A Storytelling Serial
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Because information and instruction are my element, I planned this post as a helpful how-to. But it insisted on becoming a personal story, and I couldn’t convince it otherwise.
Still, I left out some identifying specifics to make this as much about your experience as mine. I hope the intentional vagueness helps you think about broad similarities, rather than differing particularities, in your own story.
Appropriately enough, I begin my tale as an insatiable learner who loves starting new things. The world is full of possibilities, and I’m always ready to experience something novel.
As my resigned husband knows, repeating a recipe, no matter how delicious, is anathema. My shelves bulge with too many cookbooks for me to consider making the same dish more than once.
And by now I’ve also held too many jobs for one resume to hold. I can only list what’s relevant and ignore everything that’s not, having sampled deeply from the career menu and enjoying more than the average number of occupational changes.
If anyone needs reincarnation, it’s me. I don’t have enough years left to cook all the recipes that appeal to me or become all the things I want to be. Another ten lifetimes would come in handy.
Why, then, am I taking a career step backward?
My Original Motivation Was Authentic
Nearly five years ago, I launched yet another new profession. Before beginning, when the idea was fresh, I agonized whether it would be right for the long haul. I was old enough to figure I was running low on time and energy and needed a place to stick. Logically, I was never sure I was making the best choice; but the pull was so strong, I decided to commit.
I poured time, money, energy, and hope into training. I worked hard to launch my revamped vocation. I continued to study and threw myself into ongoing professional development and networking.
It was a joyful start. I had found the perfect way to satisfy my obsession with details and words while feeding my primal drive for research, organization, tweaking, teaching, and endless learning. And I loved my new colleagues. They were my people. They were smart, witty, self-effacing, hardworking, gracious, generous introverts. They spoke my language. They cared about the same things I did.
We shared a secret handshake, a sense of humor, a mysterious mania.
Most of all, the work itself perfectly matched my values. In previous careers, my internal compass had rarely aligned that well with the reason, the process, and the result.
I Wasn’t Finished
The work was hard. Very hard. Harder than I imagined it would be. But I pushed ahead, because I assumed hard work would lead to quick progress. In fact, I believed my natural aptitude would jump me ahead of the pack and immediately make me exceptionally good, an obvious fit, a standout genius, without paying the dues of mere mortals.
That didn’t happen. No matter how much I adjusted my approach, I continued to slog, slowly and painfully. And when nothing on this chosen career path came easily, I questioned my belonging. It seemed I wasn’t meant to do this thing, regardless of desire.
As with so many aspirations—from marriage to parenting to new jobs—I ultimately recognized a major gap between my ideal of what I wanted to accomplish and the reality of my limitations. And in this instance, I started with promise and purpose but floundered in the failure of gradual improvement.
Finally, frustrated by my unmet expectations of being an instant prodigy, and intimidated by the very colleagues I adored—the intelligent, clever old pros—I stopped identifying with my new profession and its practitioners. I didn’t want them to discover how very much I was still in process, so I intentionally distanced myself.
In retrospect, I backed away just at the time my developing skills were ready to advance. It was as if I had struck out in the fourth inning and then firmly planted myself on the bench for the remaining five innings.
I stopped fully participating before I felt the game was over. Or wanted it to be.
The New Thing Wasn’t as Good
By this time, I had invested so much in my field of dreams, I couldn’t bear to leave everything behind. Instead, I pivoted to a related pursuit. Different but connected. A role where I could work with words, sneak in at least some of what I had learned in the previous venture, and adopt a new identity.
My shift made sense. And starting something new relieved the pressure of failure and doubt I had been piling on myself. Besides, most members of this latest profession said it was difficult and openly discussed the challenges; so not only could I lighten my self-expectations but I wouldn’t be tempted to compare myself to those rare few who made it look easy.
Yet my motivations were off. I struggled to find my why and didn’t share the purpose and values of my latest colleagues. Too often I made business decisions based solely on financial fears.
Worse, I couldn’t identify with the enjoyment—often bordering on passion—others expressed in discussing a commitment to this path. Their enthusiasm made me feel I should love it, too, and I tried to “act as if”; but secretly, I was impartial.
The work usually struck me as little more than a familiar means to an end. And it never made my blood race or my nostrils flare—unlike my knee-jerk reaction every time I caught a whiff of the career I had recently left.
Fading Is Understandable, and Forgiveness Is Possible
My parents were perfectionists, and I’ve tried hard to not imitate their lofty examples. In most things, good enough—generously defined—suffices. My personal style is low key. No fuss. I’m a casual gardener, a hit-and-miss cook, a minimal runner, and a haphazard homeowner. My life oozes fixable imperfections, from small to large, that drift around the edges of my awareness and don’t bother me enough to become priorities.
Besides, I thrive on experimentation, which tends toward the unpredictable and messy.
But from an early age, I internalized the societal message people should be good at their jobs. When I’m paid to do a thing, I seize a professional responsibility that has no leeway for major missteps. I believe the one who assigns the work deserves the best, and I must ensure I deserve every dime I earn.
Small mistakes? If they’re isolated incidents that don’t concern or disappoint the person writing my check, I can apologize, figure out how to fix them or to do better in the future, and move on. But if they’re errors that matter to employers or clients, I’m gutted.
And in the recently discounted career, my torturous improvement sparked ongoing anxiety that I wasn’t meeting expected standards, that I was somehow cheating the person who hired me—and that one of the experienced colleagues I so admired should do the work instead, because they would do it better than I could.
I decided my desire didn’t qualify me for the effort, and I minimized a valued vocation because I felt undeserving.
At the time, I declared I was dialing back because that type of work too often made me feel critical of others, putting me in a position of judgment I didn’t enjoy and forcing me to look for what was wrong rather than what was right.
Now, of course, I realize the truth: I wanted to avoid the judgment, criticism, and negativity I was directing toward myself. Back then, however, I didn’t understand the kindness I needed to reclaim was for me.
Because it’s ludicrous to beat myself up for beating myself up, at this point kindness to self must start with not only understanding but also forgiving my unrealistic professional expectations.
Going Back Is Worth Change
Still, that’s only the beginning of the transformation required for a committed, complete return from the sidelines to the action. Maybe because it’s a profession I care about so much, I continue allowing it to trigger some shadow sides in even my most positive traits.
I still have internal troublemakers to reform.
I don’t expect quick changes any more than I now expect instant skills. And as with every how-to project, I’m going to need plenty of information, instruction, support, tools, and practice—as well as acceptance of inevitable failure, reliance on inexhaustible forgiveness, and tolerance of incremental progress.
But to truly enjoy and persist in reclaimed work that deeply matters to me, I’m ready to do what it takes. And to start again every day.
Below, please tell us whether your career path is always one of progression—or whether you’ve ever left behind unfinished business that is more about you than about the work itself. I, for one, would love to know whether I have company on my circular professional (and personal) journey!