Future Focus: Five Tips for Gaining Clarity
October 7, 2019
According to an article on the site Tech 21 Century, our brains get loaded with 34 Gb (gigabytes) of information daily, translating to an intake of about 105,000 words in a 12-hour period. And while, technically, our brains can handle that amount (and then some), it still represents a lot that comes at us to process and manage in a day. It can often feel like we don’t have enough time or capacity to focus on our goals or needs, let alone explore what we may want to do next in our careers and lives, regardless of our current situation.
Much has been written about the importance of clarity in goal achievement, whether for work or in your personal life. It’s key to high performance and the ability to move forward rather than stay stuck in a rut or in your comfort zone, without a clear picture of what to focus on for the future. What’s your level of clarity for what you’d like to do next? Here are five common areas of clarity and a tip for how to get a handle on each:
Clarity of Purpose: OK, roll your eyes at me if you’d like. I know there’s a lot out there about “finding your purpose” or “finding your passion.” And yet, it’s still a good idea to have an anchor, so to speak, of something that grounds you to provide direction, even if you don’t feel that you’re “passionate” about anything.
Tip: If that sounds like you, or even if you do have something in mind and just need to refine it, note your core values that drive your decisions. What are “non-negotiables” for you when it comes to having those values met? Once you have clarity of your values, they will inform your purpose. For example, some of my core values are learning/education, relationship building, and autonomy, so for me, independently supporting people through coaching relationships to have fulfilling careers (whether in work or retirement) is my purpose.
Clarity of Goals: Once you are clear on your purpose or what anchors you, it’s time to write down (yes, write down) two or three goals that can help you fulfill your purpose. By writing down your goals, it not only serves as a reference for you to remind you, it also supports your commitment to them (and for even greater accountability, share them with someone too!).
Tip: Keep focused on only two or three goals so it’s manageable and reasonable for you to achieve them (ideally in a year). When I see lists of 10 or more goals, I’m always leery. Less is more so your goals have the most impact and greatest chance of accomplishment. When writing them down, choose action words to start and include a measurement of some sort and a deadline so it’s very clear. For example, “Explore and document three different career path options by December 31” is clear and specific with a measurement of having identified three.
Clarity of Strengths: It’s surprising to me when I encounter someone who’s been in the workforce for a while who doesn’t have a good handle on what their strengths are or what they’re best at. Maybe part of it is only hearing negative feedback at work. If this is you, consider how you can get an idea of your strengths, as it will also help you decide what type of work or activities to focus on for the future.
Tip: You can choose a formal method to identify your strengths, such as taking an assessment (TotalSDI, StrengthsFinder, etc.) or take an informal approach, such as asking colleagues and friends what they would say your strengths are and look for common themes. What jumps out from their feedback that rings true that you can identify as a pattern? Those items can then serve as a springboard to find what allows you to leverage those strengths more regularly.
Clarity of Flow: A pioneer in the study of happiness, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explains in his books and writings that “flow” is the state of being lost in what you’re doing, losing track of time while doing it. When we’re in this state, we tend to be happier. This is also known as “being in the zone.” Identifying when you’re in a state of flow can also be a good signal of what to focus on for your future in terms of how you spend your time.
Tip: Keep a notebook handy (whether electronic or hard copy) and note the times when you’ve found yourself in a state of flow. What type of tasks or activities were you doing at the time? How did you feel while doing it? How long did it last? Your responses to these questions can then provide you with a track record of the type of activities you most enjoy to explore how you can have opportunities to be in flow more often.
Clarity of Relationship: How important are relationships to you? If very important, consider how what you’re currently doing feeds this part of you/this value and if your answer is “not very well,” then it may be time to think about a change. If you’re looking to change your workplace, career path, or thinking about retiring or semi-retiring, what could you do to ensure you have the opportunity to build or strengthen relationships?
Tip: Note your key/central relationships, whether at work or not, and identify how these could be improved or expanded. If all or most of your friends come from work, how could you build additional relationships so if you leave your current workplace, you’re not left feeling stranded? How else can you build community in a way that’s meaningful for you, especially if you relocate?
By addressing these different areas of clarity, you can begin to gain a deeper understanding of what you may want to do next, whether for work or otherwise in your life, crafting a future that’s clearly in focus.
Allowing Yourself to Dream: 10 Key Questions for Envisioning Your Future
“When you dream, what do you dream about?” This question, from the song “When You Dream” by the Barenaked Ladies (their album “Stunt” is on my “stranded on a desert island” music list) is a provocative one. And let’s face it – some of what we dream about probably shouldn’t be shared with the general public (if we can even remember it). Brains are so weird! So, I’ll ask it this way, “When you dream about the next chapter in your life, what do you see?” In the rush of the day-to-day demands we have, taking time to think about the future or focusing on ourselves can be tough.
And yet, if you’re one of the many who are disengaged at work, unhappy in your career, or keep putting off taking the next step that you know you need to do in order to grow, move on, or enter retirement, it’s time to make the choice to focus on how to make the leap. Otherwise, it’s “keep on keepin’ on” time, and that won’t get you anywhere. Often, it’s a matter of knowing where to start. Making time to consider the next step in your career or life is a good first action to take. It’s like the old adage of slowing down to speed up. By investing a bit of time now to develop a plan, it’ll speed up your progress in the end, and give you an idea of what to aim for to take action.
To help you with this envisioning work, here are 10 questions to ask yourself (along with your significant other, if applicable):
- What exactly is preventing you from taking action and how is this holding you back?
- If you do take action, what’s the worst that could happen and how can you be proactive to head this off?
- If money wasn’t involved, how would you most like to spend your time?
- What can you do now to enable you to spend your time in this way?
- What scares you the most about taking a leap of faith and how could you overcome this fear?
- What’s it worth to you to stay in your status quo?
- What might you regret if you take no action?
- What’s your idea of a “great day” and how can you work toward having more of them?
- How can you transfer your skills and strengths to something different?
- When you look back 10 years from now, what would you like to have in place?
Don’t worry about having answers for all of these right now. Give yourself some time to think about the questions and talk them over with those important to you if you’d like. The crucial point is that you take the time to generate the answers, period. Then you can use them as the basis to set a goal.
So often, we hold ourselves back because we have limiting beliefs about what we’re capable of, what’s possible, how we’ll be perceived, or anything else we can or can’t do for this or that reason. In reality, it’s a way for us to stay in our comfort zone. Ask yourself what, if any, limiting beliefs you may be holding onto in areas such as:
- Making a career or job change ( e.g. “I can’t do that” or “I’ll be seen as a job hopper”)
- The value of your skills and strengths (e.g. “I’m under qualified” or “I don’t know what else I’d do”)
- What retirement looks like (e.g. “I don’t want to sit around all day” or “It’s just one step closer to death”)
- Taking a calculated risk (e.g. “I’d probably fall on my face” or “I don’t think I could handle the unknown”)
- Going for a promotion at work (e.g. “There are people way more qualified than me” or “I don’t think they’d consider me”)
Do any of these phrases sound like you? If so, you could be limiting the possibilities for your future, potentially causing you to stay resigned to your current situation, even if unhappy or not moving forward with your life. Think about how you can gain new or different insights or information to help you change your limiting belief. Who can you meet or talk to who could provide some insight? Where could you go for information? What are the experiences that helped you form this belief and are they serving you well? If not, what needs to change and how can you change it? Once able to adopt a new belief, you can then take different actions to get your desired result.
Keep in mind the words of author C.S. Lewis, “You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.”
What’s your vision for your future and what are you doing today to get you there?
When Work Ends: Answering the New Identity Question
In a recent NY Times article by Sabrina Tavernise featuring Rick Marsh, a 25-year GM employee who’s a casualty of the plant closing in Lordstown, Ohio, I was struck by two things: 1. His family’s long-time history of working at the auto giant and 2. His featured quote, “What am I as a man?” when referring to potentially being unable to provide for his family. When one job or role, employer, or industry is all you’ve known in your career, what are you to do when it’s gone, whether in retirement or due to unexpected job loss, such as in the case of Mr. Marsh?
It’s reminiscent of the many families, including a number of my classmates’ families, who were impacted by the closing of Bethlehem Steel’s Burns Harbor plant in the backyard of my hometown, Chesterton, Indiana. What were once solid, middle class jobs with decent incomes vanished, leaving more generations of people who worked at the mill behind. If you didn’t directly know someone who worked there (my Aunt Shirley did), you probably knew someone who knew someone who worked there. Such was the way of the world in Porter County between the 1960s and 1990s.
Speaking of the 1990s, my dad was a 35-year employee for the state of Indiana when he retired at age 64 back in 1995 after working as an auditor and audit supervisor. When new leadership rolled in, they pressured him to retire, though he enjoyed his work and colleagues and wasn’t ready to leave. Fast forward to June of 2009, and he was gone at age 78 due to a combination of congestive heart failure and Alzheimer’s disease. Though he and my mom traveled at times in those 14 years, and he helped out at the travel agency they had until soon after 9/11, I wonder now at the 10-year anniversary of his death what impact, if any, retirement had on his identity and desire to engage with life. It’s hard to witness an already somewhat-sedentary guy deteriorate, both mentally and physically.
His experience and stories like that of Rick Marsh and my fellow Hoosiers, as well as those of some friends and colleagues expressing fear, or at least trepidation, of wasting away in retirement or being “irrelevant,” is what’s sparked me to change the focus of my own work this past month from leadership and team development to supporting those in career transition, including those heading toward retirement, to figure out who they are beyond their work and how they’ll spend their time once their current situation ends. Not that I no longer enjoy working with leaders. It’s just that this work transition of my own feels right, and now I can work with them and anyone else to help them decide what’s next.
What Are You Asking?
When the first question out of someone’s mouth at an event is often, “What do you do?” Or, “Where do you work?” it’s tough to untangle who we are from our career. Perhaps instead, we can ask questions that some networking gurus suggest, such as, “What’s important to you in your life?” Or, “What’s a fun experience you’ve had lately?” Or, “What’s the story of what brought you here?”
In other words, who are you if not for your work? What’s your identity beyond your career? What will you do next? And, perhaps more important, who will you be?
In middle class, midwestern America, from the time many of us hit grade school and started interacting with family and friends as kids, we were asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” If I remember right, one of my early answers was that I wanted to be the Easter Bunny, because I could spread joy and only work one day a year. Not too shabby! Nice work if you can get it. Of course, over time that answer evolved, though I never knew about the field where I’ve now spent the bulk of my career, professional learning and development, as I grew up, went to college, and started in the workforce. That was discovered over time. It makes me wonder what type of disservice we do when we ask kids that question. Now, my answer would probably be something snarky like, “I want to be alive and healthy.” Isn’t that enough when you’re ten? And then some wonder why college students frequently change majors before graduating (that is, if they have that freedom of choice). There’s a lot of exploration to do, whether early-, mid-, and late-career. As people, we’re not done growing and developing until we can no longer.
So, what questions are you asking as you network and interact with people you encounter? Are you going beyond simply what they do for a living to learn about their whole identity? And for those colleagues who are fellow “people developers,” what can you do to ensure that those you support are set up for success in their current career and beyond? The more we can encourage each other to think long term and broaden both our skill sets and visions of what we can do or be, the better equipped we’ll be when career change comes, voluntarily or not.
Lastly for yourself, if you could write your own card to introduce yourself, what would it say?