We can't forensically and rationally plan our lives and careers, but we can create time and space to check in to ourselves. If we regularly stop asking the right searches, we can reset our paths for a better future.
Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, an expert on gender and the future of work, recommends dividing our lives into seven-year blocks. Just as the body replaces itself with a largely new set of cells every seven years, we should take some time off at the end of each block to ponder, evaluate, and plan.
Some of it is grappling with how to leave behind what is no longer right, useful, or relevant. Like a snake shedding the skin that no longer fits, we need to identify and shed the skills, practices, and opinions that no longer serve us. And part of it decides what to do next and how to adapt to new circumstances.
We don't have to be obsessed with the time frame – get in touch with you whenever you feel right – but seven years is a good rule of thumb. It's long enough to move from education to work, weather a crisis – life changing or just disappointing – or switch from one relationship to another. However, it's short enough to feel manageable. During this time it is really possible to analyze how you have changed.
Here are the three key questions we need to ask ourselves in order to recalibrate our ambitions and ensure that our careers (and our lives) reflect our inner life compass.
What should I leave behind?
Finding what you don't want is just as important as figuring out what you want. Here you can define your red flags and non-negotiable items. It directs us to companies and cultures that align with our own needs and views.
Wittenberg-Cox believes that we have to get better in order to give ourselves permission to move on: “We have to be better able to let go of what was – our old identity, relationship, competencies – in order to accept what next comes – still unknown, undefined and ambiguous. "
To find out what to leave behind, here are some areas to explore: Is the culture I worked in holding me back or is it bringing out the worst in me? Have I experienced micro-attacks attacking me? Does my workplace promote a culture of revision and presenterism? What does this mean for me and my own limits? does work leak in the evening? Do i feel burned out? And do I have relationships with certain people outside of work that make me feel bad, sad, deficient, or exhausted?
This is where the biggest question of all comes into play: does this still work for me?
What has changed in my life
Ambition does not follow a fixed trajectory. There are ebb and flow as life throws us curveballs. What has changed since the last time I checked in to myself? It could be anything: an older parent has fallen, or a partner's new path is causing chaos for early school leavers. You may move home to live with your parents, experience health problems, or break up a relationship.
All of these things determine how our careers should overlap with the rest of our lives. At certain points in life, life is just about getting by rather than taking on expansive or ambitious projects.
So we have to ask ourselves what has changed. What can I take on? The domestic life tug of war can be intense at times; with others it cannot be perceptible. Being allowed to define success the way we want it – whether it's raising a family or raising hell at work – is liberating.
What drives me
We are all driven by different things. We could be motivated by more money, prestige, and a job title. We could see success the way Instagram likes it, or just more autonomy. But the things that drive us change over time. We have to ask ourselves: are my values still the same? Do I still define success the same way?
Changing priorities can happen at any point in our lives. They could be as small as new interests or as big as a changing view of the world. They can encourage you to look for something different in your career – the time to pursue a hobby, or even quit to find a job that better reflects your new purpose.
Jonathan Rauch, the author of “The Happiness Curve”, identifies such a change as being in the middle of life: “Usually, contrary to the stereotype, it is not a crisis. Rather, it is a transition. During this time, our values, priorities, and even our brains tend to turn away from competition and social pursuit and connect and give to others. "
This could lead us to move on to a new industry. Former Financial Times journalist Lucy Kellaway has been retrained to become a teacher. She explained: “It took a long time for me. When my mother died I thought I was dealing with journalism because it was too shallow. . . I sat with all these journalists and wondered what the headline was and thought, "No, I don't want to do this anymore." I want to do something useful. "
Answering these big questions on a regular basis can help us figure out what we want to leave behind, what we really value in our lives, and what we want to prioritize in the future.
This shouldn't feel like checking off your to-do list. It is an on-going process that you may want to journal or discuss with trusted confidants. Give yourself time to think and don't worry if the answers don't come quickly.
We need to stop holding ourselves hostage to who we were and allow ourselves and our ambitions to move forward. The ability to change, to change, is going to be a superpower. The futurist and philosopher Alvin Toffler said: "The illiterate people of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and re-learn."
Also read: Your midlife malaise is perfectly normal – and this simple strategy can keep it from turning into a crisis
Annie Auerbach is the author of "FLEX: Reinventing Work for a Smarter and Happier Life".