This week on LinkedIn I asked my community, "Where do you feel stuck in building a meaningful career right now?"
As I write, 44% of my community said that "courage to take the leap" is the main thing holding them back from building a meaningful career.
I remember several years ago feeling trapped in a career I found unmeaningful. My job barely motivated me to get out of bed. Every day I felt drained and stressed from chasing other people's goals. Also, I felt I was failing to live up to my potential.
For me I had the trifecta of barriers included in the poll:
A lack of clarity on my purpose and how I could apply that in my career
A lack of courage to take a leap out of my otherwise fairly comfortable, well paid job
A reputation for being good at my current job, which didn't help my pursuit for something more meaningful
What's really interesting is that a measure of courage was needed to tackle all three of these barriers.
But what does it even take to be courageous with our careers?
A gut reaction might say those who are courageous are those who take a big risk like quitting a job with nothing lined up, or take on the high stakes of running their own business.
Both these things certainly take courage. But they are not in and of themselves courage. They are the high risk scenarios that require courage of us.
Just the same as these high risk scenarios:
Defining career success as something other than continued progression up the career ladder
Committing to work for the better of others even if we don't get recognised for it
Choosing to reject morally grey ways of getting results and apply high integrity leadership even when it might make things harder in the short term
Working hard to change a business or industry from the inside out
Making a career change when we are "too old" or have "golden handcuffs"
Doing these things aren't what makes us courageous, they are what require courage of us.
To build courage, we can apply the formula for career confidence. If we get the elements of the formula working, it becomes much easier to take the leap.
The formula for career courage
When it comes to careers, I believe the best source of courage is having confidence in yourself. In my experience, confidence breaks down into a two-part formula:
Clarity + Choices = Confidence
Confidence comes from having a strong sense of clarity about the leap you are taking, and a range of choices to either leap into or fall back on.
Let me unpack that some more.
Clarity on the leap
It's difficult to jump if we don't know where we're jumping to. Of course, you can be courageous and jump without knowing where you'll land. People do this when they leave a bad job without something else lined up afterwards.
However, it's important even in these scenarios about what you actually want to change. It's not enough to know you're feeling unhappy or unfulfilled in your current job and then to leave. Or move into the next position. Or go on rotation to another part of your business.
A certain amount of experimentation with your career is useful, but it will be difficult to know you've succeeded if you haven't defined what success looks like.
If you feel like you need to take a leap in your career, but don't feel ready or courageous enough yet, ask yourself:
How will I know if my leap has succeeded?
The point here isn't to reduce risk in an attempt to guarantee success. Clarity is all about knowing what success looks like so we can make better (and more confident!) decisions about how to get there.
Let's look at three scenarios where a professional might feel unhappy and unsatisfied in their career:
They might love what they do for a living but the culture at their current employer leads consistently to burnout or ethically grey decisions that take a mental toll
They may have been pursuing a career path without actually thinking about where they wanted to go, and want to retrain to change careers
They may feel uneasy about the choices their leadership is making, despite having a good culture and a job they like and want to move to a company they feel is having a more positive impact on the world
Each of these scenarios is quite different but all result in the individual wanting to take a leap. And each of those leaps comes with a lot of uncertainty about what lies on the other side.
Person A may want to move to a competitor but feels uncertain about how that will impact their reputation and network
Person B might want to take on a less stressful job to support themselves while they study but feels uncertain about how they'll make the budget work and what impact the career break will have on their reputation
Person C might want to move to a not-for-profit but is worried whether they are resilient enough to work there and nervous about giving up a corporate salary
Each of these uncertainties is enough to make you hesitate. However, when you are really clear on the reason for your leap you will be able to weigh up these uncertainties against what you really desire. It will also help you rule out decisions that won't actually get you where you want to go.
For Person A, they desire a workplace environment that supports their wellbeing
For Person B, they want to shift their career into work they enjoy more
For Person C, they want to make a positive impact on society more directly
Having this level of clarity will also help them evaluate their leap. Although you can't know all the answers before you take the leap, you at least know how to figure out if the leap was worth it and whether you need to keep leaping to move even closer to your ultimate goal.
This is how clarity helps increase your confidence in taking a leap.
A range of choices
The second element of the career courage formula is choice. I would have called this "options" but that broke up the alliteration. Plus I think the word "choice" speaks to our autonomy in making a decision as well as the number of options that we have to choose from.
Having a broader range of options reduces the tension surrounding a big decision like changing careers, employers or how you operate at work. When you have choice, if something isn't working, you can make a switch to chose something different.
I am a huge fan of experimentation. Test things out to find out what outcome they drive and then double-down on the things that are producing the results you want (which you will be clear on if you've nailed the first part of the formula). To experiment though, we need lots of options.
However, having options isn't always about having lots of job offers on the table before you take the leap on one.
Options is more about keeping your mind open to the possibility that the change you are seeking might look different to what you expect.
If we go back to our examples from earlier:
Person A might think their desired change of culture will come from moving jobs. But it could also come from changing teams, taking action to address the poor culture with leadership or working to create better behaviours in their sphere of influence.
Person B might think their desired career switch will come from retraining but it might also come from taking on voluntary work, saying yes to an opportunity to test their skills at their current company, or finding their first new job through networking (and likely a combo of all of the above!)
Person C might think their positive impact on society might come from working for a not-for-profit but it might also come from donating a percentage of their income to that not-for-profit, or serving those in need in their own local community on the weekend, or using their current job to make an impact on the causes of the social issue.
If you narrow down your options and define your big leap as looking a certain way, you increase the stakes of that leap. This makes the situation riskier and scarier than it needs to be.
Practically, you can also keep your options open by not burning the bridge as you take your leap so walking it back becomes an option. Building and maintaining a strong network also really helps, especially if you have people in that network who you can be honest with and say "Hey, I tried this and it didn't work. Can you help me with a next step?"
A note on the privilege of choices
I am also very conscious in writing this that choice is inherently a privilege. Access to choices is often defined by our background, which includes things in our control and many things outside of our control like socioeconomic status, gender, race and ability. And this builds like a snowball over the course of a career. The more options we have at the start because of the situation we were born into, the more options we have down the track as we take those opportunities.
This makes it incredibly important to consider how we are facilitating choice for those around us, especially if we have the privilege of a lot of choice ourselves. We must look for ways to connect others to options and do what we can to enable the autonomy to make those decisions.
Courage to take the leap
If you are looking for the courage to take a leap in your career, take a look at the career courage formula:
Clarity + Choices = Confidence
Which element do you feel you most need?
Spend some time reflecting on whether you are clear on the outcome you are aiming for, and whether you are keeping your mind open to the different paths to achieving that outcome. As you increase your clarity and your choices, your confidence to back yourself will increase.
And as you back yourself, you will find the courage to take the leap.
Are you struggling with clarity about what your leap should look like? Or do you want to brainstorm how to open up your choices? I would love to help you build your career confidence. I currently have new coaching slots open, with heaps of bonuses if you sign up before Tuesday 30 November. Learn more here.