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Career Change from the Inside Out

Career Change from the Inside Out

Johnny Bunko panel
    Pamela Skilling’s Escape from Corporate America and Daniel H. Pink’s The Adventures of Johnny Bunko

    I just read something scary on Twitter. Jonathan Fields – entrepreneur extraordinaire (I interviewed him on Lifehack Live) – posted about a conversation he’d had with a friend who “didn’t get how I could live w/ ‘stress’ of being entrepreneur and not having someone else pay me.”

    It’s true: there are people in the world who will take an amazing amount of crap – layoffs, verbal abuse, boredom, office politics, and more – in exchange for the perceived security of having someone else write them a check every week.

    This isn’t a post about becoming an entrepreneur, it’s a post about doing something to deal with a job that drags you down. More specifically, it’s a post about two inspiring books I’ve recently read, both of which take on the subject of career change in interesting, creative, and very different ways.

    The first is Pamela Skillings’ Escape from Corporate America: A Practical Guide to Creating the Career of Your Dreams. Skillings was good enough to come on Lifehack Live recently to talk about her book, and I highly recommend people listen to what she has to say.

    The other book is Daniel H. Pink’s The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You’ll Ever Need, a guide to business life with a twist: it’s written as a manga, a Japanese-style comic book. Before you scoff, believe me when I tell you, this is not a book for kids!

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    Change Your Life, Change Your Career

    Let me quickly clear something up: neither of these books is about changing from one job to another. You’ll find no tips on building the perfect resume, no how-tos on dressing for an interview, and nothing about getting the most our of monster.com.

    Instead, these books are about changing your career – even if you stay in the same job. What that means is the focus is on you as a person, not the mechanics of your working life.

    Escape from Corporate American cover
      Escape from Corporate America is, as you’d probably imagine, the more straightforward of the two. The book begins with a look at what’s wrong with the typical American corporate job – the frustrating lack of control many workers feel, the soul-deadening demand for conformity, the feeling of “going through the paces” year in and year out – and in the end, having nothing you can point to that says “I made a difference”.

      Skillings points to recent surveys that show 50% of Americans are dissatisfied with their jobs – and almost all American workers fantasize about leaving. Why do we do it? Why don’t we stick our heads into our boss’ office, scream “I’ve had all I can take and I’m not going to take it anymore!” and storm out?

      It’s tempting to say “fear”, and I’m sure that plays a part in it, but I think a more realistic answer is “inertia” – the tendency of objects (and people) in motion to remain moving along the same path until an outside force acts on them. Skillings’ book aims to be that “outside force”.

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      Skilling’s talked with hundreds of people – corporate workers as well as successful “corporate escape artists” – about their experiences in and out of the corporate world, and compiled their responses, along with her own experiences and the latest research, into a guide to career satisfaction. The second part of her book offers the pros and cons of a variety of alternatives: from going to work for a company that “gets it”, starting your own business, to becoming a teacher, fighting the good fight at a non-profit, or launching a creative career.

      But more importantly, she offers a set of exercises in self-exploration, walking you through the process not of finding a new job but of finding the real you – figuring out your strengths, your preferences, and your values and matching them to a career that will give you the room you need to grow as a person.

      20090625-bunko-cover
        The Adventures of Johnny Bunko is also about figuring out and playing to your strengths. Poor Johnny Bunko is Everyman (or Everywoman), trapped in a job that he neither enjoys nor is all that good at. Then he comes into possession of a set of magical chopsticks – stay with me here! – that, when opened, call forth a magical career advisor who offers a set of six lessons.

        It’s lighthearted and silly – but then again, the problem Pink is trying to help you deal with is the deadly seriousness that traps so many of us into dead-end jobs we don’t enjoy and don’t see how to get out of.

        It’s a short read, so I won’t rehearse all six lessons here, but let me focus on the first two by way of introduction. When we meet our hero, he’s a low-level accountant at a company that does… what, we don’t know. He is a practical man with a practical job at a practical company, following “The Plan” laid out for him by his father, his career counselors, his employers – and it’s killing him.

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        Lesson #1: There is no plan.

        Too many of us get stuck because we had it all worked out years ago – college, starter job, pay our dues, a couple of promotions, maybe a move to a bigger company, and, at some point, a comfortable perch in a corner office where the “good stuff” happens.

        It’s a good plan, from a project management perspective; not so good for life, though. It assumes, for one thing, that we will remain the same person, with the same drives and the same ambitions, forever. It also assumes that when the time comes, the opportunity will present itself.

        Those killer assumptions blind us to all the other opportunities that are constantly presenting themselves – as well as the ones we have to hunt out ourselves.

        And when we hit a snag, when The Plan fails to come to fruition, we turn inwards, looking for the things we can fix in ourselves to make us more promotable, more desirable as a job candidate, more well-suited to The Plan. We become entrapped in a never-ending cycle of rooting out weaknesses.

        Lesson #2: Think strengths, not weaknesses.

        For one reason or another, all of us are better at some things than others – and find more satisfaction in some things than others. A life spent ignoring our strengths so we can “better ourselves” by improving in those areas where we’re weakest is no life at all – it’s a one-way ticket to perpetual dissatisfaction with who we are.

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        This doesn’t mean that if you’re a slob, say, everyone around you should just get used to it so you can focus on refining your brilliant wit. What it means is that you pay attention to those things only inasmuch as they affect your ability to function, while focusing on expanding the scope and strength of the things you’re best at. It means spending your time and energy to improve in those area where improvement itself is satisfying, where the return on your investment will be greatest, and where you are most likely to be able to make a mark in the world.

        Why waste your efforts on improving your weakest skills only to achieve mediocrity?

        Stop What You’re Doing and Read These Books

        Given the statistics, chances are you need to hear what Skillings and Pink have to say. Even if you’re satisfied with where you’re at right now, read them for tomorrow – you never know when you’re going to hit a wall and find yourself floundering.

        Neither of these books are very expensive: I picked up both in paperback for about $10 US each from Amazon. Escape from Corporate America is slightly better-suited for professionals, people with several years of experience in the corporate world under their belt (although my corporate years are almost a decade behind me and I still found a lot of value in the book). The Adventures of Johnny Bunko might appeal slightly more to younger people in more creative fields – or who wish they were in more creative fields. But both have a lot to offer to anyone, regardless of your age or current career.

        Get them and read them, and let your mind absorb what they have to say. You don’t have to run out and change careers tomorrow – in fact, Skillings is pretty adamant that the only way to fly is with careful planning – but the change in perspective will do you a world of good. And once that ball starts rolling, once that outside force changes your path, there’s no going back – the next steps will come to you, inevitably.

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        Last Updated on July 17, 2019

        The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

        The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

        What happens in our heads when we set goals?

        Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

        Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

        According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

        Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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        Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

        Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

        The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

        Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

        So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

        Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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        One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

        Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

        Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

        The Neurology of Ownership

        Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

        In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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        But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

        This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

        Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

        The Upshot for Goal-Setters

        So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

        On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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        It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

        On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

        But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

        More About Goals Setting

        Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

        Reference

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