Good Question: How do I deal with a professional identity crisis?
Christine Laperriere shares her advice.
“My whole life feels like it’s been upended this past year, but my career in particular has me feeling lost. I can’t imagine a bright future, or plan my next career move, or even wrap my head around how my work has changed right now. I’m questioning my career choices and my professional identity — but questions are all I’ve got. Where do I even start to get some answers?”
Executive Director, Women of Influence Advancement Centre
Christine Laperriere is the executive director of the Women of Influence Advancement Centre, president of Leader In Motion, a leadership development organization, and the author of Too Busy to Be Happy — a guide to using Emotional Real Estate to improve both your work and your life. A seasoned expert in helping women professionals advance their careers, she’s had the honour of guiding hundreds of women in various companies and roles to reach their full potential. Her background includes an undergraduate and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering, certifications in psychotherapy, Neuro-Linguistic Programming and executive coaching, along with years in design engineering and management consulting.
Many of us are still stuck in lockdown limbo, and there’s no denying that this global pandemic has changed the professional world forever.
With home offices replacing cubicles and some job-related perks that may never return (RIP business travel), I’ve found that COVID-19 has forced many of my clients into a career identity crisis.
Part of it is certainly the unknown: What’s the world (and my day job) going to look like tomorrow? Next week? Next month? Next year? Some industries are worried that they won’t get back to pre-pandemic levels of business for years, if ever. And part of it is having an abundance of downtime (if you don’t have kids, of course) to reflect on your professional journey so far. Are you happy? Does your job make you feel professionally fulfilled? There’s nothing like saying, “You’re on mute,” five to 25 times a day to make you reassess all of your life choices.
So, if you’re feeling like you don’t know where to go from here, the most reassuring thing I can tell you is that you’re not alone. This is a common reaction to a crisis, and with some deep, inward reflection, you can find your next step — or should I say lily pad? (More on that below.)
The Lily Pad Effect: Stop trying to figure out what you want to be when you grow up.
Though it’s certainly one of the most popular questions, I truly believe asking ourselves what we want to be when we grow up is also one of the most tragic. It assumes that there’s only one destination. While that may have been true in decades past, the modern working world looks a lot different.
The vast majority of my clients have a much different, non-linear story.
It isn’t based on one single decision (like “I’m going to go to dentistry school and become a dentist”), but a series of decisions over time. Let’s call it a migration.
So, if you take that idea and relate it to the Lily Pad Effect, each lily pad is a decision, a step, a chance to grow. Each lily pad takes you further along on your journey, just as it would act as a point of support for a frog crossing a pond.
This is one of my favourite concepts that unfortunately, didn’t make it into my book, Too Busy to be Happy. (But there’s a lot of other important info in there, so I encourage you to take a read! You can download a sample here.) The Lily Pad Effect is a great way to look at your professional life, along with each choice you make in your career.
There’s nothing like saying, “You’re on mute,” five to 25 times a day to make you reassess all of your life choices.
The key to the Lily Pad Effect is to not be so focused on the final destination. Figure out your next jump — or your next lily pad. You may go there, hang out for a little while, and for a period of time, it feels great because the sun’s out and the lily pad is warm. But then the sun starts to set, and that lily pad falls into the shade. It gets cold, and so you move on.
And this is what I use to coach clients who are grappling with a career identity crisis. Look for your next lily pad. It doesn’t have to be forever (and it probably won’t be) but take a look at the lily pads (or opportunities) around you and make the best decision based on what you can see and the information you have. Each lily pad will bring you closer to a new set of lily pads, and the pattern will continue over the course of your career.
If I look at one of my clients who’s in marketing, a job in legal and compliance probably doesn’t seem like one of the available lily pads — it would likely take quite a lot of jumping to get there.
But if I assess the lily pads around that client, I’d find that moving into sales or customer service might be within jumping distance. Or maybe a different role at the same company, or the same role at a different company. Those jumps would be feasible based on that client’s experience and career trajectory, and they would likely feel more comfortable making the leap.
Look at your career dynamically.
Like being a parent or a partner, being a professional is an ever-evolving journey. The role looks different in your 20s than it does in your 40s, and it’s time that we all approach our careers with the same mindset. It’s easy to get overwhelmed trying to predict what the final destination should (or could) be, but if you think of your career milestones as stops on the journey, the moves become a lot more manageable.
Instead of trying to figure out what you “want to be when you grow up,” try figuring out what you want to do next. What would feel good for the next two or three years of your life? What interests you right now? Once you have an idea, you can start planning what you can do to get there.
Do your research.
Any move you make, whether it be within your company or to a totally new pond — er, field — should be considered research or information-gathering. This is a critical component in finding your passion and professional fulfilment. Every role you take on teaches you about your strengths and weaknesses, your likes and dislikes, and the type of company you might want to work for — if you want to work for a company at all. Maybe being an entrepreneur is more up your alley?
Whichever way you turn, there’s an opportunity for discovery.
Wherever you are in your career, remember the Lily Pad Effect. Consider each lily pad a small step along your journey, and use each stop to learn more about what drives you. Eventually, you might find a lily pad that you really enjoy and you’ll spend your workdays basking in the sun.