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From the Blog

Careers and Chaos

Do you have a grand plan for your career? Have you got it all mapped out? Do you fret when it goes off track?

Well, maybe you can take heart from the story of Anna Bligh. As you will know, she was Premier of Queensland (from 2007-2012) and is now CEO of YWCA New South Wales. She was awarded an AC - Companion of the Order of Australia - in the recent honours list.

I had the privilege of attending a lunch a while back where she spoke about her career. She confessed that she wanted to be a nun originally, changed her mind as a teenager, and then did a literature (and social science) degree at university. She was drawn to social justice and political discussions, but was it because she was determined to become premier? No - as she explains it, there were no women in political life in Queensland, or in Federal Parliament, when she was growing up, no role models, and no thought that this was a possibility.

She drifted into the public service, via a heap of bar jobs, stints in fast food places and the like. So, how did she get to be Premier? She told us all that she followed her interests, she spoke up about things that mattered to her - and she went with the path that excited her, even when she was unsure where it would lead.

When she was asked to run for parliament, her youngest child was under two, and she had no idea how she would manage. But she already understood that most careers are not perfectly planned. She knew that luck and serendipity have a big part to play - and when chance comes your way, you must grab it. So she did. As she said, 'most careers aren't perfectly planned'.

The other essential element in her career path was the ability to tolerate a bit of chaos, and to realise that 'balance' was never going to happen. She told stories of the kind that all working mothers can relate to, about the days when all organisation fails, and your worlds just collide. Her advice? Stop torturing yourself, eradicate the word 'balance' from your vocabulary, and do what you can to get through.

I think this is great advice. I've written before about both the importance of having career goals, and the equal importance of following your gut, seizing the opportunity that may never return - and trusting that you can make it work. I've also written about the fallacy of work-life balance.

So, follow your interest, take note of what excites you - and develop a capacity for living (a bit) chaotically. It might just be all the plan you need.
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Are You A Fox Or A Hedgehog?

Are you the kind of person who pursues many ends at the same time and sees the world in all its complexity? Or do you simplify your world into a single organising idea, a basic principle or concept that unifies and guides everything?

This dichotomy is often discussed in management writings through the 'the fox and the hedgehog' story. Do you know about it? Based on a Greek fable, it's about the importance of having a clear vision, a single big idea about your life.

Jim Collins made the story famous in his book, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...and Others Don't. He quotes the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who divided the world into hedgehogs and foxes in his famous essay (called, you guessed it, 'The Hedgehog and the Fox'), concluding that 'the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.'

As Collins goes on to say, 'The fox is a cunning creature, able to devise a myriad of complex strategies for sneak attacks upon the hedgehog. Day in and day out, the fox circles around the hedgehog's den, waiting for the perfect moment to pounce. Fast, sleek, beautiful, fleet of foot, and crafty - the fox looks like the sure winner.

The hedgehog, on the other hand, is a dowdier creature, looking like a genetic mix-up between a porcupine and a small armadillo. He waddles along, going about his simple day, searching for lunch and taking care of his home.

The fox waits in cunning silence at the juncture in the trail. The hedgehog, minding his own business, wanders right into the path of the fox. "Aha, I've got you now!" thinks the fox. He leaps out, bounding across the ground, lightning fast. The little hedgehog, sensing danger, looks up and thinks, "Here we go again. Will he ever learn?" Rolling up into a perfect little ball, the hedgehog becomes a sphere of sharp spikes, pointing outward in all directions. The fox, bounding toward his prey, sees the hedgehog defense and calls off the attack. Retreating back to the forest, the fox begins to calculate a new line of attack. Each day, some version of this battle between the hedgehog and the fox takes place, and despite the greater cunning of the fox, the hedgehog always wins.

Berlin extrapolated from this little parable to divide people into two basic groups: foxes and hedgehogs. Foxes pursue many ends at the same time and see the world in all its complexity. They are "scattered or diffused, moving on many levels,' says Berlin, never integrating their thinking into one overall concept or unifying vision. Hedgehogs, on the other hand, simplify a complex world into a single organizing idea, a basic principle or concept that unifies and guides everything. It doesn't matter how complex the world, a hedgehog reduces all challenges and dilemmas to simple - indeed almost simplistic - hedgehog ideas. For a hedgehog, anything that does not somehow relate to the hedgehog idea holds no relevance.'

The point of all this for Collins is that a simple clear guiding principle or strategy is essential, beating a scattergun approach every time.

BUT, surely you can take this too far. Yes, I think vision is vital. Yes, I think having a guiding principle  in life is vital. But so is having a range of options, possibilities, ideas and approaches. Nothing could be worse than being fixed on one solution or possibility, with nowhere to move if things change, or someone (a badger, perhaps?) with a better vision comes along.

It's also true that Isaiah Berlin pointed to some brilliant foxes in his essay - Herodotus, Moliere, Goethe and Shakespeare among many. Oh, and I checked - in the real world foxes in fact do kill hedgehogs, often.

So, where does that leave our story? Is a hedgehog always better than a fox? What do you think?

(A fox with a that would be interesting.)
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What Are Your 3 Futures?

Are you at a career crossroads, struggling to decide whether to go this way or that?

Here's an excellent exercise that helps you imagine what your life might be like if you took this path, or that path, or if you left the path altogether. You look at three possible different futures and really play out how your life might look after, say, 3 - 5 years of living each of them. I use it with all my clients, it's fun and productive.

Part 1
Start by thinking of all the things that might get in the way of change for you - is it money, small children, financial commitments, investment in a particular work identity, status, family stuff, or...?

Now, for the moment, just sweep them aside. We aren't ignoring them, just moving them off centre stage for a minute.

Then, imagine a world where there are NO obstacles to whatever future you might imagine, none.

And ask yourself this question: 'What future would bring me the most satisfaction / success / happiness?'

If there is only one winner, go to Part 2A.
If you have more than one clear answer, move on to Part 2B.

Part 2A
Now, for your top future, imagine your life in say 3, 4 or 5 years' time. Think about a typical day:

  • Where are you?
  • Who are you with?
  • What is happening?
  • What are you doing?
  • How do you feel?
  • What do you see?
  • What do you hear?
  • What about smells, tastes, touch?
  • What do you feel?
  • What about spiritual elements, physical elements, mental elements?

Record this in whatever way you like - journal, collage, mindmap, list, a story, a recording...

Part 2B
Zero in on the top three possibilities for a future direction, picking the three that seem the most attractive or compelling or interesting, NOT the three that are most practical or easiest to achieve. Remember that for the moment there are no obstacles in the way of achieving these dreams.

Now, pick one of the three, and imagine your life in say 3, 4 or 5 years' time. Think about a typical day and answer the same questions that are listed for Part 2A.

Then repeat for the other two futures.

Thinking about the three, which one seems more compelling or inviting?

Part 3
Taking your top pick, bring all those obstacles - money, time, kids, status, identity, fear - back into view. Make a list of them, thinking of them as logistics challenges rather than reasons not to move forward.

Looking at them one by one, brainstorm ways you could overcome the obstacles. Assume that there IS a way around each challenge without losing your dream.

If you get stuck, get help - talk to a coach, a mentor, a colleague or a friend. Do some research, seek out people who have done what you dream of doing.

Don't give up.
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Do You Have A Strategic Plan For Your Career?

I spent the first 15 or so years of my working life drifting in and out of a series of different legal jobs, without a clear plan for the future. Actually, that's not quite true. Towards the end, I did have a partial career plan. It was called GET ME OUT OF HERE!

(The law is a great career for many people, but not for me.)

However, the obvious flaw in my exit strategy was that there was nothing in it about 'what's next', so I kept leaving jobs, travelling, daydreaming - and then having to go back to the law when the money ran out, my sugar-daddy failed to materialise, and I had no idea what else to do.

Even when I found the right career direction for me, it took me a ridiculous amount of time to learn how to manage my career. But in fact, it's not so hard to take the driver's seat, to develop a plan for your working life and map out action steps to take you there (whether 'there' is CEO of a top company, or owner of your own small business, or doing a series of satisfying creative project jobs).

In the interests of you getting a handle on your working life more quickly than I did, here is a 10-step checklist for a simple strategic plan.

1. List 3 ways you will increase your strengths (and the time spent using them).
Using your strengths at work is a recipe for job satisfaction, and it is also a key way to get noticed and promoted. Think about your key strengths (things you enjoy doing, that make you feel strong) and plan to use them more.

2. List 3 ways you will reduce time spent doing activities you dislike.
Most of us are very clear about what we don't like doing, but often assume that we have no choice in the matter. Can you use some creative thinking here - swap tasks with a workmate or filter it through a strength (if you are a people person, why not make the dreaded task a team activity, for example)?

3. List 3 skills you will improve.
These might be in areas that are holding you back, or new skills you'd love to add to your repertoire.

4. List 3 ways you will keep up with developments in your field.
What about a journal subscription, joining a networking group, or doing some strategic internet browsing.

5. List 3 ways you will connect more with your values.
If you're doing work that is not aligned with your core values, dissatisfaction and internal stress will follow. List your top values, and make sure you work (and live) in accordance with them.

6. List 3 ways you will increase your use of networks.
Online and offline networking are NOT optional if you want to forge ahead in your career.

7. Is your resume up to date? And your Linked In profile?
If not, fix them.

8. Is anything in the way - unhelpful beliefs, anxiety, inner critic talk or procrastination?
These are often the biggest reason behind a stalled career. If you suspect this is true for you, do something about it - read a book, talk to a coach or counselor, devise a strategy for handling the issue.

9. Where are you playing small? What is the risk (or opportunity) you're not talking?
Most of us know that if we couldn't fail, we would be braver and more strategic in our career. Even though failure is always possible, you need to find the courage to make these moves anyway.

10. What are the action steps that will take your career to the next level?
These questions are a great first step. Next, turn your answers into a series of actions that are clear and have a timeframe to them - and then DO the actions, one by one.

Simple. (And if you find it's not so simple, contact me {} and I will help you.)
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Is Magical Thinking Holding You Back?

Over the new year, I reflected on the reflection questions that were the subject of a recent blog. (Yes, I actually do use the exercises I recommend to others...).

I've been doing this for the last 8 or more years, so I didn't expect any major surprises in answering the questions. But in fact, every year I find I have indulged in magical thinking in at least one area of my life.

Magical thinking is 'believing that one event happens as a result of another without a plausible link of causation'. Examples abound, as we are hard-wired to look for patterns in our environment, to want to be in control and to avoid surprises. So if we wear our lucky charm to an exam and do well, we want to believe that if we wear it next time too, all will be well again. If we wish for something and it comes true, we tend to believe that somehow our wishing caused the event to happen.

It's a fascinating topic, and there are benefits as well as downsides to all this - without magical thinking, we would never go to parties, let alone blind dates. We'd be less creative and find it much harder to spot useful patterns. (Too much magical thinking however, leads to psychosis, so there's definitely an edge...).

Magical thinking and I go way back. When I was four or five, I decided I was an alien, and haunted our back garden every night waiting for my 'real' alien parents to beam me up. When I was 12, I decided if I did well enough at school, everyone would love me and life would go well. When I was 20, it was all about princes on white horses and when I started my business, I just knew if I worked hard the rewards would flow.

Over the years, I have done much weeding of the magical hotspots in my life and work, and I thought they were all eradicated. And in the main, this is true.

My piles of pixie dust are pretty small these days, but often it's the small things that make a big difference. So, in 2017 I will focus on (gently) sweeping up some of my remaining pixie dust.

What about you?
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Is The Script In Your Head Running Your Life?

All of us have a script inside our heads that contains our beliefs about our world. These are not necessarily helpful to you today, or even true. They were laid down long ago, and should be brought out and checked against the light of day from time to time.

Some of them were literally absorbed with your baby food, some from school, our culture or early life experience. How many people are told by their first teacher that they couldn't draw or spell or were too loud or...and still believe that today? Or did your mother tell you that you shouldn't trust people, or did your father explain that the only definition of success was a uni degree and a good salary - and do you still think that's true? Or did you absorb the message from the world around you that to be acceptable you needed a great body, a fast car, a big bank balance, a cool mobile or... The examples could go on and on.

Some of your beliefs are no doubt useful to you (such as 'I can be really determined', 'Life usually woks out OK' or whatever) but it is quite possible to sidestep beliefs that are not true any more, or which are not helpful ('I never finish things', 'No-one will help me').

You may well think of some of these not as beliefs, but how the world really is. In fact, the more desperately we defend our view that, for example, 'everyone knows that people can't be trusted...' the more likely it is to be a belief, rather than an objective observation of reality.

The first step is to get really clear on your beliefs - what are your perspectives and attitudes? Only then can you start changing those that no longer serve you. My beliefs once included such decidedly un-useful things as 'No-one will help me', 'I would rather die than network', 'Success is not an option' and 'Sensible people don't take risks.' It took some time to eradicate that lot, but I have now largely succeeded - and the change has been huge.

If you'd like to know more about dealing with beliefs, contact us with the subject 'beliefs' for a longer worksheet.

What are some of your beliefs about work? About success? About change? What do you believe about risk taking? About the importance of money? How have these beliefs affected your life?
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Looking Back On 2016 - And Forward To 2017

I like to have some questions to reflect on over the end of year break. Over the years, I have collected my list from here and there. A couple of years ago I started sharing my list with you towards the end of the year.

You can tackle all of the questions, or just pick a couple that speak to you. Write about them, think, discuss with someone - or just keep them bubbling away on the back burner while you enjoy your break. I've had some great feedback stories about people's adventures with these questions, and I am looking forward to my annual reflection using the questions, too. I hope they are useful and intriguing and enjoyable, maybe even productive of some 'aha' moments.


About this year

  1. What did I achieve this year?
  2. What did I learn? How am I stronger/better/happier?
  3. What activities put me into flow? When did I get so caught up doing something that I lost track of time? How can I have more of those activities?
  4. How well did I fulfil my professional/business vision and goals this year?
  5. What were my biggest disappointments?
  6. What will I do differently next year?
  7. What will I leave behind?
  8. What will I carry with me into next year?
  9. What risks did I not take this year? Where did I play small?
  10. Where did I let limiting beliefs or damaging self talk hold me back?
  11. What did I do that was useful in the world, or in my community or family?
  12. What will I remember about this year?

About next year

  1. What do I want more of next year? What do I want less of?
  2. If there were no obstacles (time, money, skills, confidence, lack of support) what would I change?
  3. What are my biggest challenges for next year?
  4. What conversation with myself am I avoiding?
  5. Am I holding onto something I need to let go of?
  6. What's something that I know I do differently than most people? How can I let that shine?
  7. How would I write down my dream? How would I paint it? Sing it? Dance it?
  8. What would need to change for me to live a truly satisfying life?
  9. If life was an experiment, how would I change it?
  10. If I knew the answer, what would it be?
  11. How can I live through my top three values? How can I use them every day?
  12. What do I really want? And what do I really really want? And what is under that - what do I really really really want?
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Have you ever run out of ideas? Or become caught up in your own assumptions (about materials, time, markets, budgets, or...?) Or felt like having a simple structure through which you can work through your problem - instead of all that chaos in your head?


It's brilliant.

A guy called Bob Eberle developed the SCAMPER tool as a way of using improvements or adaptations of existing things to come up with new products and services.

It looks like this:

Components, materials, people

Mix, combine with other assemblies, products or services, integrate functions

Alter, change function, use part of another product, service or element

Increase or reduce in scale, change shape, modify attributes eg colour, materials

(To another use)

Remove elements, simplify, reduce to core functionality

Turn inside out or upside down

You just formulate a question or dilemma and run through each element of SCAMPER, noting all the ideas. Even mad or completely impractical ideas are just fine - you can always critique them later, but often in the maddest idea is the seed of the one thing that will spark a really innovative new product or service, one that will differentiate you from your competitors.

For example, you might wonder, using SCAMPER: 'How many changes could you make to a coffee cup?' Think of obvious things like extra handles, or unbreakable materials, of course, but what about a cup that cleans itself or walks itself to the dishwasher? (Now, that would get my vote!)

How could SCAMPER help you?
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Your Work/Life Snapshot

Plenty of people have done a 'life satisfaction' exercise where you rate yourself in different areas (such as health, work, finances etc). It's usually limited to 8 categories, but it's not a bad way to start to see what's going right - and not so right- in your life.

I've recently started using an expanded version of this with my career change clients, so we can get a snapshot of their work and where it fits into their whole life. It has a number of more subtle, but very important markers (such as 'sense of identity' and 'engagement versus boredom') that are frequently the key to dissatisfaction in work. I thought you might be interested to try it, especially as the end of another year approaches.

It goes like this:

Using the following list as a starting point, select your top 8-10 or so current areas of focus or importance. Please change the wording to reflect your thinking, and add any areas that aren't on the list. They might be large or small aspects of life, it doesn't matter, all that counts is that they are important to you right now in your life.

  • Work
  • Family / Partner
  • Friends
  • Social life
  • Finances
  • Health
  • Physical environment
  • Sense of Identity
  • Feeling useful
  • Intellectual life
  • Working to (or beyond) capacity
  • Creativity
  • Engagement versus boredom
  • Structured versus unstructured time
  • Hobbies, fun, recreation
  • Learning and adventures
  • Spiritual life
  • Community
  • Giving back, service
  • The future, what lies ahead
  • Dealing with change
  • Shrinking or growing sense of what's possible
  • Legacy
  • Other?

Now, rate your current level of satisfaction with each of your top 8-10 areas of focus. Use score out of ten, where 1 is 'not satisfied at all' and 10 is 'completely satisfied'. This is entirely personal, and based on your sense of fulfilment or 'Okay-ness' or contentment with that area. For example, two individuals may be working beyond normal capacity, and one is 'fully satisfied' with that, and the other 'very unsatisfied'.

Think about areas where you want to change something. What could you do about that? Can you use the areas where life and work are going well to give you support while you work on something else?

What does your snapshot show you?
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If You Can't Find Your Passion, Are You Doomed?

What if you don't have that 'one thing', the thing you are utterly passionate about, the thing that's just waiting to be turned into your dream career? Can you still have a satisfying working life?

Of course you can. In fact, you may have a greater chance of a happy and successful life if you can develop passion or fascination (or even just interest) from within your job.

I often have career change clients who worry that they don't know what they are passionate about, and so cannot make a successful career transition. Rubbish to that.

Unless you are Mozart or Marie Curie, chances are you are interested in many things, and your enthusiasm waxes and wanes with time and circumstances. This is true of most of my clients - in fact I doubt that either Mozart or Marie Curie would have the time or the need for career coaching...

It's a lovely fantasy to think that there is one career for every person, and that somewhere in heaven is a fortune cookie with the name of your one true vocation inside it. But, like most fantasies (including the one about a predestined perfect man for every woman...), it just isn't so. For a very few, there may indeed be a calling that is always clear and never doubted (and a partner who meets out every need), but most of us have to put in some hard yards and create our life and work satisfaction, piece by little piece. 

So, what to do if that single passion eludes you?

Start by working out your strengths, abilities and skills. Look at what interests you, what fires you up, what you care about.

Then, create a list of possible occupations that might allow you to utilise these strengths and interests. Run some experiments (talk to people in that field, shadow a practitioner, read about what's involved, get some adult work experience). Apply for jobs, see what you think.

It's not rocket science (unless of course that's your new field, in which case it's absolutely rocket science).

Yes, it takes commitment and courage, hard work and reflection. You need to take risks. It's not nearly as alluring as lying around, waiting for your one true passion to fall from the heavens, but it's an awful lot more practical and achievable.

And it's an awful lot more likely to result in long term satisfaction and success. Have you ever fallen for someone, absolutely known they were yours for keeps, and then fallen out of love just as quickly? So it is with many of our career enthusiasms. We may fall out of love with our desire to be a nurse or a fireman. Or your dream occupation may disappear - think of papyrus scroll makers, telex operators, horse-and-carriage drivers...

But if you base your decision on research and a sound knowledge of yourself, coupled with enthusiasm for the field you're interested in, you generally find yourself falling in love with your work from the inside. You do it, you learn more, you find your feet, you engage your strengths... and voilà, you're in love!

Passion is vital for long term career satisfaction, it's just the bit about expecting it to descend-from-heaven-all-wrapped-up-and-ready-to-open that's problematic.

Do you agree? What is your story?

(Still not convinced you can get by at work without a pre-determined passion? Contact me and I'll show you how...)
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News & Events

Dangerous Minds

Check out Dangerous Minds, an article I wrote for BOSS on corporate culture and creativity. Do some cultures encourage creative thought and innovation? Do other cultures kill it stone dead?

Taking Charge of Your Work. 
Joanna is speaking at the Network Central breakfast in Sydney on 20 September on Taking Charge of Your Work. Do you have a strategic plan for your working life (or even for 2012)? Whether you run your own business, or work for someone else, you need to take charge of your career development. If you'd like to find out more, why not come along? Use this link for the discount rate: