Working Forwards

Yesterday I received an email reminder from my company that it was “time for Quarterly Check-Ins with your manager.” I let out an audible groan, despite being the only person in my house. Time to get asked, yet again, what my career goals are! (Spoiler alert for my manager: I don’t freaking know!!!!! I don’t even know where I see myself in two weeks (except hopefully alive and healthy?)!!!!)

I have taken every online quiz and read every article meant to “identify your strengths” or “find jobs that match your lifestyle” or “find your purpose” and have Googled “what should I do with my life?” multiple times. I’m not proud of any of these things.

To add insult to injury, I was scrolling on LinkedIn a few hours ago (again – not proud) and almost cried in frustration when I saw the following post from a colleague: “Create a vision for yourself, and execute. I like to think in terms of 1-3-5 year milestones which I can then backcast and build a roadmap towards.”

I don’t have a 5 year milestone, much less a 1 year milestone! I’m just trying to be a good person and hopefully make a positive difference in at least one person’s life!!!!

I sat in my desk chair, swiveling around, trying not to spiral as I opened the “Quarterly Check-In Guide” I was supposed to fill out.

I took a deep breath. And another. And I recalled the passages I’d read a few weeks ago in David Epstein’s Range, which I’d copied out carefully in my journal:

Ibarra[‘s research] concluded that we maximize match quality throughout life by sampling activities, social groups, contexts, jobs, careers, and then reflecting and adjusting our personal narratives. And repeat. If that sounds facile, consider that it is precisely the opposite of a vast marketing crusade that assures customers they can alight on their perfect matches via introspection alone. A lucrative career and personality quiz and counseling industry survives on that notion. “All of the strengths-finder stuff, it gives people license to pigeonhole themselves or others in ways that just don’t take into account how much we grow and evolve and blossom and discover new things,” Ibarra told me. “But people want answers, so these frameworks sell. It’s a lot harder to say, ‘Well, come up with some experiments and see what happens.’”

If only you fill out this quiz, the promise goes, it will light the way to the ideal career, never mind what psychologists have documented about personal change across time and context. Ibarra criticized conventional-wisdom articles like one in the Wall Street Journal on “the painless path to a new career,” which decreed that the secret is simply forming “a clear picture of what you want” before acting.

Instead of an answer to “Who do I really want to become?,” their work indicated that it is better to be a scientist of yourself, asking smaller questions that can actually be tested—“Which among my various possible selves should I start to explore now? How can I do that?” Be a flirt with your possible selves.* Rather than a grand plan, find experiments that can be undertaken quickly. “Test-and-learn,” Ibarra told me, “not plan-and-implement.”

When I first read these passages I remember feeling like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. Here was an entirely different way to approach my career and life!

The book continues with guidance from Ibarra that is highlighted so heavily in my journal that the yellow ink bleeds through to the following pages:

“‘Here’s who I am at the moment, here are my motivations, here’s what I’ve found I like to do, here’s what I’d like to learn, and here are the opportunities. Which of these is the best match right now? And maybe a year from now I’ll switch because I’ll find something better.’”

I know many people do have specific goals or a vision of themselves they’re working towards. But I have to think that there are also many people like myself who look at those people with envy and frustration because we have no idea what we want to achieve, or what our purpose is, or what we want our lives to look like in 10 years.

I find so much solace and hope in the idea of working forwards instead of backwards, of assessing who I am right now and what brings me purpose and joy and promise today, and moving forward from there.

Before my dreaded (although less so now) Quarterly Check-In, I’m simply going to think about what I enjoy most about my work today and how I can do more of that going forward; how I can assess what opportunities are available to me and try out ones that seem interesting; how I can spend more time doing the things that bring me purpose, like my volunteer work, and joy, like being outside among the trees and spending time with my friends and family.

“We learn who we are only by living, and not before.”



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