Why taking a step back is the best decision for career and personal growth

People tend to believe that, in their career, the trajectory should always be upward.

It's a common assumption when entering the job market that if we work long and hard enough, we'll progress in our field and climb the corporate ladder.

And it's a fair assumption. We spend our early years in school, taught to get good grades or we'll fail.

School taught us a lot of things, but it didn't teach us essential life skills like how to manage money, negotiate, build relationships or how to develop fundamental skills to not only identify a career path but succeed in it too.

"Never mistake knowledge for wisdom. One helps you make a living; the other helps you make a life." — Sandara Carey

We've developed the idea that the only direction is up and anything else means we've failed. But what happens when you can't find up? It might be that you have already reached the top of your future in that career, maybe your job doesn't excite you anymore, or maybe external influences like politics or personal circumstances have changed your outlook.

Well, I too have been in your position. Two years ago, to be exact. I worked dead-end legal jobs with no career direction. This wasn't because I was bad at my job, I was too good at it, and my ability to step up and into another role was halted due to my superiors relying so heavily on me. That was until I took a step back to reflect on what direction I wanted my life to take; here's what I learnt.

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Credit: Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash

Avoid seeking a quick-fix

You feel like you're surviving, not thriving at work.

Maybe you no longer find your job challenging or can't relate with your co-workers. Your enthusiasm has dwindled.

You know one thing's for sure; change is needed.

Finding a new job, let alone your dream job can be tricky.

And heck, what if you don't even know what your dream job is?

The temptation for a quick fix often accompanies this dilemma; find a position in the same field at a different company. While this option is attractive, I urge you to resist. Believe me; I've done it.

Unless you stop to think what's causing your unhappiness, you're likely to watch history repeat itself. But, by taking small steps and tending to your emotional well-being throughout the process, you can make this a successful transition.

Start with a period of self-evaluation

It's all too easy to float through life on auto-pilot, never taking the time to explore what you want from it.

Why do people settle for this mindset, though?

Well, money. When we're old enough to work and earn a wage, be it McDonald's or a full-time apprenticeship; bringing in your own money is exhilarating. You no longer need to do dishes for pocket money.

As time goes on, you want nicer things; a nice car, designer clothes, or a home all to yourself. But, nice things cost money, more money than what's in your bank account. So you seek a higher paying job.

Before you know it, you're up to your eyeballs in debt, and you're more or less working to keep your head above water, and you now resent your job.

If you're feeling drained to the point of burnout, lifting yourself out of this rut and into a desirable position is the first task. Burnout responds to reframing and shifting into a growth mindset. This allows you to see possibilities rather than sitting at a dead end.

When the going gets tough, think about the advice you'd give someone in your shoes. The best answers often arise from within, and you likely know where to start already. A big decision like leaving your job can and should be a thoughtful and deliberate process.

Humans thrive by exploring their strengths, motivations, likes, and dislikes. To make a well thought out decision, employ an honest self-evaluation with these questions:

  • What life experiences have made me who am I today?
  • What could I instead invest my time and energy into each day?
  • What three values do I live by?
  • What is my mission in life?
  • What obstacles are standing in the way of me making this career change today?

These questions provoke creative thinking so you can get in touch with what truly drives you. It's okay if you can't answer all of these straight away, but keep these at the forefront of your mind. You'll start to gain clarity around a potential career path that might suit you perfectly.

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Credit: Photo by DJ Johnson on Unsplash

Don't second guess yourself; you're already doing better than most

When forced to make decisions that push you from your comfort zone, fear rears its head.

You start to worry about the future and doubt whether it's the right decision. You'll probably even face moments of self-doubt, wondering if your job is as bad as you think.

This thought trap is known as sunk-cost bias. Think of it as the "I might as well" statement.

"I might as well keep dating this person because I've invested years in the relationship, but I don't love them anymore."

"I might as well keep eating this $30 steak I paid for, even though I'm not hungry."

And in this scenario, "I might as well stick out this job because this one is easy."

People mistakenly rationalise sticking to the status quo because they've invested so much time on their current path.

Even though changing paths is scary, the cost of sitting on your hands, doing nothing about your unhappiness and staying in a job that depletes you is much worse for you. A study has even shown that sticking it out, despite your unhappiness, can lead to illness and emotional exhaustion.

So, rather than dwelling on the time that you'll lose, start imagining a career that challenges you, boosts your happiness and leaves you feeling fulfilled every day. If this vision sounds better, then shift your efforts from focusing on sunk-costs, toward a new trajectory.

Action is the antidote to self-doubt

While it's important to be aware of your personal values, strengths and internal motivators, these discoveries are useless if you don't act on them.

It's time to search for low-risk learning opportunities you can accomplish in a few minutes or hours each day like, before or after work, your lunch break, or your train ride to the office.

When I say low-risk learning opportunities, I don't mean drop everything to start a new degree for the next three years.

Here are some low-risk options:

Look for people, not jobs

This is where social media comes in handy. Search through Instagram hashtags relating to your personal values, and you'll discover accounts for people just like you. Search through their posts to see what they're doing, what they do for work, and do for fun. If you feel inspired by what you see, then connect with them and ask how they got to where they are.

Broaden your knowledge with free learning resources

When you want to broaden your skill base or explore your passions, utilise as many free or low-cost resources you can find on the internet. These could be Facebook events, webinars, Instagram Live's or short courses on Udemy or Open Learning. You can even read blogs or listen to podcasts while you're cleaning. The possibilities are endless.

Cut back on work hours (if possible)

I mentioned earlier that not everyone has the means to quit their job. So, ask your boss if it's possible to cut back a day a week or fortnight for personal reasons (obviously you don't need to go into details about why).

I want you to dedicate this one weekday to explore, research, connect, study, and read things relating to your personal values. Then, write down at the end of the day how you felt. Do you feel fulfilled? Is this something you could see yourself doing every day for a job? If yes, then you might have uncovered a potential new career path.

If you want to figure out what to do with your life, you can't limit yourself to traditional choices (e.g. a multi-year degree). Let go of the restrictions you've set for yourself, dream big and work your butt off to become what you're meant to be.

Human's have their fears and worries; we're all terrified of failure and making the wrong choices. You have to make a conscious choice to go forward, no matter how scared you are. Like a long-haul flight, discomfort is the price you pay to get to paradise. But you'll get there.

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Credit: Photo by Mark Fletcher-Brown on Unsplash

Why I took a step back, how I did it and how I discovered my values

For five years, I worked as a paralegal. It wasn't the path I planned; it was something I fell into.

What I didn't enjoy was the negativity of the industry. My role involved digging through dirt to find what would work in our favour, come prosecution. It was draining. I felt as though my youth was sucked from me and replaced with bitterness.

As you can see, it became an extremely unhealthy environment for me. Not because of the industry, but because of my approach towards it.

I couldn't just quit. I had bills to pay and, to be honest, I lived a lavish lifestyle as a means to combat the hatred for my job. I went on holidays, ate out frequently and bought nice things.

But, on the inside, I already knew what my personal values were, I just wasn't living by them because I was blinded by money.

It wasn't until my partner and I visited Indonesia that my values became so prominent to me. When you experience third world countries first hand, as a person who grew up privileged, it changes you. It wasn't just the locals' lifestyle, it was the stray dogs, and the plastic-filled oceans too.

When we returned home, we made a pact to change our lifestyle. We immediately began researching how to eliminate our waste and live more eco friendly. These changes led me to search for a career change. I knew I wanted to help people, educate people and be an ally to our planet, not a burden.

This is where I began implementing those low-risk learning opportunities I talked about. I invested my spare time connecting with others on Instagram and sharing my learnings too. People connected back, and I realised I was part of a community; my Instagram grew.

I dropped Fridays from my roster, spent my days studying Instagram's algorithm and how I could use my strength to connect with others as a full-time job. It was from here I discovered the world of marketing which, leads me to today, in my current field.

Remember those self-evaluation question from before? For reference, here are my answers:

  • What life experiences have made me who am I today? Travelling at a young age and working in an industry that drained me. These two experiences taught me the importance of being fearless and always wanting to strive to be better.
  • What could I instead invest my time and energy into each day? You can never know everything so, I want to continue to connect with others on Instagram within the eco-friendly space so I can learn more about the changes I can make.
  • What three values do I live by? Loyalty, honestly, open-mindedness and one more for good luck, environmentalism.
  • What is my mission in life? To educate others about what I have learnt during my short time on this planet. The importance of self-improvement, your own happiness and that you can never stop getting better.
  • What obstacles are standing in the way of me making this career change today? At this stage, nothing, because I'm already there.

My message to you...

Feeling stuck and unsure about what you want to do for a career can weigh you down.

While 2020 has been a rough year, economy-wise, switching up your career right now may seem counterintuitive. But, there's no excuse not to start self-exploration now to tap into your personal values, strengths and your internal motivators.

Don't wait for an "aha" moment. Because I can assure, "aha" doesn't come without discovering your purpose. It's not a matter of thinking; it's a matter of doing.

It boils down to pairing a career choice with your inherent needs. These are needs you must identify and fulfil to be happy. Don't perceive your ambition in life as one specific and tangible thing. Your purpose is already around you; you just have to heighten your senses to feel it.

Listening to your emotions is the most productive way to make sure you're on the correct path. This means you have to get to the bottom of what inspires you the most and stresses you out the least.

Think of any tasks or work areas that would make you happy and expand on them. And let us know in the comments, what are your personal values in life? Could you make a career out of these?