How A Gorilla, A Basketball And 'Vuja Dé' Can Help You Discover The Career Change Options You Didn't Know You Had

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Image: Ruslan Ruslan

Stumped for ideas for your future career? Stuck in a Groundhog Day of list-making, job site scrolling or soul-searching? Natasha shares the story of Florence, a career changer who found her calling through an unconventional, back-to-front approach.

"There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception." – Aldous Huxley

Have you ever felt like you're in Groundhog Day with your career change? Stuck doing the same things over and over again, desperately hoping you'll have a great idea or notice something new, and somehow never making progress?

In 1999, psychologists Simons and Chabris ran an experiment that quickly became the most famous example of how stuck and limited we really can be.

They showed people a video of a basketball game, asking them to count passes between players.

In the original experiment, only 50% of people watching the video noticed the gorilla.

What Simons and Chabris discovered was essentially that we're missing a lot of what goes on around us, and that we have no idea that we're missing so much.

We see the world through a myriad of assumptions, habits, and institutions – fixed ways of being, behaving, seeing and thinking – and we're rarely aware of any of them.

When you approach the supermarket doors, for example, you hardly even notice the way they automatically slide open. You simply keep walking, because the assumption that they will open automatically is so deeply hardwired in your brain.

For the most part, this works. The patterns of expectations and assumptions and habits that guide us through life are, largely, useful.

But they become problematic if you want to do something differently – if you want to create something new and unforeseen and your usual approaches no longer seem to work.

It doesn't matter how many times you sit down to scroll through a job site and find nothing. It doesn't matter how many lists you make (and have zero new ideas as a result).

Somehow, you end up going back to the same old approaches, over and over again. You can't see anything new.

If it feels as hopeless as trying to lean on an automatic door, it's probably because, to some extent, that's exactly what you're trying to do.

One way to break out of this narrow way of thinking is to cultivate what George Carlin called 'vuja dé': a strange sense of unfamiliarity in the familiar.

"The vuja dé mentality is the ability to keep shifting opinion and perception. It means shifting our focus from objects or patterns in the foreground to those in the background… It means thinking of things that are usually assumed to be negative as positive, and vice versa. It can means reversing assumptions about cause and effect, or what matters most versus least. It means not travelling through life on automatic pilot." – Bob Sutton

It's about turning your usual ideas and approaches on their heads: breaking out of ingrained behaviours and beliefs in order to elicit a fresh set of responses and possibilities.

Sounds good, right?

Sounds exciting.

And it probably also sounds completely impossible.

How do you cultivate a change in perspective when the restrictive, narrow world of work is the water you're swimming in?

Here are three ways one career changer applied vuja dé to her shift, and found what she calls her 'calling' along the way.

1. Stop thinking about work. Start thinking about play.

"Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what's inside you, to make your soul grow." – Kurt Vonnegut

One of the cosmic jokes of looking for fulfilling work is this: you want to find work you love. And at the same time, you don't really believe it's possible.

"Work is supposed to be hard. That's why it's called work."

"You can be happy, or you can be rich."

"The experience catch-22: no work without experience, no experience without work."

These kinds of uninspiring, 'realistic' ideas are so ingrained in most people's relationship to work and careers, they're almost impossible to escape.

And they keep you thinking small – stuck in what you think is possible within the confines of a socially accepted perspective.

I met Florence at a retreat in Morocco.

Three years ago, she was an account manager for a well-known skincare brand. She had felt off-balance and bored at work for several years, and it was starting to become intolerable. So she began to explore her options.

"I did all the usual things. I looked at my CV, and at job adverts online. I asked my friends what I should do, and I went to see some recruitment consultants to see if they could help me. But it felt like everything I did led me back to my original industry. I couldn't seem to escape.

"At some point I got so annoyed with the way the system of 'work' was set up, I found myself forced into this frustrated state of mind; half rebellion and half giving up. I couldn't believe that I would ever find a career I really enjoyed, because I'd tried so hard already and there was no way out. And I just stopped thinking about changing my work and threw myself into doing things I liked doing."

Florence signed up to an art class.

She started writing short stories on the tube on the way to work. She dug out a box of old magazines from the loft and made a collection of 12 birthday cards from pictures she cut out.

One of her friends loved his card so much, he introduced Florence to an artist he knew who designed book covers. She began feeling energised and happy again.

As she did these things, she started to meet people for whom these creative pursuits were their 'work'. And she began to feel her relationship to 'work' expand.

"I had never, ever imagined that work and play could be the same thing. My idea of work was wearing smart-casual business attire, commuting to a 9-5 and sitting in front of a computer in an office. And I think that's why it had been so hard for me in the beginning, because I just couldn't bring myself to think outside the box, or to dream big enough, when I was focused on 'career' and 'business' and 'work'.

"I had to start from a different place to get to a different end point."

By forgetting about looking for a 'career' for a while, Florence slipped outside of the confines of her limiting perspective on work. She engaged in a different kind of question ("What's fun and fulfilling for me in general, not just in my career?"), and came out with a very different answer.

What would you do if your task was to find new ways to play, rather than new ways to work?

2. Stop thinking about what you need. Start thinking about what you can give.

There's a helplessness that comes with not knowing what you want.

For many people, it's embarrassing and disempowering.

You want the answer, but you don't want to admit to not-knowing. You'd like some help figuring this stuff out, but don't want to bother people with your problems. You'd love to talk to someone about what they do, or test out an idea with them, but you don't want to feel like you're begging.

And before you even get to this stage, you need an idea of what you want to do, right?

Not necessarily.

Sometimes, the best way to get what you need is by giving other people what they need.

About two months into her art classes, Florence arrived at the venue early. Her teacher was on the phone, and she sounded stressed.

"I asked her if she was OK, and she basically just said she had a lot going on – she was struggling to get everything done between teaching, and marketing her classes and trying to find time for her own artwork.

"And the question just popped out: I asked how I could help. At first she shook it off, and said she wouldn't dream of taking up my time and she couldn't afford to pay me, but I asked again, and she asked if I knew anything about social media."

Florence wasn't a social media whiz, but her desk was near the marketing department in her office, and she offered to spend a little time helping her teacher work out a plan.

"I went to her house that weekend, and we spent an afternoon drinking tea and coming up with ways to raise awareness of the art classes online. It was amazing – we had such great conversations and I learned loads about running a small business, the art world… It was fascinating. And it felt great to leave knowing I'd helped her out."

Florence had so much fun, in fact, that she began to make this a habit.

"I put a shout-out on my Facebook page that said: 'What are you working on that you need help with? Work, life, or pleasure: let me know how I can help you and I'll give you an hour of Florence-time'. I got a few confused phone calls, but once a few people left positive comments and requests, it turned into a fun game."

Over the next two months, Florence got a taste of 20 different jobs, including: landscape gardener, wardrobe consultant, dog-walker, mural-painter, relationship coach, brand strategist, cold-call saleswoman, interior designer… and then…

"My friend's sister-in-law got in touch. She said she'd seen my post and had been feeling funny about sending me a message because we'd only met once, but she remembered me saying I did art classes and wondered if I could help her design her logo for her new business."

Florence agreed, and they met in a café after work one afternoon.

"Most of the mini-projects I'd done were short, fun, and I went away having spent an hour learning something and feeling good about helping someone out. This was different. I was really surprised by how important it felt, and how much I wanted to do a good job. We talked for an hour and we played with some ideas in my sketchpad, and she thanked me, and I left. And then I went home and worked on it until 4 a.m. I could not tear myself away."

Florence had never entertained the idea of becoming a designer. She had no experience, very little relationship to the world of design, and if she had gone about her career change in the usual way, she's clear: there's no way she'd have thought of it as an option.

Even if she had asked her friends, family, mentors and colleagues for help considering what she should do for work, their answers would have been guided by what they already knew of her: warm, friendly, a good people person, strong sales background, very organised and systematic…

But by switching her perspective from 'getting' to 'giving', she discovered what she now describes as her calling.

How could you contribute to others and see what arises as a result?

3. Stop trying to fix-it-quick. Start taking your time.

"It's not that I'm so smart, it's just that I stay with problems longer." – Albert Einstein

Uncertainty feels distressing.

What's going to happen next? When are the answers going to arrive? Am I safe? Is this ok?

Quick solutions seem logical and comforting.

But quick isn't always best.

And you know that, really. You're not surprised that you didn't marry your childhood crush. You're not amazed that a well-planned, well-cooked meal is more nourishing and enjoyable than a packet of instant ramen.

The things that matter, take time. To find something fulfilling and uplifting, you need to settle in for the journey.

In fact, it's dangerous to go running wildly toward an answer to your future career.

Because as you whizz around, clutching wildly at potential solutions and scanning the horizon for The Answer, you miss a huge opportunity for learning and discovery and creativity. And ultimately, you're limiting the scope of the solutions available to you.

You're more likely to jump into another career that doesn't fit right.

You're more likely to take an opportunity because it shows up, rather than because you chose it.

Six months into Florence's career-change journey, she was offered an 'out'.

"I was on the edge of accepting a job offer as a PR person for a cosmetics company. It sounded like a fun role, the money was OK, and I knew the industry inside out. But there was something inside me that was saying 'No, this isn't it'.

"Not too long before, it would have been so easy for me to ignore that voice, because I still had that desperation to be done with this career change thing.

"But I'd got to grips with the idea that my journey of discovery could actually be just as enjoyable as working in a fulfilling career. My exploration was my endgame, and so I wasn't in as much of a rush as I had been when I first started out.

"I turned down the job and kept going – and when I look back at that job offer now, it doesn't have a patch on my work today. I'm so glad I didn't rush."

Florence started out as a self-employed graphic designer, moonlighting alongside her day job. And eight months later, she was offered a role at a creative agency, where she's been ever since.

How would you approach your career change if you were willing to take your time over it?

How could you use vuja dé in your own career change? Let me know in the comments below!

Natasha Stanley's picture

Natasha Stanley is head coach, writer, and experience designer for Careershifters. When she's not working, you'll find her listening to neuroscience podcasts, learning pottery, and dreaming up her next adventure.