It’s all very well, a reformed copywriter-turned-coach harping on about the virtues of getting more meaning in your career. But when you’re knee-deep in the mire of figuring out what that actually looks like, it all sounds a bit wanky and conceptual, doesn’t it?
So welcome back to the second installment (here’s the first) in a pragmatic trilogy of articles, on the subject of unraveling the mystery of what your thing is.
This is all about working with what you have now (a random assortment of experience and skills), unpicking them, and seeking clues that’ll help you dive deeper – if you’re curious about having more purpose in what you do for a living.
This clue, number two, is probably my favourite one to watch out for when I’m coaching people. Not only is it the least theoretical, it turns up again and again whenever someone unloads in one of our sessions.
Here’s what the clue looks like
I once met a branding consultant – talented as you like. They work with businesses large and small helping them go beyond mere logos, to developing full-blown communities of people who rally around a shared mythology.
If you ever sat down with this person, and plonked an existential dilemma in front of them, they’d not only have it sussed within minutes, they’d have sketched out umpteen possible futures to choose from.
Anyway, we got talking and they soon made an unexpected confession (it’s a heavy cross to bear as a coach). At a recent presentation, some senior bod suggested they put aside the branding stuff for a moment, to just talk about themselves: what they stood for, how they wanted to change the world – that kind of thing.
Only then, they went to pieces. They couldn’t consult on themselves.
Likewise, I know a talented programmer who’s ruthlessly perfectionist on delivering bullet-proof systems on time. They’ve a reputation for doing things right by their employer’s customers, by the book, everytime. A paragon of best-practice.
But ask how their personal projects are getting on outside of work, and it’s a litany of clever, albeit perpetually shelved, self-improvement projects. An ever-growing list of things they keep meaning to get around to, that would undoubtedly fix their own perennial problems.
We give others what we don’t get enough of ourselves
This sort of unwitting self-sacrifice isn’t rare amongst good, capable people. It’s a pattern of behaviour I see with increasing frequency, the more I coach.
Now, call me a head-in-the-clouds, soft-leftie utopianist but you can see why this happens. Societies (and the relationships within them) don’t just function, they flourish when we compensate for one another’s inadequacies.
On top of this, we simply didn’t have the luxury of stepping back to work on ourselves, to learn and self-improve because we were too busy watching crops fail, getting stabbed or watching our kids die to do anything about it. Thankfully, a privileged minority of us now have the means to toy with that luxury.
My working theory is it’s all about helping others with a struggle you know well. Cooperating to ease a burden, avoid or lessen the pain and suffering for someone going through what you’ve been through yourself.
It also makes for a compelling argument for our vocations being a hefty force for good. We’re essentially making the world a better place, saying:
“Let me save you some bother here. Don’t make the mistake I did. I can help you with that.”
Yes, this can come from dark places
I won’t dwell on this too much; I’m a coach not a therapist. So let’s just say rich clues often lay hidden in our wider, personal stories, beyond the typical professional journey of finding a solution to a problem then scaling it up (textbook entrepreneurialism).
When your livelihood is rooted in the personal, it becomes a source of real depth and conviction. It’s visceral – a feeling that’s tricky to put in words. You just seem able to empathise better with the people you help, and therefore serve them better. Put simply, you care more. In fact, that’s a really good test of whether something really is your thing – how much do you really care about it?
I suppose my own story of escaping the barren grey corporate wastelands and going a bit mad in the basement makes for a handy example of this. I know what it’s like to approach life’s junctures, feeling a little lost or stuck, like something’s missing – no soul in your occupation or grand plans forever just out of reach. I care a lot about that, so it helps me know where my clients are coming from and what it’s like to long for sunnier uplands.
And the clue? I’d spent a decade going around helping clients express what they stood for, as a copywriter and analyst. So they felt valued, unique, expressed, clear and capable enough to take on the world.
But, like those folks I mentioned earlier – did I give enough of that to myself in the same way I gave it to others? Nope, not without an arduous struggle. I needed my own coach to lance that particular pustule.
So here’s how to spot clue number two yourself
If you’re finding it tricky to get a handle on your thing, try looking at how you already throw yourself into the service of others. Maybe you’ve noticed a pattern emerging in your projects, and the kind of people you can’t help but help?
What are you compensating for in your line of work? Perhaps you go out of your way to do something for others, that’s above-and-beyond what you’re contracted to do in your daily duties?
Ever find yourself unable to bite your tongue when someone’s wrestling with a particular kind of challenge? When do you feel compelled to meddle because a predicament has echoes of one you once battled through yourself?
Follow the clues, look for themes that emerge, and you’ll be hot on the trail of finding your thing.