Image: Jeremy Thomas
Feeling pressure to find the 'one' thing: the thing you're supposed to love and do forever? Lisa explains why it's quicker (and a lot more fun) to forget the big elusive 'passion' and focus instead on looking for a Little Yes.
"I just don't know what I'm supposed to do."
"What if I don't have a thing?"
"What if there's nothing I feel passionate about?"
Just as the movies favour a romanticised version of the search for a 'soulmate', so too the world of work lures you with the promise of there being one magic 'thing' you're supposed to do. Some big calling, beckoning you like a giant Monty-Python-esque finger emerging from the clouds.
But what do you do when you're staring at the clouds, waiting for a giant finger that doesn't come?
It's no wonder that when you're contemplating career change, it can feel so big and scary and impossible that it's paralysing.
After all, this is a huge decision. You've got to find the big 'one thing' and do that, forever, right?
Here’s something to play with:
What if it didn't have to be this way?
What if career change could be an adventure?
What if it could even be fun?
Introducing Little Yeses
If you want to buy a new house, you'd probably start by looking for properties online.
If you wanted to go on holiday, you'd probably start by working out what you could afford, and where you might like to go.
Every big project starts somewhere. You take the big thing and you break it down into lots of smaller things.
Yet, somehow, this can feel difficult when it comes to career change. It's too big, too unknown and too scary.
And, when you've got no obvious big passion, it can feel downright impossible.
As Creighton Abrams said, "When eating an elephant, take one bite at a time".
And as my Careershifters teammate Natasha puts it, "Think fairy lights, not light-bulb moments".
Allow me to introduce you to an idea I like to call Little Yeses.
No doubt you know how a resounding 'yes' is supposed to feel, right? Have you been waiting for that lightning flash and thunderclap of inspiration; that swelling, loud euphoria that tells you "This....THIS is IT"?
Little Yeses are poles apart.
They're quiet and they're peaceful.
My client, Caroline, who's just started exploring what she might like to do instead of the PR job she's been in for the last 20 years, describes it like this:
"It's a feeling I can only liken to a bubble popping in my mind or a little ping in my subconscious. Suddenly there's a thought or feeling that was probably always there but I wasn't listening to before, so it's like a fun little flash of discovery every time."
Little Yeses come when you aren't looking. They hover in your peripheral vision and come with a mini 'woohoo', deep in the tummy. Like when you were little, and being driven over a humpback bridge, probably a little faster than you ought to have been.
Entrepreneur Os says that Little Yeses are like the breadcrumb trail that leads you home:
"A Little Yes feels like a little tug in my stomach – partly curiosity and intrigue, and partly excitement. They're little signs that I'm on the right path and just need to keep trusting.
"I know I've found one when I can't stop thinking about it, or it keeps on coming up again and again. Perhaps I'll hear someone mention a particular book, then I'll see it pop up on Facebook or a friend will mention it. That's a big sign for me."
Perhaps you can't stop reading stories about Tudor history? That's a Little Yes.
Or maybe you're reading all the stories in your Facebook newsfeed about dogs, because, well, you just really like dogs? That's a Little Yes.
There's no pressure on Little Yeses to become more than that. They're just things that you do, because you like doing them.
And sometimes, like Os mentions, they can be uncanny, finding ways to repeatedly tap on your subconscious with a polite 'Ahem'.
But what have elephants and fairy lights got to do with my career change?
On its own, a Little Yes is very unlikely to be a career. What's important is the feeling it gives you.
They're not lightning-bolt realisations. They're much quieter. In fact, they’re often overlooked.
And they can offer up very useful clues.
Once you're tuned in to that feeling that arises with a Little Yes, you can actively start looking for more.
Carla (whose portfolio career journey we shared here) describes it like this:
"To me, a little yes feels like a fizz of excitement, usually quite unexpected, when you're doing or contemplating a particular action. Now I recognise it, it's one of my favourite feelings – my Little Yeses lead me to and into wonderfully serendipitous projects, places and people."
When I was early on in my career shift and had no idea what I wanted to do, I knew nothing about Little Yeses. I just desperately wanted to get out. I would spend hours scouring job sites, hoping to find something that would rescue me.
But then we moved offices at work, and the whole team was told to spend a couple of days working from home.
That first day, when I put my jeans on instead of the obligatory non-denim – when I sat in my comfy home desk chair, with a steaming mug of tea, waiting for my emails to load and looking out of my own window onto my pretty little garden – that was when I felt that sensation, that Little Yes.
I didn't know much about what work I wanted to do next, but I realised I wanted to work from home.
Thus began my breadcrumb trail of Little Yeses that started to lead me where I wanted to be.
I kept going to see my coach, because I felt good there. I liked being in that headspace – thinking deeply, seeing my barriers and obstacles only as problems that I hadn't discovered the solution to yet.
Actually, I really liked coaching.
Could I be a coach?
It wasn't a light-bulb moment. There were no thunderclaps, no sense of feeling 'called' or 'compelled'. No burning bushes; no choir of voices singing hallelujah.
But it felt peaceful.
My gut, normally so quick to wobble at the slightest objection, had nothing to object to.
Actually, I felt more of a gentle happy hum.
A little Yes.
Here are a few techniques to help you find your own.
1. Tune in
Susan Jeffers, in Embracing Uncertainty, says:
"The quiet mind can be a wonderful receiver. And if we focus on learning how to listen to the 'gap between our thoughts', the intuitive answers will come."
So, create some gaps in those thoughts.
Relax. Meditate. Take a warm bath. Do whatever it takes to get yourself peaceful.
Remember the little things you've done – today, this week, this month – that have left you feeling peaceful, contented, or intrigued.
When you visit each memory in turn, notice what happens in your body: where you tighten up, where you sink, and where you feel uplifted.
Is there an activity you've particularly enjoyed?
What left you with a little sigh of 'How lovely'?
What thing have you been so absorbed by, that you've spent hours doing it and it's felt like minutes?
Is there anything you're feeling a little tug from, to learn a bit more about?
Found something? Good.
If you haven't, keep listening. Rinse and repeat.
Don't give up if nothing comes easily to you. For Caroline it was a mixture of luck and continued effort that helped her find her first clear Little Yes:
"It took me a while to be able to actively listen to myself; it's hard to do when you’re not used to it. Luckily, I got a strong reaction to something I enjoyed and then mentally noted down how that made me feel. Once I knew to look for the feeling, rather than overanalyse the activity, it became easier."
Susie (whose shift story you can read about here) says:
"You almost need to stop looking. I find if I do things which are relaxing but stimulating, like reading a magazine or book, watching TV, or going to the theatre, I get these sparks. I need to take myself out of my familiar routine.
"When I was looking for one big yes, I was researching, taking personality tests, interviewing people who were doing what I thought I'd like to do, and so on. It was very organised and logical, but I've found that Little Yeses don't come from all that. They come from within, so you have to practise listening to them."
When you find your first Little Yes, notice what sensations come with it. Remember these. Look for other things that give you the same sensations.
Don't judge the activity. It might be something that you think insignificant, or even ridiculous. Trust that you know why it's a 'yes' for you.
And when you have something, anything, ask yourself what you can do next to pursue it.
2. Forget about forever
At school, we're taught about a model of work where we progress vertically in a career, moving through the ranks of management in a single industry or company.
But this model is out of date. You no longer have to do one thing forever.
You can move sideways, diagonally, up, down or even turn the whole thing inside out.
Make no assumptions about what is possible in today's world of work.
Besides, we're not good judges of what's going to keep us engaged at work long term. Ben Horowitz, in his commencement address at Columbia University, It's What You Can Contribute, reminds his audience that passions change. What you're excited about and engaged with at 25 might not be what you're passionate about at 45.
And in Why the Brain Talks to Itself (2009), Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson found:
"The brain generates mental simulations (previews) of future events, which produce affective reactions (premotions), which are then used as a basis for forecasts (predictions) about the future event's emotional consequences. Research shows that this process leads to systematic errors of prediction."
In other words, we're not good at guessing how we're going to feel about something in the future.
So, we need to focus on finding something that feels good, now. And that's what Little Yeses are all about.
Forever can take care of itself.
Caroline came to coaching expecting that she would find a huge, blinding flash of inspiration.
"Allowing myself time to follow the Little Yes has actually made me think about enjoying the journey rather than constantly looking for a definitive answer to everything. I've found out lots of little things about myself that I wouldn't have otherwise and that's almost more fun than the 'big yes' to me now."
You don't need to shoehorn every Little Yes, every lead, into a potential career path.
You don't need to know where these Little Yeses are going to take you. The fun is in the not knowing, and not knowing is OK.
Your one and only job right now is to look for a Little Yes.
3. Take magic baby steps
When you've found your next couple of Little Yeses, you can start trying to match them up together.
What small action could you take to connect the dots?
You may like to know that I signed up for my coaching course, took it, and passed. My organise-y self took charge of setting up my practice and loved every minute. With two Little Yeses under my belt and connecting with a pleasing harmony, I had no idea what would come next. I didn't only want to be a coach. I needed to use my other strengths too.
Then a friend told me about a secret Facebook group she'd been invited to join. It was for people who'd left jobs they'd been unhappy in, to create businesses, and work, that they loved.
It was a revelation. I met countless people there all doing the same thing I was doing: trying to find their way to a career that felt really good. I had conversations where I laughed so much, I had to have a little cry afterwards because it was so nice to finally meet people who not only 'got' me, but who were walking the same road. This was my tribe.
Some time later, I came across a post in the group from Careershifters. They were looking for someone to join their team, with my exact skill-set. I would never have seen the post if I hadn't been in the group. With my Yes radar now highly tuned in, I knew that this was an opportunity I had to follow up.
When I started working for the team – from home, on a subject I cared about deeply, doing things I'm really good at – I knew that I had found something really special.
How could you make the Little Yeses that you've discovered bigger and bolder in your life?
Each tiny step offers more clues that you can add to your picture. The people you meet along the way might have new ideas to add, or act as signposts towards things you might never have considered.
That's the thing about taking baby steps. Look up and you'll see you've made big ol' strides.
And because the risk that's involved at each stage is less, you can play more, have fun and be curious. You can push your comfort zone and expand your experiences one tiny step at a time.
That's all very well if you've got all the time in the world, I hear you say, but I need a new career now!
OK. I get it. And I've so been there.
And I can also assure you that to find work that really lights you up, you're going to have to find a way to switch on that light. You're going to have to become aware of that deep, often-ignored part of you that knows exactly what it wants you to do. You're going to have to give it a chance to take the reins.
And if you don't want to do that now, then you run the risk of being in exactly the same situation after a few years in the next role you take.
Life's too short. So, if not now, then when?
Follow the Little Yeses.
Relax, follow, enjoy
So, you see, passion doesn't always present itself as a big, obvious, loud discovery.
It can be quiet and gentle. Sometimes it needs to be pursued and nurtured.
The act of pursuing and nurturing, that's how you start to understand what work lights you up. That's where you grow your own garden full of possibilities. That's how you can play and adventure your way into work that feels much more you.
And not knowing how it's going to turn out?
Take action and let your Little Yeses, carry you onwards.
Two years on, I find myself with a portfolio career that has a near-perfect blend for me. I look back at the Little Yeses that brought me here and I notice just how true it can be that, as Natasha put it, career change is fewer light-bulb moments, and more fairy lights.
I don't know what's in the future. I certainly don't expect that my current mix will always stay as it is. It doesn't have to, because I know I can always follow new fairy lights into a blend that feels really good.
What happens for you when you start tuning in to your Little Yeses? Let me know in the comments below!
Lisa Russell is Editorial Project Manager at Careershifters and an ICF-accredited career change coach.