Last month, I had the great honor of speaking at the Pennsylvania Conference for Women, an inspiring conference that attracts over 10,000 attendees from around the world. I gave two presentations, one on Finding Brave To Reach Your Highest Potential, for a breakfast event sponsored by Accenture for 150 senior women in pharma, biotech and medical technology. And the other was a panel discussion exploring the topic of Get Unstuck: Navigating Through a Career Transition, to an audience of over 1,000 women.
The questions attendees posed echoed the very questions I hear every week from scores of midlife professionals around the globe who long for something more, different or better in their jobs and careers, but can’t seem to get out of the gate to take action, or decide the best directions to pursue.
At the heart of these questions is one key element: fear. But fear about career change disguises itself in a myriad of confusing ways that we don’t recognize as fear. The research I’ve conducted over the past 13 years reveals that there are three top fears that keep professionals locked in unhappy careers and in quiet (and not so quiet) desperation, sometimes for a lifetime.
These same fears plagued me as well during an unhappy 18-year corporate career that was extremely unhealthy and damaging for me. I finally “found brave” and overcame those crippling fears and excuses because I had to – I faced a serious breakdown moment in the form of a brutal layoff that pushed me to my knees and forced me to act differently. That breakdown led to breakthrough, which finally opened the pathway for me to address my deepest fears and transform myself and my work.
The top 3 fears that keep individuals stuck in career pain and misery are:
#1: Fear of losing the money they’ve worked so hard to amass
This may seem obvious but the fear of loss of money is the most potent block to making any change for professionals. The challenge here is that money, for many, is such a big, confusing and emotionally charged topic that they lose their ability to think and plan rationally around it. And the fear of lost money looms so large that many people won’t even take one micro step to begin to explore what they could do differently in their jobs or careers.
As an example, I have several clients with millions of dollars in savings, yet they’ve grown up with a traumatic scarcity mentality from childhood so that, emotionally, they feel they will never have enough money to be happy and secure. And that fear prevents them from even entertaining or exploring the idea of change.
Others truly do have serious financial concerns and problems, but they haven’t been able to address those in effective, empowered ways. They’re continually struggling to pay their bills, to plan for the future, and/or keep up with the lifestyle they’ve created that may be beyond their means. This money relationship/management problem interferes with their ability to choose a different type of life or career that will be successful for them.
Tip: If fear of lost money is what keeps you stuck, seek outside help this month in the form of a great financial advisor to help you take a long, hard and rational look at your money situation. Start planning more effectively, and less emotionally, for the future. And get very clear on your own money story and money programming so that past trauma or fears around money won’t continue to influence you in unconscious ways. The reality is that you can make significant improvements in your job and/or career without losing money.
#2: Fear that they’re not good, smart or capable enough to build new skills or pursue new directions
Recently, in my Amazing Career Project online course, one of the participants who is highly talented and accomplished — with great experience that’s relevant to many industries — doesn’t see her accomplishments in a clear light. She feels flattened by her prior experiences at work, and believes that the challenges she faces means she’s not valuable or capable.
When we’ve had serious challenges at work (which almost all of us on the planet have), or if we’ve been passed over for a raise or promotion, or not advanced through an interview process for an exciting new job, we often feel that we’re a failure or “less than” – not talented, capable or competitive enough to be desirable in the workforce. And often we lose the ability to see clearly what we have to offer. Therefore, we fail to speak powerfully about our own achievements, contributions and talents. And if we can’t speak powerfully about our contributions, we’ll fail to advance.
Tip: This weekend, take some time for yourself at brainstorm the “20 facts of you” – the 20 accomplishments and contributions you’ve made over the arch of your career that were important, powerful and moved the needle to greater success for your team, department or company.
Write down all that you did, and how you did it, and detail the ways in which you contributed that no one else could replicate, because of your unique set of skills, perspectives and experience. Understand that you are indeed special and in fact, amazing – everyone is, in their own way. But first, you need to recognize just how you stand out.
#3: Fear of taking a stand, making a decision and choosing between numerous new exciting directions they dream of
Finally, this fear of missing out and making the wrong decision around what to pursue trips up so many professionals today. They’ve shared with me, “I have so many ideas I want to pursue that I can’t choose!” or “I’m just not sure which of these ideas would be best” so they stay paralyzed by the worry that they’ll pick the wrong direction to focus on.
As an example, one fellow in my morning presentation stood up bravely and shared that he had three big dreams that he longed to pursue but couldn’t figure out where to begin and which to choose. He was weighing out the options of writing a book, becoming a teacher or earning a Ph.D. – but felt confused as to which he should actually commit to.
Tip: This fear is actually very easy to address with three key steps:
1. Try on and explore in every possible way the “living identity” of the directions you’re exploring.
The living reality of many of the careers we dream of are often much different than we’d think. In other words, the living experience and role of teacher, or therapist, or singer, or bed-and-breakfast owner (or whatever you dream of) is often very different from the fantasy you’ve projected onto it.
For instance, I became a marriage and family therapist because I believed that my life would be full of meaning, purpose and value by helping others. For me, it was indeed that, but it was also extremely emotionally challenging and draining (and even frightening at times), working with rape, incest, pedophilia, suicidality, drug addiction, attempted murder and more. The scariest moment for me was when I had to reach for the “ALARM” button under my desk that summons the police if the therapist is feeling threatened by a client or situation at the office.
If I’d had researched more fully the actual living experience of being a therapist, and interviewed more therapists doing the real work of therapy in my community (rather than just interviewing a few wealthy therapists who were bestselling authors and didn’t need to take insurance, etc.), I would have understood more clearly the true reality of the job and seen it was different from what I dreamed it was.
2. Do the thing you dream to do, alongside your other roles
As I like to say, “Writers write, dancers dance, teachers teach.” If you want to engage in writing a book, for instance, then get going with it. You don’t have to change anything in your life to start writing, except to dedicate the time to do it.
The vast majority of people who write books don’t write at the exclusion of all their other professional roles. For instance, I’m writing my second book now, in the midst of all my other professional roles – Forbes contributor, career coach, speaker, teacher and leadership trainer.
If you want to write a book, start by taking a writing class and get moving with an ongoing structure, process and accountability. If you want to teach, start by developing the curriculum, then pitch it to a community college or continuing education center in your area. Don’t think you have to throw away all your other work to do the creative projects you dream of.
3. Prioritize and choose the thing you’ll regret most if you don’t do
Finally, if you’re still confused as to which direction to pursue, choose the ONE thing that you’ll regret most, at the end of your life, not having tried. The key is to avoid those deep, painful regrets that make you feel you wasted your life in endeavors that failed to bring you joy, meaning, and fulfillment.
In the end, fear and excuses will keep you stuck in a miserable, unfulfilling career unless you commit to finding brave and getting in the cage with those fears. A happier career or role is available to you as early as this year, but only if you choose to live and work more consciously and bravely, and not let fear keep you from becoming the person and the professional you want to be.