Originally published in Forbes.
One of the most defining moments of my life occurred at a panel discussion on developments in U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.
I was about 20 years old at the time, and I was completely immersed in positioning myself for a career as a foreign policy analyst.
So when I saw an opportunity to speak to one of the panelists, a U.S. Ambassador to a country in the Middle East, I seized it.
I introduced myself and said, “I want to be you.”
He laughed in my face. He told me women can’t do that when it comes to the Middle East.
That experience teed up the next few years of my life: It reinforced my commitment to achieving what this man said was impossible, and it fueled a flame under me that drove me to work harder than I ever imagined. However, in time, my relentless pursuit led to burnout and the soul-searching that ultimately put me on the path to being a career coach to millennials.
Many of my clients have had similar moments; the moment that defines their passion and sends them chasing their goals. Yet by the time they seek my assistance, they’re feeling depleted and uncertain about their direction. To help them find their true calling, I ask them some of the questions I asked myself when I realized I was moving down a career path that didn’t serve me.
Who Are You Proving Yourself To?
The ambassador’s refusal to believe a woman could hold his job was an incredible source of motivation for me, and it put me into an energy of proving myself to him and anyone else who dared to think like he did. I completed two Masters degrees and became proficient in two foreign languages, worked as an executive for the Pentagon, and did a lot of what this man said I could never do…But it never felt as good as I expected it to. I see this pattern play out in the lives of my clients: the doubters in our lives often play a huge role in our success, but you will never find real satisfaction if proving yourself to others is the biggest motivator in your career.
Are You Happy?
Assess how your career really, truly makes you feel. All of us have had rough days, weeks, and even months in the office. Are you struggling with burnout, or have you completely lost the will to pursue your chosen career path? In my case, I was drained of the passion to actually pursue a career as a diplomat, but I kept chalking it up to exhaustion in order to avoid facing the deeper reality that it was time for a change. If your goals no longer excite you, it’s time to start asking yourself if this is truly what you want.
Is There Another Way?
For the longest time, my success in business and career came from pushing: I’d push, and push and push myself… And then great things would happen. I was entirely consumed by the steps I needed to take to achieve whatever milestone or checklist item was going to get me closer to my goal. That overriding need for control stifled my ability to be creative and open to new possibilities. Once I realized how much I was limiting myself, I started focusing on the bigger picture: what did I really want? In my case, I knew I wanted to make a difference on a large scale, I knew I wanted to earn a steady income that would enable me to live a comfortable lifestyle, I knew I wanted to travel and also to live in different parts of the world. After I’d dug through my goals and assessed what parts of it were really important to me, I was able to see beyond my rigid foreign policy plan and realize there were other ways to live the life I’d dreamed of.
What Wants To Happen?
This is a question of “being in the flow”—and it’s the question that unlocked the door for me to find a new career path, but I couldn’t answer it for myself until I’d made peace within myself and realized what was truly important to me. Easing up on the gas pedal allowed me to get some perspective, and as I began to really let myself live in the world around me – instead of constantly running through it full throttle– I become more centered and focused on ideas that pulled me in and captivated me… Ideas that are so exciting that I don’t have to struggle to “make them happen”.
This question intimidates some of my private coaching clients because they think I’m telling them to go from 60 miles per hour to zero – an especially nerve-wracking thought for the type A personalities out there.
What I’m really telling them is not to slow down, per se, but to “go with the flow” instead of pushing and trying to make things happen all the time.
This is not code for “give up” — to the contrary, going with the flow is about finding a deeper and more meaningful connection to what we are doing. Scientists describe “flow” as a “loss of self-consciousness that happens when you are completely absorbed in an activity – intellectual, professional, or physical”.
For me, this meant approaching my work without constantly comparing myself to others around me and computing how long it would take me to get from one position to the next so that I could keep my career timeline on track. It meant being open to alternative possibilities and pursuing them without fear or judgment. For the first time in a long time, I was happy despite all the unknowns, which makes sense in light of the fact that being in flow only occurs when the activity is perceived as being voluntary – and enjoyable.
Guiding my clients through this process of finding their purpose is so rewarding, especially because many of them have given up on the idea that true career happiness is possible. They are able to move from a place of feeling trapped by their decisions and on a constant uphill climb to finding freedom and peace.
Are you tired of “making things happen” in your career? Are you sick of feeling like you’re rowing against the tide all the time?
If so, take an inventory of your current path and figure out what matters most to you. Is there another way to get there?
When you dig deep, what do you want to have happen in your life? What is so compelling that it pulls you in?
THAT is what you should do next in your career.
Ashley Stahl helps job seekers find their purpose, land more job offers and launch their dream businesses. Sign up here for her free jumpstart course on how to land a new job you love.