How do you navigate your way to work that fits?
As I look back on my career journey so far, I'm grateful for my dear body's wisdom. Maybe you're like me, with a mind that refuses to move you out of life-sapping work.
My heart and gut ultimately became my trusted compass for navigating the uncharted yet rich, rewarding waters of following my deep desires. I know it's counter-culture, but instead of mapping your career path with your analytical mind, following your heart and gut is ultimately more fulfilling and rewarding.
After earning an MBA, I became a management consultant, largely to prove to myself that I could do highly analytical work. However, I was always happiest working on projects that required more qualitative or "soft" skills, such as helping clients navigate organizational change projects. I hated Excel and dreaded the intense objectivity required by quantitative projects.
The longer I stayed in the job, the more conflicted I became. Earning four times my pre-MBA salary, the money was a constant draw. Whenever I grew frustrated, I told myself, "Yes, but my salary is amazing!" Imagining life without that huge paycheck kept me frozen in place.
I flipped back and forth, thinking I should leave the firm, then convincing myself to stay. The bodily signs of distress over my job were relentless. But I ignored them.
My shoulders ached constantly. I attributed that pain to sitting at the computer so long. Nausea and digestive pains were my frequent companions, especially when I was staffed on a project out of town. I rationalized away the intestinal aches by assuming they were caused by eating restaurant food.
Three years into my job, I was driving home from the airport, returning from a client project in Southern California, when a drunk driver rear-ended my car. Although the accident was not serious, I immediately started experiencing painful, debilitating migraine headaches. My doctor wanted to run tests, but I opted out. I was determined to show my toughness.
Headaches would not keep me from earning a promotion and raise!
Then, two weeks after the accident, while making a presentation, the pain was too intense. I passed out in front of a group of clients.
Clearly, I hadn't been listening to my body. I ignored the migraine symptoms, continuing to push through them. I "bucked up" and pretended I was fine. Fortunately, my managing partner insisted that I follow my doctor's orders to take a month off from work to relax and recuperate from a pinched nerve that an MRI ultimately detected.
That month, I attended a workshop at the Institute of HeartMath on relaxation. In the midst of pine trees and sunshine, I discovered how to really listen to my heart and pay attention to the tensions in my body. I recognized that I had established a set point for tolerable stress that was unrealistic and unsustainable.
After the leave of absence, I asked to be transferred to a less stressful job within the firm. Then I left management consulting altogether at the end of 1999 to join an online learning company in a job that combined my passions for learning and creativity.
Chaos took hold during a brief five-week period starting in February of 2001. I left my marriage. I moved from a huge house into a teeny apartment. Two days after the move, my father sustained a traumatic brain injury (he's completely recovered). During his month-long hospitalization, I had two surgeries. While recovering from the second surgery, I was laid off from my job.
In that brief five-week whirlwind, I experienced an enormous amount of trauma. I'd lost my job, my marriage, and our house. Yet I'd gained the freedom to start my life anew.
I didn't know what work to do next. I'd earned my both my undergraduate and masters degrees in business administration, career stepping stones that were supposedly "safe" and along the "right" path. But my brain was scrambled and my body spoke loudly to me through instincts and impulses, tugs and nudges. My head was taken aback when my heart proclaimed loudly one morning, "Don't wait until you're 70 to finally study your true love, psychology. Do it now."
So I put my mind in the service of my heart and figured out how to earn a PhD in mind/body psychology. I reveled in my first year of studies, with highly experiential assignments like "Walk blindfolded through your house for an hour and write about your sensations, emotions, and thoughts." In my coursework, I trained my body as an instrument for listening deeply to myself and others.
During my clinical internship, the whispers of my heart and the knots in my gut informed me that I was too emotionally permeable to clients' anxiety and depression to become a psychotherapist. I'd been working part-time as a career advisor at my old MBA alma mater, UC Berkeley. Students loved how I'd help them clarify their career visions by encouraging them to listen to their body's wisdom, not just their mental ideas. I'd built a following of MBAs who asked if they could refer their spouses and friends to me. They helped launch my private coaching practice.
Now, I am blessed to work with individuals to make what I call "sensational shifts." I lead a much more flexible, fulfilling life than when I tried to force fit myself into work that I was good at, but never loved. Now, I teach visionaries, leaders, and entrepreneurs how to stop stressing their brains for all the answers and start tapping the rich intuitions and wisdom of their bodies as well. I know, first hand, how vital it is to integrate embodied awareness when making important life choices, especially about our livelihoods.
If you're in the midst of career confusion, put your mind in the service of your heart and gut. Move in the direction that feels right for you. I trust you'll have a sensational career journey that way.