Chapter 3: What's Your Objective? Figuring Out What You Want

Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.
–Steve Jobs[1]

Why Is Carla Breaking the Rules?

Ella had a demanding management role within a fast-moving industry. She scheduled a coaching call with me in the hope of gaining some clarity in a troubling situation at work. Ella shared several instances where her colleague and peer, Carla, had taken actions that bothered her.

Ella was angry and indignant that Carla had done these things with seemingly no concern for her. I listened and did what I was trained to do as an executive coach. I acknowledged and validated Ella’s feelings. It was natural for her to feel anger and betrayal over some of Carla’s actions.

As she calmed down, I tried to steer the conversation back to what Ella wanted to get out of the session, but that always seemed to bring us back to an “unfair” action that Carla had taken. Finally, I stopped her and asked, “Ella, I understand that you are bothered by Carla’s actions. However, you will never be able to control Carla. You can only decide what actions you want to take. I’m going to ask you a direct question, and I’d like you to take a few moments to think it over before you answer. What is it that you want?”

That direct question seemed to stop Ella in her tracks. She made sort of a “hrumph” sound and was silent. Ella was so focused on Carla’s actions and the emotion that they stirred in her, she hadn’t stopped to understand why Carla’s actions bothered her and what she needed to do to feel better.

Owning Your Emotions

Ella said that Carla “made her mad.” It’s common to blame other people for our own emotional response; however, it’s a fallacy. Ella was abdicating responsibility for her own happiness by allowing herself to be bothered by Carla’s actions. She had a belief about that situation that she could choose to change anytime.

Carla was likely not even aware that Ella was bothered by her actions. Ella did not end up hiring me after that first call, and she didn’t share the reason why. My guess is that she was not ready to recognize the power that she possessed to create a different reality than the one she was experiencing.

I would have loved to have helped her step fully into her own power so that she never again worried about what Carla was up to. I think we could have gotten there, but coaching only works when people commit to it and are ready to take action to change their own circumstances.

Behavioral Theory

Now is a good time to provide a little background on cognitive behavioral theory as developed by Dr. Aaron T. Beck in the 1960s.[2] When you enter a situation that reminds you of something you’ve previously encountered, the stimulus will trigger a thought or belief. Based on that thought, you’ll have an emotional response, and based on that response, you’ll take a certain action. The results of the action will serve as either a reward or a disincentive and will cause that response to be positively or negatively reinforced—meaning if it was rewarded, you’ll be open to it happening again, and if it wasn’t, you’ll probably avoid it.[3]

You Have Control over Your Responses

If you want to change this cycle, the optimal place to change it is at the belief or thought step. When you believe differently, you feel differently and take different actions. Here’s an example of how this works:

Situation: Car swerves into your lane on the highway, causing you to slam on the brakes.

Thought: That driver purposely tried to endanger me.

Emotion: Fear and anger.

Behavior: Lay on the horn, speed up, and angrily shake your fist at the driver as you pass.

Here’s the same scenario with a different thought:

Situation: Car swerves into your lane on the highway, causing you to slam on the brakes.

Thought: That driver must be in a big hurry. Maybe he’s on his way to the hospital.

Feeling: Empathy and concern.

Behavior: Deep breath. Regain composure after surprise. Slow down and give him room to merge into your lane.

Ella’s Beliefs

Ella’s beliefs caused her to be angered by Carla’s actions. Perhaps when Ella was a child, her parents instilled in her that one should always ask permission before taking action. Perhaps Carla’s habit of taking action and informing Ella later conflicted with her belief that one should ask for permission. So here’s an outline of what Ella’s behavioral cycle might look like:

Situation: Carla and Ella are working on a joint project. Carla takes an action and lets Ella know about it after the fact.

Ella’s Belief: When people work together, they should ask for permission before taking a step.

Feeling: Anger that Carla is not following the “rules.”

Behavior: Complains about Carla. Lingering feelings of resentment toward her.

Carla’s Beliefs

Carla likely has different beliefs than Ella, and because they haven’t shared those beliefs about working together on projects, they have conflict. Perhaps Carla was raised by parents who expected their children to be autonomous and didn’t expect them to ask for permission.

Because her beliefs are different than Ella’s, she would see no need to ask Ella whether it was okay to take the next step in the project. The difference in their experiences and belief systems caused them to respond differently to the same situation.

The reason why it can be difficult to change behavior is that most of the time only a split-second passes between the trigger event, your brain’s connection to a thought or belief, and the associated habitual response.

Knee-Jerk Reactions

You may not even be aware of it because it happens so quickly. It becomes a knee-jerk reaction meaning that you respond to a stimulus without thinking: Car slams on brakes, subconscious belief (he’s trying to hurt me), emotional response (fear, anger), conditioned response (hit the horn and yell).

Ella’s Own Desires

Ella was unable to tune in to what she really wanted out of her work situation. My guess is that she actually had some beliefs that kept her from acknowledging her own desires. Perhaps she felt work only was about focusing on the needs of the business and her boss’s expectations. This belief would be in conflict with her acknowledging her own desires. Part of what was bothering her about her interactions with Carla could have been that Carla was focused on doing the things Ella wanted to do.

How Your Envy Can Help You

It is actually pretty common for people who I coach to have a hard time getting in touch with what they want. They know they aren’t happy, but they don’t know how to change their situation. I have found that taking note of another emotion that arises can help uncover what they really want. That emotion is envy.

Most people don’t like to admit they’re envious, yet it’s something that we all feel at one time or another. Envy arises when you wish you had something that someone else has. It happens frequently in the workplace.

Sometimes it happens when a colleague gets a promotion or plum assignment that you wanted. Or it could crop up when a coworker contributes a great idea in a meeting or does a masterful presentation, and you say to yourself, “Wow, I wish I could do that.”

Envy Can Lead to Judgment

In Ella’s case, her anger may have actually been triggered by the underlying emotion of envy. Perhaps Ella subconsciously wanted the freedom Carla had when she took action without asking permission. When you feel envy, your subconscious is trying to tell you, “I’d like to do that too!” But conflict hits as another part of you is shutting that desire down fast because it seems dangerous or risky. The internal conflict is why it feels bad.

Tug-of-War between Desires and Risk

For years before I started my own business, I felt a sharp pang of envy when I saw people running their own businesses. I struggled for years to scratch my own entrepreneurial itch while working in big corporations. My appetite for risk and variety was appreciated by my employers during times of change but were not needed in the same way when the business settled into a routine, say after a merger had been integrated.

When I thought about leaving a steady job, part of me was screaming, “Leave this civilized place and go run free in the wild” while another part was saying, “What about your 401(k) and health insurance?” For me, it took a while to feel comfortable making a leap to become a full-time entrepreneur.

Facing Your Fears

If you ever have similar internal arguments raging inside, take some time to figure out what’s really going on there. Your heart and soul may be trying to tell you something that your head doesn’t want to hear. Often, we have ideas that we don’t allow ourselves to explore out of fear—fear that we’ll fail, fear that we’ll succeed, fear of change, fear of what people will say, or fear of who we’ll be outside of the status quo.

Let your heart and soul tell you what they want. Those parts want you to have joy and meaning in your life. Your head is the rational overseer that wants to make sure you are safe. Envy arises when there’s conflict between these parts of yourself.

Balancing Your Heart and Your Head

When you allow the thoughts in your head to slam the door on the desires of your heart and soul, you’re basically telling yourself that you don’t deserve happiness or joy—that it’s not even worth seeing if it would be possible to pursue your dreams.

Pay attention to what lies beneath when you feel those feelings. Ask yourself if you can pursue your dreams while also taking care of your practical needs. Often we don’t explore the things we want because our rational side shuts them down before we even begin.

And we keep feeling envy when someone else does what we’d really like to do, and we struggle on—not feeling the happiness and success that could be ours if we let ourselves be who we want to be. So next time you feel envy, invite it to sit for a while and tell you why it’s there.

Exploring Options Isn’t Risky in Itself

Sometimes you may find yourself shutting down options before they have time to rise to the level of consciousness. You may eliminate an idea because it’s scary, “not practical,” or even “impossible.” But the reality is that you have infinite options. Each alternative comes with its own set of consequences, which you can decide to choose (or not).

For example, sometimes when new clients come to me, they’ll say that they’re unhappy with their jobs and that they wish they could quit, but they have “no choice” but to stay. I point out that it is a choice to stay, and they could also choose to leave.

Leaving would mean that they would no longer get their current paycheck, but that’s a different issue. Sometimes, once they’ve recognized that leaving is an option (even if they choose not to select it) they actually feel better.

To illustrate, someone may feel claustrophobic and trapped in a tiny, windowless office on the tenth floor, but if they’re then given the same size office down the hall with a window to the outside, they feel better. The space is the same, but they can now see that they aren’t trapped. With some effort, they can get out into the world they see through their window. They may never choose to leave their office during the day, but the feeling of being trapped lessens.

Paying attention to envy is a hack that can enable you to see what you really want. As times change, your beliefs about how to get along in your world under present circumstances may not evolve, and that may leave you feeling as if you have no options. Like the tiny office, it’s not necessarily the situation that causes the pain that leads to your dissatisfaction—it’s your belief about the situation that causes it.

Career Nostalgia Can Keep You Stuck

Similarly, if you’ve had great success and satisfaction in your job or company, you may expect that you’ll continue to have the same type of satisfaction even as the circumstances evolve around you. You may feel discomfort but don’t change anything because you’ve told yourself that “I like my job” or “There are a lot of great growth opportunities at this company” even as your restlessness grows.

Have you had times in your career where everything came together perfectly for a while? And do you look back longingly? I’ve experienced it a few times when I had great jobs with important and meaningful projects and great perks, working alongside smart coworkers and appreciative bosses. During those times, I was happy but probably didn’t relish the moment as much as I could have.

The Perfect Summer Job

One summer break while I was in college, I waited tables at a trendy waterside restaurant that attracted a well-heeled crowd in search of relaxation on the beach during the days and dinners out with friends in the evenings.

It was a dream summer job. I’d lounge on the beach during the day and work in the late afternoons. The shifts were busy and went fast. The tips were generous and all cash. The young crew of fellow servers, bartenders, and cooks shared my goals of making money and having as much fun as we could pack into the summer.

After the restaurant closed most nights, the staff would make our way en masse to the bar next door to drink and dance. My halcyon days of summer, as always, soon ended. August rolled around, and I headed back to school.

I returned the following summer hoping for a repeat of the fun and excitement of the previous year, but the vibe just wasn’t the same. It just felt like a good summer job rather than an exciting adventure.

Slowly Slipping Away

We can’t always see how wondrous the moment is until the invisible factors that make it perfect start slipping away—a new boss comes, a valued coworker moves on, budget constraints are implemented, or the economy takes a dip. I bring this up not to make you nostalgic about the good old days, but to point out that sometimes the planets are aligned and everything is perfect, but as things change, we can sometimes stay in a job out of habit, subconsciously waiting for the good times to come back.

Like lightning striking the same place twice, this rarely happens. Recognize the circumstances changing around you and make intentional decisions about your own career path rather than simply going with the flow.

Finding Your Way

If you have experienced times when work was perfect and that’s no longer the case, what are you doing now? Don’t wait around to see if those good times return. If you’ve had even one of those moments, thank your lucky stars for it, cherish your blessings, and go find your next one.

Don’t sit around hoping it will find you, because it won’t. Get out and do something . . . network, find a mentor, go back to school, ask for more responsibility. Whatever you do, don’t wait for it, because lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice.

Trusting Yourself

We’re all born with an innate sense of what is right for us. It’s just that in the course of growing up and becoming socialized, we sometimes get disconnected from our own inner wisdom. Taking the time to reconnect with your own intuition and desires will serve you well both in your career and in your life. It’s well worth the effort and may well be one of the most fulfilling things you ever do.

Exercise: Discover What You Want

In a notebook or journal, go to a quiet place where you have time to think. Write out the answers to these questions. Try not to edit yourself as you go through this process. You’ll have time later to make decisions about which of your options you’d like to pursue.

  • · What did you want to be when you were a child?

  • · What did you love about it?

  • · If money were no option, what would you do?

  • · What things are easy for you?

  • · What do people tell you that you’re good at?

  • · In what situations do you find yourself feeling envious?

  • · When you do things that you don’t like to do, what motivates you to do them anyway?

  • · List at least three accomplishments that you’re most proud of (personal or professional). What do they have in common?

  • · Take note of the times at work when you get angry or frustrated. At those times, take a moment to explore what your underlying thought or belief is. Write it down.

  • · Take note of times at work when things don’t seem fair. Stop and see if you can identify your underlying belief that leads to that feeling. Write it down.

  • · Think about five people who are doing jobs that you’d love to do. (Don’t worry about whether you’re qualified at this point to do the job.)

  • · What about those jobs is attractive? Reach out to those five people and see if they would be willing to let you interview them about their jobs.

  • · When you ask yourself what you’d ideally like to do, are you able to admit your desires easily? Or do you find yourself coming up with reasons why you can’t have what you want? Write down the excuses you come up with.

  • · What were the circumstances that led you to pursue the career you did? Were you following a dream or did you fall into it?

  • · Was there someone that encouraged you to take your path? Write down the story of how you came into your current job or career.

Creating Your Road Map

Once you’re clear on what you’d like to do for a living, answer these questions to help you develop a road map on how to get there. (If you like your current career but want to be happier doing it, you can also use these questions to design a path to get there.)

  • · What are the gaps between where you are and where you’d like to be? (Think training, location, connections, knowledge, money, etc.)

  • · How can you learn more about how to bridge some of these gaps? (It may be that you don’t know what you don’t know. You may need to do some research to learn where you can gather information that will help you learn more.)

  • · Who can tell you more about the job you think you’d like to do? If you don’t know anyone directly, perhaps you know someone who can introduce you to someone. You can also look for forums of like-minded people on Facebook or LinkedIn where you may be able to get your questions answered. Alumni networks are a perfect place to look for people to reach out to.

  • Do a Google search for your desired role. Check job listings for requirements of the role you would like to do. See if there are YouTube videos. Ask questions on Quora.

[1] Jobs, Steve. Prepared text of the Commencement address at Stanford University, June 12, 2005.

[2]. “A History of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.” Downloaded January 25, 2020.

[3]. Beck, J.S. Cognitive Behavior Therapy: Basics and beyond (2nd ed.). The Guilford Press, 2011. Pp. 19-20

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© 2018 Terry B. McDougall