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7 Steps to a Fulfilling Career

In the course of my work as a Career Coach to Millennials, I’ve noticed that everyone has a wildly different definition for success. However, I’ve found that there’s a certain science to having a more fulfilling career. The game-changing moments are rarely the result of harder work and longer hours; they’re the product of pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone and defying the fear-based voices that tell you there’s only one path to success. Here are some lessons that — if implemented — will undoubtedly change the course of your career and life:

1. Don’t stay in limbo. We’ve all had periods of uncertainty about what we want to do with our lives. However, the choice to stay in limbo lends itself to one of the most powerless states of being. While it’s healthy to give your choices some consideration, prolonged indecision is toxic… Why? Because clarity comes from engagement, not thought. As a coach, I support my clients in being powerful; this means making a commitment, showing up, and seeing what feedback the universe gives you… It’s okay to course-correct along the way; it’s never too early or too late to switch gears.

2. Start before you’re ready. Perfection paralysis is something I see in my office on a weekly basis. As my clients begin to envision what they want to accomplish, they often get hung up on perceived challenges and roadblocks that make success impossible, which usually sound like “I’m not good enough” or “I’m not ready yet”. Their doubts rarely have anything to do with their intrinsic gifts, which are more than ready to be put to work.

There will always be more you can do in the pursuit of self-improvement, but to what end? Does a week-long “how to” workshop help? What about that advanced online training course? Extra skills are great, but don’t put your career on hold for them – everything you need is already within you.

When I was getting ready to launch my practice, I worried that I needed to develop my expertise before I could get started. But while QuickBooks and software tutorials might have made me a savvier businesswoman, I was already a coach. That realization empowered me to jump in before I was “ready”. Fortunately, my risk was rewarded: the perfect clients always seemed to meet me exactly where I was in my practice; my service fit their needs, and the work fed my soul. As my knowledge evolved, so did my clientele. Don’t let your absence of experience distract you from using your gifts… You will be rewarded for your courage.

3. Just say yes — even if you have no idea how you’ll do it. I was in shock for at least an hour after I unexpectedly received my invitation to speak at TEDxBerkeley in October 2013, six months prior to the event.

As soon as the initial thrill wore off, I had to address the unfortunate truth that the majority of my public speaking experience was limited to the banal briefings I used to present to military officials at the Pentagon; this offered me dismal preparation for the task at hand.

How was I going to inspire an audience of 2,000 (plus live streamers!)? But I confidently said yes, because I know an opportunity when I see it.

I expected to be the most anxious speaker that day, but all of the presenters were buzzing with nerves, despite their impressive careers. This was when I realized that no matter how qualified or experienced I was, pushing myself to tackle new challenges — especially ones that involve putting my true self out there for the world to judge — will always be uncomfortable and nerve-wracking.

The growth you experience in the process of saying ‘yes’ to these challenges will always be worth the suffering.

4. Create a professional identity. We are conditioned from a young age to seek acceptance from our peers. I call this the social self, our natural default setting that is driven by the desire to be liked. From a young age, our social identity—formed by past victories and wounds— is refined and reinforced, always seeking approval. From a young age, we were fiercely taught the importance of likeability, yet this can be incredibly damaging when it shows up in the workplace. Ask yourself: “Do I want to be liked, or respected?” Sometimes you can score both, but there are many times where you have to pick one.

This is where the professional identity comes into play. It may be difficult, but the ability to draw a distinction between your social self and professional self enables you to maintain an intentional career path with boundaries that support you. Who do you want to be in your professional life? Answering that question and showing up in the workplace with a new identity may feel phony, but there’s nothing more authentic than intentionally choosing your professional persona; choice is more powerful than a natural default setting… This process of creating a professional persona and honoring it enables you to succeed with authenticity and choice, regardless of your natural default settings. Be intentional about what that identity looks like – what it values, expects, and requires – and honor that vision.

I share more about this dichotomy here in this month’s piece for The Muse.

  5. Don’t place too much value on praise. Praise is lovely and victories are worth celebrating, but after spending years of my career chasing goals — awards, scholarships, salary increases — I found that I was never satisfied when I only focused on external goals. The reality is that if you fixate too much on the external, you often overlook the internal. Consider how you want to feel when you’re setting goals… If you place too much value on praise, you’ll fixate too much on the lack thereof. This was a powerful lesson as my career developed, because the bigger the game you play, the more critics there will be.

For example, I was elated when I learned that I was going to be featured in the Work & Family section of the Wall Street Journal. The article got thousands of shares on social media, and I received many inspiring emails from those who read about me, but I couldn’t have anticipated the negativity that awaited me in the comments section.

The experience taught me that you should never read your own press, and more importantly, that this part of success is inevitable:new level, new devil. As your game gets bigger and louder, so will the criticism. But the harsh words of those nameless, faceless strangers, who sounded vaguely like the voice of my own inner critic, served a valuable purpose. Sometimes criticism will cut to the heart of your insecurities. Take those opportunities to confront them and revisit your sense of self, because once that is once that is solidified, neither praise nor criticism can disturb it.

6. Celebrate others. If you cannot celebrate others who are contributing to the world and experiencing success, you are energetically blocking yourself from reaching their level. Give others the thumbs-up when they are rewarded financially, professionally, or romantically. Let their success inspire you to be better. If you support it, you attract it. Period.

7. Unplug. Nothing is more important than unplugging when you’re feeling burned out. You must be at your best to serve others, and stepping back without guilt often creates space for the kind of perspective and inspiration that you need to move your game to the next level. In fact, creative companies such as Google are encouraging their employees to take naps during the day in order to refresh their minds… Innovation can’t flourish in a vacuum, so give it the space it needs to thrive and motivate you. If you’re feeling lazy, be lazy! Just put an expiration date on it.

I’ll leave you with one assignment: stop worrying about what success looks like for other people, and ask yourself, “What does success look like for me?” …Is it a more flexible schedule? Is it fame? Is it money in the bank account? Then ask yourself how you want to feel when you’re successful… These two questions are among the toughest, but most vital, questions I ask in my work as a Career Coach to Millennials.

To find the answers, you have to stop chasing the ever-elusive carrot of external success so that you can focus on getting to know yourself. Assess what satisfies and sustains you… Develop your own metrics. In a world where we are constantly being told what we should want, tune out the noise and the social pressure to be anyone but you. A purposeful and fulfilling life can only take place from the inside out.

CLICK HERE to unlock Ashley’s free online course to find your purpose in the workforce!

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