened. I think that if I layer that onto my professional world, I could hurt my professional knees to the point where I’ll be really walking and doing something slow. So, I think there is some value in what you say in terms of letting it marinate to take some rest days, multiple, to figure out what’s next.

MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah. And I don’t think you’re as far away from figuring out what’s next as what you think. I think you have A, determined that something different needs to be. That’s a huge step. Accepting that, yeah, I don’t want to keep going at this pace that I’ve been going at. Okay. So, now you know that what’s the pace? B, you’ve identified that you want to be able to leverage all this knowledge and experience and wisdom that you’ve accumulated. Okay. C, that learning and growth and newness are still things that you value. Okay. So, those are three areas already. D, we don’t know what the container looks like, but there’s a possibility. I think this is actually the part you have to dig into. How tied am I to the current type of container that I’m in? Meaning does it have to be in this corporate structure, reputable company with a brand, or am I open to different containers without identifying what the container is?

That’s like what you said. Is it that I need to stay living in this geographic region, or am I open to other geographic regions without yet knowing what those other geographic regions might be? That’s a choice. And just be honest with yourself. There’s nothing wrong with saying, “Nope, I need to stay right here. Nope, I need to stay in this type of container no matter what.” Okay, so that becomes a non-negotiable for whatever’s next. But understanding that with every choice that you make, there’s always going to be a trade-off. So, maybe it could be that you could reframe if you said, “Hey, I want to keep it in this corporate container. Okay. But I’m going to pivot in terms of what I do, how I do it, et cetera.” Maybe it would mean that you’re no longer on the high potential track or whatever the track, the fast track. Okay, that’s the trade-off. Are you okay with that? The end of the day, it’s as long as you can live with it.

SABRINA: Yeah.

MURIEL WILKINS: So, tell me where you’re landing right now.

SABRINA: I’m landing on, I feel a little bit more excited than I did about 10 minutes ago when I felt flat, but the idea of exploring this different container pieces, I was reflecting as you were talking because I’ve had a couple of opportunities come across where the container would be very different than the one I’m in, and I’ve continued to explore it a bit, but on the edges going, I don’t really know if that’s the right container, because I really like this flashy container that I’m in, but it makes me think about, well, what is it about the flashy container I really like? And when you talk about trade-offs, what are the trade-offs that I’m willing to take? And also knowing that whatever decision I make, I know this too, and I’m going to keep this one. Whatever decision I make, it’s not permanent. I know that from my history that nothing lasts forever, and whether it’s voluntary or involuntary, it doesn’t have to be permanent, whatever the next container is, I could choose to go back to the flashy container if I wanted to. It’ll still be there.

MURIEL WILKINS: Okay. So, maybe that gives you a sense of security to be able to go and explore.

SABRINA: Yeah.

MURIEL WILKINS: And I think when you look at what is it that you like about the flashy container, I would encourage you to also look at to what extent are you holding onto it tightly? What does it provide for you, and do you need that or do you not need that? Okay.

SABRINA: Yeah, that’s a good question.

MURIEL WILKINS: So, I think where we are is that you have some questions that you need to sit with to continue to work through before you can get to, here’s going to be what my exact next step is. Goodness gracious, you’ve had 20, I think, 20, 25 years in your career. Don’t diminish how much to invest in figuring out what the next 20 years look like. Okay.

SABRINA: Yeah, it’s true. But I have all this wisdom. I should know.

MURIEL WILKINS: It’s a process, okay. And you’re going through the process. I think to keep the momentum going, I would ask you to commit to spending some time, even if it’s 15 minutes a day or an hour a week, where you are, I know it might be hard for you, but I don’t know, but sit somewhere and maybe write out, keep a journal of just what your thoughts are, and you have the questions. So, let’s just, to ensure that there’s some follow-through. I’m going to give you a little bit of homework. Okay.

SABRINA: Okay.

MURIEL WILKINS: The assignment is to journal with some… I just want you to stay in questioning mode right now rather than the answer. Okay. The answer will come. We landed here with a bunch of questions that you could start with. So, I’d like you to pick what is the first question that you want to start with next week that you’re going to sit for 15, 20, 30 minutes, and just without judgment, write out what you think. What’s the question you want to start with?

SABRINA: I think the question I want to start with was, the one I wrote down was how tied I am to my current container. I want to explore my connection to this container I’m in or I have.

MURIEL WILKINS: So, start with that and then see where it leads you.

SABRINA: Yeah. Okay.

MURIEL WILKINS: I think you are on the path.

SABRINA: Thank you.

MURIEL WILKINS: Thank you.

SABRINA: I appreciate it.

MURIEL WILKINS: Absolutely.

As much as people come to coaching to sort through career challenges, we also know that we can’t separate work from the rest of our lives. The two are intermingled, and Sabrina’s challenge was partly that, figuring out how to adapt her working style and approach as her life started to feel different. At any career transition phase, it’s important to go back to your goals and motivation, to make sure you have a basic understanding of what you want and what is driving you. Once you have that foundation, you can see how the ways you’re viewing things might be limiting, or how you can change your perspective. In Sabrina’s case, she felt less content at work than she had hoped, but in the background, she felt her age might be impacting her energy level and felt her motivation change as her kids were no longer as dependent on her.

As I walked Sabrina through articulating what really mattered to her, we were able to get a fuller picture of everything that was going on in her life and how that was impacting her work. Then we could take a step back and really start working through how her work could change or where she could look for motivation and energy in endeavors outside of work. What’s nice is she doesn’t really have to make a decision right now. She can let things marinate a bit more, but it was really important for her to realize don’t focus solely on that external container, but instead focus on the substance of what’s inside and make that what you’re really looking for. That’s it for this episode of Coaching Real Leaders. Next time…

NEXT EPISODE’S GUEST: I have made a transition that very few people are able to pull off coming from, let’s say, the working class of the industry into the office job, and that’s where I’m struggling with getting to the next level.

MURIEL WILKINS: I have a really important ask of you. If you love the coaching conversations on Coaching Real Leaders, it would mean the world to me if you could head over to Apple, Spotify or wherever you listen to subscribe to the show and leave a five-star review. And of course, if you think others would learn from these episodes, please share it with them. If you want more of Coaching Real Leaders, join my community where I host live discussions to unpack every episode and answer your questions. Become a member at CoachingRealLeadersCommunity.com. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn at Muriel Wilkins. Thanks to my producer, Mary Dooe; sound editor, Nick Crnko; music composer, Brian Campbell; my assistant, Emily Sofa, and the entire team at HBR. Much gratitude to the leaders who join me in these coaching conversations and to you, our listeners, who share in their journeys. If you are dealing with a leadership challenge, I’d love to hear from you and possibly have you on the show. Apply at CoachingRealLeaders.com. From HBR Podcast Network, I’m Muriel Wilkins. Until next time, be well.



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