Image: Cristian Grecu
We're always told it's important to have long-term goals. But what if the worst thing you could be doing is thinking about them? Natasha shares her 'three-steps' rule to making a career change without burning out.
When I was 17 years old, I travelled to South America for my first solo trip.
I made my way from Ecuador, through Peru, and into Bolivia. En route, I hiked the 4-day Inca Trail to Macchu Picchu – an intensely beautiful and tough trek – with a group of travellers I’d met on my way.
Now, I walk 'with intention' at the best of times, but there's something about walking uphill that really brings out my inner stomper. So there I was, up at the front of the hike with our guide, Diego, the entire way.
At some point on Day Two, we scaled an impossibly steep cliffside toward a peak. Eyes on the prize, I fixed my gaze at the top of the mountain and focused all my efforts on simply not stopping. After an hour or so, clearly fed up with listening to my under-the-breath muttering to steady my breathing, (IN – two, three, four and OUT, two, three, four…) Diego grabbed my arm.
"Stop looking up", he told me.
I can't imagine what my expression was like at that moment. Of all the pieces of advice to give me while hiking, he was telling me where to put my eyes?
"Never look more than three steps ahead", he said. "When you keep looking at the final destination on a trek like this, you exhaust yourself. It always feels like you have the whole journey still ahead of you. When you keep your eyes only three steps ahead, you only ever have another three steps to go. And before you know it, you're there."
In a world fit to burst with pieces of advice, there aren't many that truly stick in my mind. But I've never forgotten those words. Every time I have a steep hill to climb, I lower my eyes and send him a quiet thank you for his guidance. And it's only in the past few years that I've really got to grips with how powerful it was.
"Writing a novel is like driving at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole journey that way." – E.L Doctorow
Stumbling across that quotation a couple of years ago, I was reminded of Diego and that seemingly unbeatable mountain.
In career change, we spend a lot of time in the grip of urgency
Urgency to get out of the job we're in, certainly, but more than that – urgency to finally feel the way we want to feel. To have achieved what we set out for. To have 'made it' into a career we love. To wake feeling expectant, upbeat, and ready to engage with the day.
And in that state of urgency, we set our gaze to the ends of our journeys.
What's most frustrating is when we don't know where that end might be. And the truth is, none of us can be sure. When I started out in my search for passionate, fulfilling work, I certainly had no idea that this was where I would end up.
But what Diego taught me that day on the mountain was this: It's OK not to know. In some ways, it's better. Urgency is exhausting. And in the race to finish, you become tired, disillusioned ("I'm still not there… I'm failing..."), and you forget to take note of the lessons along the way.
Career change is a gradual process of discovery
To the few people out there who know exactly what they want to do and how, I salute you. You've obviously got something figured out that most people don't.
But for many, it's not a straight-up, A-to-B game. It's an exploration: a long hike, peering under rocks and investigating noises. The trail isn't always clear.
In fact, sometimes you wind up upside-down in a thorny bush, wondering why you ever bothered to get out of bed for this surrealist game-show. But somewhere in there is a clue to the next part of your journey. It's not way up the mountain. It's right here, where you are.
Give yourself a break from pushing for the finish line.
The mountain peak you're headed for probably isn't the one you think it is.
Three steps ahead.
What happens when you stop looking up? Let me know in the comments below.