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What to Do When You Don't Know What to Do

I recently had lunch with an old friend (we’ll call her Rachel). I hadn’t her seen in a long time – life, jobs, family… you know, but Rachel was always one of my favorite people. She’s ballsy, a bit brash, funny as hell, and at the center of it all, kind and caring.

Rachel’s had a rough go of it for the past two years. First, there was a painful divorce. Then there was a period of extraordinary turmoil at her work, followed by her termination.

Ouch. Been there, done that. On both counts.

As can be expected, Rachel is feeling a lot of things – fear, anger, frustration and anxiety. But mostly, she’s uncertain. Does she want to stay in the same industry? Does she want a job with the same level of responsibility? Does she want to work as hard as she did in her last job? Should she take a break for a while? What if she takes a break, but finds she likes unemployment a little too much? What no one wants to hire her? Should she take the first offer that comes along?

During the Unstuck Project, I interviewed many men and women in Rachel’s position. Upon losing her marketing job, single mother Carla realized that she’d never particularly cared for the business world, and her marketing career was something she fell into more than something she chose for herself. Her real passion was upcycling furniture, but she feared she wouldn’t be able to support her child on an upcycler’s salary. The death of fifty-year-old Laura’s father threw her into a state of uncertainty about her life’s direction. Twenty-something Vern’s job required him to travel 40 weeks a year. One day, burnt out and miserable, he decided he had to bite the bullet and quit his job. Almost immediately he was plagued with doubt.

When we become unmoored from a marriage, job, home, or by the death of a loved one, we find ourselves floating, a bit lost, a bit frightened and thinking, “I don’t know what to do.”

Well, in my line of work, we celebrate when someone says, “I don’t know what to do”. We coaches love confusion. It means you’re open. You don’t have all the answers. You’re going to have to do some exploring. And your world is ripe with possibilities.

I told Rachel the same thing I tell all my clients who are grappling with what’s next. I told her that one day, she’ll look back on this time in her life with fondness, and even nostalgia. As you would expect, she looked at me as if I were crazy. I get that a lot. But, time and time again, I’m proven right.

We spend most of our working lives knowing what we’re supposed to do. We have strategies and objectives. We have metrics and measurements. We have meetings to attend, presentations to give, reports to write. We get up, we do. And do. And do.

The one thing we don’t do is stop and think about what we’re doing. And why we’re doing it. And if what we’re doing is in alignment with who we are and what we want out of life. There’s no time for such thinking. And what good could it possibly do anyway? What if we don’t like the answers we arrive at?

The truth is, we’re already unmoored long before we lose the marriage, the job, the home. We’re unmoored from ourselves. That’s where the trouble begins. The actual loss is merely a symptom.

So. What are you to do?

Why don’t you start here:

Step 1: Acknowledge and accept what’s lost.

Gary Zukav wrote that “Accepting the present moment does not mean that you cannot change your life. On the contrary, it allows you to see clearly what needs to be changed. You cannot change your life without accepting it first.”

Failure to accept what’s lost keeps us locked in anger. Anger contracts us. It makes us reactive and fearful and closed. Our contractive state limits our ability to see what’s possible.

Step 2: Be grateful for what you have.

Where focus goes, energy flows.

So what are you going to focus on? What’s wrong? Where you’ve failed? How unfair the world is? Or are you going to focus on what’s right? Where your true talents lie? How fortunate you’ve been?

Rachel has two amazing sons, a devoted sister who worries about her, many friends who care, and a big fat contact file. These are things to be grateful for.

Gratitude is the beginning of expansiveness. When you’re expansive, you are grounded in solid core values, but your heart is open to newness. New people. New types of jobs. New industries. New possibilities.

Step 3: Remember who you are.

When we’re focused on the day to day goals, surprises and emergencies of a full-time job, it’s easy to forget who we are. Yes, we work to advance ourselves up the career ladder, but to do so, we concern ourselves with things that are outside of ourselves. We worry about what our boss wants. We worry about what our employees want. We worry about what our customers want.

Now is the time to think about what you want. What do you value in life? What is your purpose in life? When you begin to focus on these questions, you return to yourself.

And before you know it, your spark is back. Things are starting to get good.

Step 4: Explore.

Don’t search. A search is too specific. You don’t know what you’re looking for yet.

Don’t go on “a journey of discovery”. Journeys suck. Journeys are for tourists, sitting on busses being taken from one place to another. A tourist isn’t creating his experience, he’s watching it happen to him.

Be an explorer. Explorers have options. Your focus should be on possibilities. Poke around. If something doesn’t feel right, turn your attention elsewhere. Hit a dead end? Good for you! At least you now know it's a dead end.

And remember, the next job doesn’t have to be a forever job. It could be a two-year gig that allows you to transition out of your industry and into a new one. It could be a place to learn a new skillset. It could be a place to help you pay the bills until you have a more solid idea of what you want. You're exploring after all. It takes time to explore.

Step 5: Take care.

None of this is easy. And that’s okay. But at the same time, you must learn to take true care of yourself. Do something lovely for yourself every day. And if you’re having a really, truly bad day, read this.

But also…

Take care of yourself physically but be sure to do it in a way that honors who you are. If you hate the gym, don’t go. Maybe you love soccer or swimming or Bollywood dancing, so do those things. Physical activity alleviates stress, promotes better sleep and increases mental function. And, it gives you something to accomplish each and everyday.

Take care of yourself emotionally, but again, do it in a way that honors who you are. Meditation isn’t for everyone. Neither is therapy (or coaching for that matter).

One way to take care of yourself is to express love and gratitude every day. Send quality thank you notes to the people who are helping you in your exploration (friends, family and the people who you meet through networking). And by quality, I mean validate their contribution to your exploration. Tell them what you learned from them. Let them know you’ll be there for them if they need the favor returned one day. Yes, yes, this sounds like you’re taking care of them emotionally, rather than yourself, and you are. But trust me, the focus on other people is empowering. And it keeps you lasered in on the good stuff.

Another way to take care of yourself is to give yourself the time you need for reflection and inspiration. Go ahead and stare out the window for an hour if that’s what you like to do. Or organize your sock drawer or go for a run, or bake some bread, or work on your car, or whatever it is that allows your brain to settle so that inspiration may arise. Shower thoughts don’t only come in the shower.

Take care to watch what you say. I’m not the word police. I’m not going to tell you to stop using the word “unemployed” in favor of “exploring new opportunities”. I don’t care what you say, but I do care what your words mean to you. Use positive language, even when talking to yourself. Because language matters. If you call yourself a loser everyday, you'll be a loser. If you tell yourself "it will never work", it won't. And if you say, "I'll figure this out", you will.

One last thing. Please know that this is a truly valuable time in your life. And not everyone is granted the opportunity to rethink, reconnect and renew. Your life will be forever changed and infinitely improved for having been through this process.

You are one of the lucky ones. And I’m so happy for you.

P.S. Sign-up for my weekly newsletter (green box at top right of your screen on desktop, or under this post on mobile) so you'll never miss a post. I promise I'm not a spammy nightmare. One per week, and that's it.

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