How do you go after your goals for career and life? Do you map out the steps you have to take between here and there and lay out a plan for completing each step? Or do you take a more holistic, improvisational approach?
It turns out both work really well. I learned that recently from executive coach and best-selling author Wendy Capland. A while back, I wrote a column from an interview with Capland, and as a follow-up we decided she would coach me and that I would write about it.
In a recent session, I found myself struggling over an unexpected opportunity. I'd learned that a friend of a friend was seeking someone with qualifications like mine to spend a month as a volunteer next fall teaching graduate students in Africa. There were a hundred logical reasons not to pursue this opportunity. A month away from work and home would be tricky, both logistically and financially. It would mean working within a religious organization and I wasn't sure I would be a good fit. Worst of all, it didn't fit in with my career plan.
There's a danger most solopreneurs face. We're so eager to make a go of it, and so uncertain about a financial future wholly dependent on our own efforts, that we tend to eagerly pursue any opportunity that comes our way. This makes sense, up to a point--if you're counting on yourself to make your own living, you had better make sure you've got enough paying customers to survive. But if you take that approach all the time, there's a risk of letting the whims of the market blow you from place to place, rather than choosing where you want to go. You may wind up successful, but at a career that isn't really what you wanted.
For many years, I did exactly that, just jumping from project to project as they arose rather than making deliberate choices about what kind of work I wanted to do. Then a few years ago I decided to change my approach. I sat down and thought through some of my goals and the steps I needed to take to reach them. Based on that analysis, I made some very deliberate decisions about what kind of work I wanted to do--writing this column almost every day instead of twice a week is one result.
There are other specific steps I plan to take toward reaching my career goals. None of them include spending a month in Africa. The problem is, I really wanted to go. I've always wanted to see Africa. The recent death of a close friend only three years older than me served as a stark reminder that we shouldn't put off the things we've always wanted to do. It would be an adventure, which I always find appealing. And I knew that spending a month working with African students and living near their college would be an eye-opening, life-changing learning experience--far more so than just being a tourist on a safari. What should I do, I asked Capland?
In answer, she told me her philosophy about the two different ways of being in the world, both of which are equally valid. She defines one as female and the other as male--although she emphasizes that these two approaches don't correlate to actual gender. Women (such as me) might follow mostly male thought patterns, while men (such as my husband) might follow mostly female ones. I think of the differences she described as right brain vs. left brain, and the writer Natalie Goldberg wrote about these different approaches in an essay titled "Stalker and Dreamer." All these terms fit, so for the purposes of this column, I'll call them Focused vs. Open.
The Focused Approach
The focused approach is how I usually pursue my goals. "It's doing, solving problems, moving forward," Capland said. If you look at where you want to be in five years, and then plan what you need to do next year, next month, next week, and tomorrow to get there, that's a focused approach. If you ask yourself with every decision, "Does this move me closer or farther from my vision?"--that's a focused approach.
The focused approach is extremely powerful and I don't believe you can succeed in the business world without using it at least some of the time. It's how you know you're moving in the direction you want. It's how you make stretch goals into real possibilities. I wouldn't want to operate without the focused approach. But it's not the only way.
The Open Approach
The open approach is about being rather than doing. It's learning mindfulness, and being in the moment--something I'm not very good at. It's about seeing the magic in life, and sensing our connection to other people and all living beings. It's about the pursuit of happiness.
I'm deeply familiar with this approach because it's how my husband does nearly everything. He's a lead guitarist and bass player and other musicians almost always want him to play with them because he has an uncanny ability to add depth and dimension to whatever they're playing--even if he's never heard it before. He does it by completely letting go of expectations and goals, and simply plugging in to the music and the present moment.
These are our strengths and weaknesses in life as well. He's terrible at planning ahead, and I'm great at it. On the other hand, if my plans are thrown off course, I'm completely rattled whereas he will find a solution on the fly. Both approaches are valid.
Thinking about it this way helped me come to a decision. If you're a left-brained, male-thinking, focused stalker like me, then sometimes it's good to let go of your carefully made plans and follow your instincts instead. And my instincts were telling me to seize the opportunity and go to Africa. So I've told the program leader that I want to volunteer. And if the program goes on next year as planned, I'm hoping I'll be there.