Incoming… Part three of five in an email series about realising your wildest career change dreams!
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Thought #3: How to get your life back

Part 3 in a series of 5 “Thoughts from the Careers Conference” 

Hi there You, it's Giles.

Last time I told you about someone who had a long term career dream (cunningly disguised as “just a stupid idea”) and the importance of taking these barely-formed notions and running with them, no matter how odd/daft/megalomaniacal they might seem. 
But what if you're completely out of ideas? Totally clueless about what it is you want? Well, this week's mailing is for you. It's quite long, and big on practical ideas, so have your browser open for links, maybe a pad open for notes, and of course your mind open for infinite possibilities… (It's also a good idea to give yourself some time to read it, and bookmark or flag this email in some way to come back to. Why not stick it in Evernote?)
Paula Poundstone (4min10). An oldie, but a goodie.
Wandering around the conference floor, I was stopped by another doctor and we began conversing. He was an experienced registrar, which translates to around 15 years in the business. Fifteen years since the day he was waved off by his proud parents to pursue that noblest of goals: a career in medicine. 
It had worn him down. He'd become a poor imitation of who he once was — said so himself — “sucked dry” by an uncaring and demanding system. He wanted out. While his acute specialty afforded him occasional moments of gratification, he had long passed the tipping point. Now he was on the verge of quitting the specialty training career ladder entirely and scraping by on as few locum sessions as he could afford, purely to pay the bills. Along with his profound dislike of the job was an underlying numbness: “I really have no idea what I want,” he told me, “Medicine has taken my life away.” I tried my best to tease some desire from out of his misery — what made him tick? what did he long for? — but after wracking his brains for a while, all he could come out with was an angry, exasperated, “I want my life back, that's what I want!”
It really got me thinking, as sadly, this is not an uncommon presentation, whatever the career. Years of being led down one particular path, nose to the grindstone, and the first time you properly look up, you realise you're lost and you didn't leave any breadcrumbs. And once that numbness takes hold, it can seem like an insurmountable task to recover any semblance of career vibrancy.

The reason it seems so hard 

Before leaping to solutions, let's be clear about the problem. It basically boils down to a loss of creativity. And when I say creativity, I'm defining it here as: ‘the use of the imagination or original ideas’ (so we're not talking about producing oil paintings, ok)? And I use the word ‘loss,’ rather than ‘lack,’ because every single one of us has the ability to be creative (i.e. to use our imagination, or original ideas), we just get out of practice, that's all. I hear people say “Oh, I'm not a creative person,” as if it were some sort of intrinsic deficiency. “Creativity, you say? Oh no, sorry, I don't do creativity. That's why I chose my current career, silly. If I'm going to change, it's going to have to be something that doesn't involve creativity…”
Creativity — the ability to use our imagination or original ideas — is as fundamental an ingredient of human being, as is breathing, or sleeping or eating.
Getting your life back must therefore begin with rediscovering your underlying creativity. That's why you don't know what it is you want. Because somewhere between being a child — thinking as children do — and being a tired, worn out, empty husk of your former self, you stopped using your creative muscles and they atrophied. They're still there - they just need a spot of regular exercise to get them firing again. And once you get going, the easier it becomes. Where at first there are no ideas about what it is you want, there appears just the faintest tickle of one. Then another will come along that bounces off the first, and before you know it, you've got momentum. More and more situations you find yourself in will spark ideas about what you want and where you want to be.

And right here is where you begin.
“Conversations with John Steinbeck” at

Preparing to rediscover the imagineer within you

There are dozens of ways to unearth your imagination and get the creative juices flowing again. In fact, almost every book I've ever read on career or life change dishes up its own version, which all pretty much vary on a theme. I don't propose to reinvent the wheel, but rather describe a handful of different approaches, and link them to original sources where possible. Because everybody's different, some of these strategies will work better for you than others. Some might even sound a bit odd, or off the wall. I'm not expecting them all to resonate - just try the one or two that work for you.
Before we start, here are 10 Top Tips to ensure you make the very most of this process:
  1. Understand that it's an essential, unavoidable step. If you think ‘something is going to happen’ that will turn things around for you, you're sorely mistaken. Sorry. You've got to take responsibility and make something happen (more about this in another email). ‘No action’ is not an option (well, it is, but you're likely just to become more miserable and more frustrated). These strategies can help you get started.
  2. Accept that it's going to be hard to begin with. Using the exercise analogy again, you don't get fit overnight, and you don't start to see the results straight away. If your ability to think creatively has been sucked out of you over a long period of time, then it's going to take some coaxing to get it going again. That's ok, and it's to be expected. You'll feel odd doing all this stuff at first, and that's just fine.
  3. Persist. As a result of #2, you'll note that some of the strategies mentioned below include doing something regularly (just like exercise). This is not a one-time assignment, it's a slow process of unlearning a lot of the unhelpful, limiting beliefs that have been foisted upon you over time, and gradually learning to see things differently. This will be an active process at first (i.e. you may have to force yourself), but trust me, it does get easier.
  4. Take your time. Following on from #3, don't just schedule one afternoon to work out “want I want from my life.” To give a personal example, both times I have filled in a career workbook, I did so while on annual leave, once staying with friends nearby (see #10) and another time taking it on holiday abroad with me. Any similar paper exercises you do require freedom of thought - so give yourself space and time, think of it merely as a starting point to your wonderful new career, and expect to bring your thoughts back to it regularly. You get out of it what you put in.
  5. Be open minded. Almost by definition, such an exercise is about having the sorts of thoughts you won't have had for a long time, so they may feel odd at first when they pop out of nowhere. Don't discount anything - some of the oddest stuff is the best stuff. Really!
  6. Don't take it too seriously. Please have a bit of fun while you're doing it. If it doesn't cause you to become at least a bit excited (New! Better! Opportunity! Happiness! Change!) then the results are unlikely to deliver long term satisfaction. We're looking for something you want to spend time doing, not something you feel obliged to do…
  7. It's a messy process. As I say in the 4th Principle of Career Change, It's okay to change your mind. This is a process of growth, and new insights will come to you gradually, over time. All you're doing here is starting something. You're not aiming to come up with an answer, you're aiming to kick start things, get the juices flowing. Answers come in the guise of fleeting ideas and moments of inspiration.
  8. Capture & organise your ideas. When you have brilliant little insights, they seldom come to you in front of a piece of paper, with a pen in your hand. They occur in the shower, in the car, in the loo, while you're exercising, in the middle of dinner, just as you're nodding off… basically anywhere you're least expecting it. (There's a reason for this - it's only when you stop wringing your rational, logical mind for ideas, stop ‘thinking,’ and let your subconscious, intuitive mind take over that the insights truly come.) Make sure you capture these as soon as possible - if you don't, they'll go. Keep a small notepad next to the bed, or close to you whenever possible. Use technology to your advantage - capture ideas on your phone. I've already mentioned Evernote once — it's cross-platform and synchronises across all your devices — but Simplenote, OneNote and a host of other mobile apps will do the same. Find one that works for you.
  9. Avoid thinking of vocations. If you're just looking for another career hat to wear, you're barking up the wrong tree. Again, something I mentioned at the conference was the idea of getting to the ‘what,’ by going via the ‘why.’ Try and think more about about the values and character traits you wish to use; the working conditions you wish to experience, rather than ‘A career in ……’
  10. Bounce your ideas off someone trusted. I know that a lot of career changing needs to go on behind closed doors for one reason or another, but it's always useful to run your ideas past someone you know well, especially if this someone doesn't work in the same career as you. Firstly, they're often more aware of your innate skills and talents than you are. This brings a degree of objectivity to an exercise that can otherwise leave your head spinning. Secondly, it's just nice to be listened to while you're going through this. Being asked questions by someone who knows you well can also shake free new insights.
Ok, that's enough prep. Here are some ways of tackling this issue that I've come across and have worked for me, or for others with whom I've been through the career change process. Follow the links to learn more...
Edward de Bono - the father of lateral thinking

Strategies to get your creative juices flowing again

  • The death bed test. I mentioned this when I spoke at the conference. I read about it in Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning. Basically it involves imagining yourself on your deathbed, looking back over the sum total of your life. What regrets would you have if you hadn't done X,Y or Z? What would be your criteria for a successful, fulfilled life? What would you have done more of? What was most important to you? (This can be quite powerful and turn up some real surprises the first time you try it. Take them seriously, otherwise you run the risk of one day lying there with those very same regrets…) One of the most poignant examples I've ever seen of someone doing this for real is Randy Pausch's Last Lecture. A university professor diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and only a few months to live, he gave his heartfelt tips on Achieving your childhood dreams to a large audience last year, reprising its main points for the Oprah Winfrey show soon afterwards. A huge kick up the ass for us all, it's hard not to be moved by his candour and his positivity, given the circumstances. You really should watch the full version (1h15min) here. It's had 16.3 million views so far… Or if you're a West Wing fan, watch the episode ‘365 Days’ again - what are you going to do with the time you have been given?
  • Four Squares. This one was described to me by a good friend - a mentor when I was experiencing my own career choice creative block. I've read it somewhere since, but can't for the life of me remember where. Anyway, divide a piece of paper into four squares, and in each of them, write the questions (and answers) to the following, below. (Once you have done this exercise, look for common threads across them - for me it was very definitely ‘writing.’)
       - Square #1. What do I love to do? When am I most happy? When do I find that time just flies? [This square tackles your interests & passions.]
       - Square #2. What am I good at? More importantly, what do others say I'm good at? [This addresses your talents and your innate skills, many of which you completely take for granted.]
       - Square #3. What is essential for me to complete? What is most important to me? [This one's a bit like the deathbed test, and looks at core values.]
       - Square #4. What do I feel pulled towards? What does a little voice inside me say I should be doing? [These questions tap in to your intuition and are just about the only time I'll let you get away with using the word “should”…]
  • How to be creative. This is a free PDF you can download from the ChangeThis website. It's by cartoonist Hugh McLeod and it's a thoughtful, amusing look at being more creative in general. Of the 26 tips, I particularly like No.7, where he describes his Sex & Cash Theory. It's not what you're thinking. It's better than that.
  • Morning pages. These are described by Julia Cameron in her best selling book The Artist's Way (which is not just for artists, by the way - as she herself says, she's taught “artists and non artists, painters and filmmakers and homemakers and lawyers - anyone interested in practicing the art of creative living.”) In her 12 week course, she advocates writing three pages of freehand first thing, every morning - anything and everything that comes to mind. It's not about creating something per se, it's more to do with getting shot of all the senseless chatter we so often have kicking around the inside of our heads; thereby freeing it up for more creative thought. I'd read more from her book before you jump into this one. (Check out the reviews before you buy, noting the largely polarised views: it's either your thing, or it's not. Don't discount it at face value though - it's got some incredible stuff in it.)
  • 22 Secrets to discovering your dream and living it. A guest post on the sometimes very useful Dumb Little Man website by Leo Babauta, who, in turn has his own rather thoughtful website, called ZenHabits (you could do a lot worse than just browsing the archives of this site alone, for inspiration). His post is a quick fire blast of questions and tips designed to shake you up and down before popping your cork.
  • The Green Pages. At the back of another hugely best-selling book: What color is your parachute? by Richard N. Bolles, there are what he calls the Green Pages (maybe not surprisingly, they are actually printed on green paper). As well as being a renowned careers advisor, Dick used to be a man of the cloth, and the first part of these Green Pages is called Finding Your Mission in Life. So, if you want a Christian take on career choice, this could be for you. (Incidentally, the rest of the book has nothing to do with religion whatsoever, and is packed with page after page of practical careers advice - albeit aimed somewhat at a US audience. It's not touted as “the most popular job-hunting book in the world” for nothing.)
  • A Brief Guide to World Domination (and other important goals). How to live a remarkable life in a conventional world. (Quite a mouthful, but kind of catchy, eh?) Another free PDF to download and ponder, this one from Chris Guillebeau's thoroughly inspiring website The Art of Non-Conformity. It's impossible to read this and not come away completely fired up with enthusiasm.
  • Watch the 4-part dramatised version of William Boyd's brilliant book, Any Human Heart on 4oD. A fictional account of one man's life, he had more careers/purposes than you can shake a stick at. Food for thought and a moving account of a truly varied life. Did I mention that the book is brilliant, too?

Well crikey, there's enough reading there to keep you quiet for a month… not that I want you to be quiet of course. I want you to run around muttering to yourself about all the brilliant ideas you're having! Share the links you like with others. Share this email with others. Share your thoughts with me (and thanks to all of you who've emailed me so far) - let me know how you got on; I've been through this myself from your starting position, so I know what it's like.

Most of all, make sure you do something. Something different, to shake those thoughts free. Go for a long walk or a bike ride. Visit old friends you haven't seen for ages and talk about hopes and dreams with them. Spend more time playing with kids (they've got creativity nailed). Visit an art gallery. Anything! Remember that Covey quote: “If we keep doing what we're doing, we're going to keep getting what we're getting.”

Good luck, nascent imaginators!
Until next time
Giles is on twitter
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