When people read this blog or read the Career Paralysis slides they often contact me to say how much it resonates with their experience. Then when they meet me and set off on the career change / getting unstuck process, they often feel full of hope and expectation that they have finally found a way out of being ‘Headstuck‘. This is lovely for me of course, jolly good for my ego etc, but I ask people to hold these thoughts lightly. Because I know what’s coming next.
How we think about something and what we feel about it is not fact but learned behaviour. That’s what a thought is, a hypothesis of how something is similar or different to something else. At the beginning of the process it’s easy for the mind to say ‘this sounds promising’ but soon after the journey starts the mind will often say ‘hang on, this is just like what we’ve done before!’ From there it is only a small leap to thoughts like ‘this didn’t work before, why would it work now?’ Then ‘You are wasting your time’. And for some, ‘YOU ARE WASTING YOUR LIFE!’.
Unless I prepare clients for this, it can come as quite a shock. But if we can normalise these kind of thoughts (both the positive and negative) and treat them as ‘just thoughts’ clients are much better prepared. So, the first thing we need to discuss is the mind, how it works and what it’s there to do.
Our minds did not evolve for our happiness. They evolved to scan the environment for danger constantly. Is it a bear, or is it a blueberry bush? Our minds evolved to see the bear – they are highly evolved worry machines.
The caveman who was somewhat blasé about that strange shadow in the undergrowth or who ignored the unfamiliar noise over by the woods: they were the ones who were rapidly weeded out of the gene pool. The ones who survived – our ancestors – were the worriers. They were the ones whose minds refused to switch off, who were always alert to danger, who refused to look on the bright side until all was definitely safe.
Today we have a mind which is essentially unchanged in terms of software, yet the environment has changed dramatically in the sense that there is so much more information to process. All of it brings potential danger, so our minds continually chatter to us, cautioning us of danger, anxiously trying to grab out attention, warning us over and over that some new path or course of action may be dangerous.
Minds may be quiet in periods of safety or boredom, but if we try to change something or take some new tack they will most assuredly start chattering, and anxiety will set in. A career change is rather a big change of tack, so the question is not whether anxiety and doubt creeps in, but when.
The temptation is to try and win this mental battle first before proceeding, perhaps by doing so much analysis that the right decision is reached and the ideal career found and certainty is achieved. But this often leads to disaster (as the metaphor of Tug of War with the Anxiety Monster shows).
What does this mean for career changers?
The mind’s essential purpose has a number of implications for career changers:
- If the objective of your career change is greater fulfilment then your mind is not your enemy, but it is not your friend.
- Your mind is there to ensure you are safe, not fulfilled.
- Anxiety, uncertainty, doubt, fear – all of these are guaranteed if you stray from the familiar path. (Mind you, they are guaranteed if you do not stray as well, but that’s another post).
- Your mind will tell you that the world is as it says it is. Much better to be like that and ensure that quick, clear decisions are made than be left uncertain and unsure how to act (which is a recipe for being eaten by Lions). This shortcut has ensured your survival and it is not going to give that up now, so thoughts present themselves as reality.
- Your mind will present anxiety, doubt, fear etc as indications that you are going the wrong way. Whilst this is useful when there may be an actual Lion round the next bush, if your journey is about moving to a more fulfilling career they are less useful emotions to have. Yet it is hard for the mind to differentiate between the two.
- The more you try not to think about a particular thought, the more often you will have it. With minds, if you don’t want it, you tend to get it (source: Dan Wegner).
So what can we do about this? For now, recognising that this is what your mind is there to do is enough. (Though recognising that there is another part of ‘you’ which is capable of having a thought and not acting on it is a very useful skill to develop).
For my part I have a mind which screams at me to stop and turn back – it’s not too late to get a conventional job etc. 10 years ago I would have probably listened. Today I smile, say ‘thanks mind’ for trying to keep me safe, and move on in the direction which I have chosen.
“The single most remarkable fact of human existence is how hard it is for humans to be happy“. (Hayes, Wilson and Strohsahl, 1999).
So begins the book that changed my life forever, the first edition of the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy manual. It articulated something which I already knew to be true without actually realising. All my efforts to try and be happy and live a happy life had failed. (And I had tried most things: alcohol, drugs, exercise, therapy, hard work, perfectionism, positive psychology, keeping busy, watching TV, career breaks, denial, blaming other people, re-structuring my thinking…you name it, I tried it). But none of it worked. Not for long, at least.
Then I read that line and something shifted.
Not long after I attended a seminar where a metaphor was used:
Tug of War with the Anxiety Monster
Imagine you are in a tug of war with some huge anxiety monster. You are pulling with all your might because in between you and the monster is a huge, bottomless pit. You are spending all your energy pulling because you are sure if you lose you’ll be pulled into the pit. But the harder you pull the harder the monster pulls.
You’re growing tired and you need to win. What’s the best thing to do?
Well your mind will tell you to keep pulling, harder and harder. But the monster never seems to tire. You’re still stuck. So what’s the best thing to do now?
Drop the rope. Give up on the battle with your mind to try and control your thoughts and emotions. This means being willing to have the monster around of course – you have not won the battle. But suddenly your hands and feet are free to go and do something more productive with your life than engage in a tug of war.
In the case of my own career change, this meant I was freer to move forward with my new business and make progress even on those days when the anxiety monster threw me the rope, again and again and said:
It started to happen when I did well in exams at school. It gained serious momentum when I got a first at University. Then it became a pattern when I got onto various prestigious graduate programmes.
It’s the thought in my head that says ‘I am brilliant’.
I mean, I have lots of other voices that tell me how much of a failure I am. But this voice never truly goes away. It tells me that I am special. That I have unique gifts and that I must use them.
This is also the voice that tells me that other people should recognise my brilliance. If only they knew how brilliant I am they might treat me differently. And when a client session goes really well, this voice pipes up. Oh wow! You are brilliant!
And this is the voice that can turn on me, suddenly, viciously, when I get something even slightly wrong. When I try to do things that are ‘good enough’ and press send. When I say something awkward in a conversation. So often, I write e-mails I don’t send. I shy away from going out and meeting people and doing projects that would help me develop, in case it goes wrong and the voice turns.
The longer I do nothing, the longer I get to keep the idea ‘I am brilliant’. It’s a strategy that really works.
Except in the long term , of course. In the long term it doesn’t work in really important ways. And some less important ways, too.
Today I had a really stimulating conversation with someone who I really admire. He asked me whether I’d ever read any John Updike. I hadn’t, so the conversation stalled.
The voice stopped me wasting time on fiction years ago.
There is a lovely ACT metaphor where you are watching someone climbing a mountain in the distance. The climber begins by making his way straight up the mountain, resting only occasionally. But as the mountain steepens, he often has to stop. Sometimes he has to move sideways – even down – in order to bypass difficult terrain. It often looks like he is going nowhere, even backwards. It’s only over time that one can see that the climber is making progress, slow and steady, towards his goal.
This is how career change can feel too. My own career change was finally completed last week when I became a chartered psychologist. This was the final milestone in a 6 year plan which had seemed impossible when I made it.
Throughout most of that time I felt like I was going nowhere or backwards. My scariest demons repeatedly told me I was falling behind others, wasting my talent and wasting my life. This would have paralysed me before, but mainly thanks to ACT, I was able to cope. I was able to have the thought about not making progress and still make progress.
The mind’s demons can hijack the present moment by screaming and shouting, usually about failure or being left behind in some way. I know that getting rid of my own demons is impossible. They’ve been around my whole life. But if we can remain in contact with the present – if we can experience those thoughts and still focus on doing what matters – then we can be free.
I went for a run that evening and it felt like the end of a very long climb. Getting chartered is nothing to write home about, but I had a lump in my throat because I know that my scariest demons had attacked and I’d stood firm. That felt good.
It’s also pretty useful, because I know they’ll be back, waiting on the next mountain.
One of my main interests is in mindfulness and its application in the workplace and beyond. The main reason for that is that mindfulness – much to my surprise – has had a huge effect on me as a person. Since then, and particularly since studying ACT, I have learned that mindfulness is broadly applicable to a great number of situations and problems.
I will use this post to maintain a list of all the best evidence about the use of mindfulness.
- Mindfulness helps prevent depression relapse (source: Teasdale, Segal, Williams, Ridgeway, Soulsby (2000). “Prevention of relapse/recurrence in major depression by mindfulness-based cognitive therapy”.
- Mindfulness has been shown to be effective in stress reduction. (reference: Shapiro, Schwartz, Bonner (1998). “Effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction on medical and premedical students” . There is a nice meta analysis here by Grossmana, Niemannb, Schmidtc, Walach (2003).
- Mindfulness is also used in sport. For those interested I recommend The Psychology of Enhancing Human performance.
- Mindfulness is useful in leadership - the literature is extensive in ACT but evidence is now growing that mindfulness alone can improve leadership. (Source: Ashridge).
- Mindfulness underpins general psychological health. Trait mindfulness and meditation practice correlate with psychological well-being.
- It is applicable to pain management. If you are of a scientific bent, I recommend the papers and presentations of Lance McCracken. There is plenty of research also by Kabat-Zinn (reference: Kabat-Zinn, Lipworth, Burney, Sellers (1987). “Four-year follow-up of a meditation program for the self-regulation of chronic pain: treatment outcome and compliance. If you’d prefer to read a novel I recommend Tim Parks.
- Finally, mindfulness is central to creativity. it is the ability to be with the present moment as it is, that enables problems to be addressed in an unvarnished way, and the ability to be with our fears of looking stupid if we fail that is critical to the problem solving process. (See Bond and Bunce 2001)
- Improved quality of life for cancer patients.
- Rachel Collis has written a great little post on Mindful Eating which I urge you to read. This study by Baer et al (2004) add empirical evidence.
- Finally, there has been some suggestion that mindfulness slows the ageing process. This one needs replication, but the more I use mindfulness, and understand the possible scientific mechanisms by which it has its effect (thanks, Hayes, Wilson & Strohsahl), the more I am convinced it will.
Clearly, mindfulness is much more than a passing fad. It is an Eastern idea gaining clinical acceptance. I believe mindfulness is a way of making peace with our internal struggles so that we can begin to address what’s happening externally. It is an ancient antidote to a modern condition. In the age of distraction, the time for mindfulness has truly arrived.
I have written previously about the Pomodoro technique.
After a lot of research and some earnest experimentation myself, I can now offer a more scientifically validated time management technique which anyone can easily implement.
I have named this revolutionary system ‘That’s Un Oeuf!’ (TM).
The ‘That’s Un Oeuf!’ system is guaranteed to boost your productivity and increase your wellbeing through the simple expedient of a kitchen timer shaped like an egg.
Here’s how it works:
1. Buy your Oeuf-shaped kitchen timer. It MUST be shaped like an egg to have any effect.
2. Have a clear objective for this particular Un Oeuf. Be clear what you want to achieve.
3. Set the timer for precisely 22 minutes. Start working through your Un Oeuf.
4. If you become distracted, simply notice that distraction and bring your attention self back to the present moment and to your objective.
5. Once the timer sounds, GET UP AND WALK AWAY. It is critical to move at this point. Get a cup of tea, do 2-3 minutes of cleaning, tidy something, do 10 press ups, walk to the printer. Whatever.
6. Repeat in blocks of up to 4 Un Oeufs.
After this, take a more extended break, moving around, doing e-mail etc. I often do household chores in this period if I’m working from home or I go and have a chat with someone if I’m in the office.
I recommend doing 12 Un Ooeufs a day, and the rest of the time should be doing e-mail or calls, meetings and more relaxed or creative tasks.
The science behind this approach is overwhelming, but if you want some primary sources here goes:
- The myth of multitasking – read Brain Rules by John Medina
- Distraction and wellbeing – read Gilbert and Killingsworth, 2010
- Mckinsey Quarterly January 2011
- The need to move – listen to this on the BBC World Service
- The average length of human attention span
Please let me know how you get on with the revolutionary ‘That’s Un Oeuf!’ Time Management System, I would love to hear your experiences.
But for now, That really is Un Oeuf.
Mindfulness is more than a passing fad. It is at the cutting edge of scientific research into anxiety, stress, depression, OCD, pain management, work performance and resilience.
Dan Siegel is at the forefront of this research and if you don’t have time to read his excellent Mindsight, this is a useful alternative.
I think this is absolutely relevant to career changers, but then I think it’s relevant to all of us.
I had lots of interest in Clarence’s views on the year’s best mindfulness books, so the natural question now is what will he be reading for Christmas?
Below is a list of the books he’s already started. I’ll let you be the judge of his favourites so far…*
|Clarence is very curious about Todd Kashdan’s excellent ‘Curious?’|
|…but less so in ‘To Have or To Be’ by Erich Fromm|
|Clarence has already absorbed many of the lessons in Ian Price’s ‘The Activity Illusion’. He doesn’t like to say ‘I told you so’ but…|
|As for Kelly Wilson and Troy Dufrene’s ‘Mindfulness for 2′ – WELL TELL HIM SOMETHING HE DIDN’T KNOW.|
Clarence would like to wish all his readers a very happy Christmas and a mindful new year.
* The author’s view is that these books are all potentially life changing.
As you may know, I use mindfulness in my work with career stress and anxiety. Mindfulness also helps people contact what they really value in life – the ability to be present is a foundation of self understanding.
I’ve been working with Clarence the cat for some time on his work stress and anxiety, and so I thought I’d show you the ones that he’s been enjoying in our sessions this year.
|‘Mindfulness’ by Elen Langer|
|‘Life with Full Attention’ by Maitreyabandhu|
|‘Mindsight’ by Dan Siegel|
|‘Acceptance and Commitment Therapy’ by Hayes, Wilson and Strohsahl|
|‘Acceptance and Mindfulness at Work’ by Hayes, Bond et al|
|Clarence is now totally accepting of his thoughts and feelings and moving in a valued direction|
I just stopped and looked for a while.
Incredibly, my busy and important world didn’t fall apart.