Blog about Career change, Career management and Workplace performance. This blog explores a lot of the main factors involved in career change, but on reflection we've never explored what may be the most important factor of all.
At The Career Psychologist we believe that understanding yourself is essential for career success, whether it’s succeeding as a leader, making a career change, planning your next position, or the next stage your career. Equally, our clients want more from their careers than ‘career change’. They want meaning, fulfilment and to flourish and thrive in what they do.
Two of the best ways to understand yourself are through understanding your values, and your strengths. These are different dimensions which can be a source of confusion, as the differences between them are subtle. So what’s the difference between a value and a strength – and why does it matter?
Our values are our compass, they are our ‘chosen life directions’ in the world. They can be used to guide our actions and decisions and can help us to move forwards in the face of difficult thoughts, feelings and sensations – including when we are feeling stuck in our careers. The key point about values is that they are what we consciously choose our lives to be about. Our values are unique to us individually and are always freely chosen by ourselves. See here for our blog post on values.
Values are qualities of action and ‘show us the way we want to proceed in the world’. A key question about your values is ‘what do you choose to stand for in the world going forwards from here?’.
It is also important to know our strengths so that we can build on and develop them further in our careers. Rather than being freely chosen like values, strengths are more of a reflection of our brain development, skills and / or personality to date. Confusingly, there are two main schools of thought about strengths: ‘Character Strengths’ (“a pre-existing capacity for a particular way of behaving, thinking, or feeling that is authentic and energizing to the user, and enables optimal functioning, development and performance” (Linley, 2008)); and ‘Talent Strengths’ (which focus more on the skills that you have already developed).
Seligman’s ‘VIA’ character strengths assessment identifies 24 character strengths, you can see more on this chart. Character strengths are labels we might use to describe qualities about ourselves. A key question on your character strengths is ‘what’s (already) best about who you are and how can you build on this in the future?’.
CliftonStrengths (formerly StrengthsFinder 2.0) is a tool to identify 34 Talent Strengths- skills we have already developed. A key question would be ‘What’s best about what you (already) do at work?’
Why does it matter?
If we want greater meaning, purpose and satisfaction in our working lives, we need to play to our character strengths and to understand and commit to living more according to our values.
Unlike character strengths and values, our personality, talents and skills don’t always evoke feelings of energy, joy or authenticity (for example I am very talented and skilled at completing spreadsheets because I can pay attention to detail, but this activity doesn’t bring me any joy or satisfaction, not least because my personality type likes working with people!).
Focusing on our values and character strengths is vitally important to our wellbeing and our sense of being our best selves: by building our careers on these foundations, we can flourish and thrive in our careers and our work, and bring our unique contributions into the world.
If you’d like to discuss your ‘values’ versus your ‘character strengths’, please get in touch.
Have you ever felt like you weren’t good enough in some way – that you were too fat; too thin; too loud; too quiet; too boring; too weird, not smart enough or too clever by half? That in some way you just weren’t quite as you should be? That you didn’t quite fit in?
A few years ago, I went to a workshop run by Professor Kelly Wilson. He asked audience members to raise a hand if we ever felt that in some way we weren’t quite good enough. Everyone in the room raised a hand. I still remember the feeling of looking around the room and realising that we all felt the same way – we all believed that in some way we weren’t good enough.
What happens when you organise your life around the belief that you aren’t quite good enough?
don’t apply for a job you would love because you don’t feel you are good enough to get it
don’t reach out to someone you admire and ask if they would be your mentor
don’t ask a question when something is unclear to you because you don’t want to look stupid?
stay in a job you hate because you feel sure you would fail miserably at something new?
work long hours trying to get everything perfect, so no one can possibly criticise you?
What would happen in your career, perhaps even your life, if you could chose to move forwards with purpose, even in the presence of the voice that says, ‘You aren’t smart enough to do this?’; ‘You don’t know enough’; ‘You don’t deserve this’ or ‘Everyone will judge you’?
Some time ago I interviewed Kelly (you can watch the interview below). In our discussion, Kelly talks with vulnerability and courage about the slow and painful transition from organising his life around the belief that he was ‘not fit for the world’ to creating a life that is about growth and community and service.
Kelly talks about the journey from feeling desperately suicidal every day to now being a professor of psychology who tries to provide some service to the world. It is hard to imagine a more impressive career pivot than this, from alcoholic, drug addict to psychology professor.
However, it is important to note that this is not a story of overnight success. This was a painfully hard journey. Each time that Kelly took a step towards his goal of becoming a college professor, the voice that said ‘you don’t belong here’ was insistent. He learnt to move forwards anyway. But not in a harsh, ‘Just do it!’ way, instead turning towards those feelings with deep kindness.
‘In this very moment, will you accept the sad and the sweet, hold lightly stories about what is possible, and be the author of a life that has meaning and purpose for you, turning in kindness back to that life when you find yourself moving away from it?’
What if, each time your ‘I am not good enough’ story shows up, you turn towards yourself with kindness and then take a gentle but bold step towards what really matters to you? What would you do differently?
What small but courageous step would you take today?
Shaun McKeown is a Paralympian silver medal-winning cyclist. Immediately following his extraordinary achievement in the London 2012 Paralympics and buoyed by his victory he was ready to commit to more training and daring to dream of Rio and the possibility of doing even better than silver.
Gold medals were the currency of success
By 2014, and after many fraught meetings with his coaching team, he no longer felt valued and decided to retire. Shaun felt the coaching setup had become centred around winning at whatever cost, with gold medals the only currency of success. He was not alone. Indeed, the extent of the post-2012 fallout recently came to light in a revealing BBC documentary “Britain’s cycling superheroes the price of success?”
Unfortunately, Shaun’s coaching support did not extend to assisting him with the transition from cycling into a new career. So, after spending a few years prodding and poking in a few areas that he thought might lead to getting his career going in a good direction, he found himself working in a bike shop; in a role he found unfulfilling; not going anywhere quickly.
In late 2017 he took a decision to get some coaching and started The Career Psychologist “Getting Unstuck” programme. The image below was drawn by Shaun in his first coaching session to represent how he felt after searching for career direction over three years. Shaun explained:
“Coming from a pressured, results driven environment, which suited some areas of my personality and had given me amazing life experiences, I was now in a different world”.
The picture he drew illustrated how he felt. He knew there were new career directions on the other side of the wall but he couldn’t see them. He needed to smash through the wall yet every time he tried, it grew bigger, taller and thicker; he was expending all his mental and emotional energy trying to smash down an insurmountable barrier. He felt frustrated and stuck.
So, rather than try to smash through it, Shaun used his coaching sessions to explore the bricks in his wall.
For example, one of his bricks was the thought “I need to have a ‘proper’ career to replace professional cycling with something equally significant”. This seemed to make sense for him as it pushed him to strive for something meaningful. But when he reflected on this idea he realised this rigid way of thinking was not working to his advantage. So, rather than look for something to replace his silver medal winning Olympic career, Shaun started to think more about what mattered to him in life; his transferable skills, values, strengths, personal ambitions, passions, and career options he might enjoy:
“It was a refreshing process. Looking at my strengths was a real ‘eye opener’ and I could see how they linked really well to the personal values that I wanted to live by. I could ask myself what environment I wanted to place myself in and the kind of activities I wanted to be involved in.
By the end of the process I had evaluated where I was and what I had achieved, what my values where and how I wanted to apply them. I was also able to put what I was doing in a different context. When I stepped back and took in the bigger picture, I realised that I enjoyed working in a relaxed atmosphere, with colleagues who have now become friends, and customers who value my advice. I was giving importance to the elements that would allow me to enjoy and thrive in my future working environment.”
What is your currency of success?
Does Shaun’s drawing seem familiar to you? Although Shaun’s previous life as an Olympian was extraordinary, his experience of struggling with a change of career is typical of many. Similar ‘burnout’ cultures, of pushing employees to deliver until they can’t give any more, exist in many workplaces. Is this something that you recognise?
Shaun used the psychological ‘bricks’ – that had previously held him back – to navigate his career ‘stuckness’ by developing a more psychologically agile and playful way of thinking about his current situation. The more he explored his options, the less the wall seemed to matter. He came to understand that his ‘currency of success’ was not at all about gold medals.
Shaun still works in the bike shop –the same workplace that he had previously found frustrating and dull – and enjoys helping people, sharing his expertise and staying connected with the sport he loves. Doing the same work has more meaning for him today than it used to. He has also embarked upon a portfolio career, which involves splitting his time and skills between more than one setting, in order to expand upon his wide range of interests; on his own terms.
Today, Shaun’s ‘currency of success’ is the fulfillment he finds through writing, exploring his interest in nature photography, and helping others. He wanted to share this photograph of a cycling route he often takes and which represents the journey he is on today. What does it say to you?
Mick Darby is a coaching psychologist at The Career Psychologist.
If you’d like to discuss your currency of success, or explore the bricks in your wall, please get in touch.
Right from the start, the ACT model made sense to me. It made so many things clearer in my head.
Apart from the bit about values…
That bit left me confused, but I let it go, thinking it would all work out.
But it never did. I still get stuck on values. My mind loves the idea that I have a set of values, and it jumps at the chance to know EXACTLY what I SHOULD be doing. Finally!
Next thing I know I’m treating values like they are a real thing. I conflate values (how I do things) with decisions (what I do). I mix up values (how I want to be) with my own needs. I look to values to tell me what the ‘right’ answer is, and when I get stuck, I blame values conflicts.
I don’t think it’s just me. Values are brilliant for bringing vitality and purpose to life, especially when options are limited. But in coaching we are often dealing with people with too many choices. Values can add to this sense of overwhelm, at least in my experience.
Yet at the same time, I feel like values have changed my life. They just do it in a way which is really subtle and which sometimes slips through my grasp.
How I understand values, when I understand values
The other day my two-year old daughter told me her name was ‘Orla Archer’ and I simply burst with pride. The words caught in my heart. Orla Archer.
Up to the age of about 7 or 8 I was called Robert Davies. Then my Step Dad arrived, married my Mum and on the day of the wedding they asked me whether I wanted to be called Robert Davies or Robert Archer. I was never in any doubt.
Since then I’ve always been proud of that name, but til now I’ve never really thought about why. Now I think it was all about choices. I chose the name for a start, but from roughly that time onwards I began to choose other things. I chose the best stuff; like sport, The Beatles and Liverpool FC. And I chose organisation, determination, anger and softness. I became extremely self-reliant.
As Robert Davies I’d never really chosen anything for myself; I was pushed back into survival mode so often. But from ‘Archer’ onwards, I started to choose things.
Crucially, I didn’t state in advance what my values were. If anyone had asked me whether I was ‘living my values’ I’d not have had a clue. And it certainly didn’t make my life any easier.
But looking back, this choosing seems like the beginning of the essential ‘Archer-ness’ that feels like the best of me, even today.
This is how I understand values.
Values help with hard choices
Values, therefore, are different from decisions, and from ethics and morals. With values it is the choice that is key.
This reminds me of my favourite all-time talk on values by Ruth Chang. Chang argues that values are about ‘hard choices’, where there is no right answer.
It’s tough when there’s no right answers! But at the same time it is liberating, because this is our one chance in life to properly choose stuff….
Dealing with Values Conflicts
This series of posts was originally inspired by an enquiry from a reader called Ryan, so let’s bring this back to his question:
In this post, I reflect that I still get stuck on values, but I do better when I treat them as simply moment to moment choices, especially applied to hard choices.
My experience of ‘enoughing’ my values has been that if you string enough enoughs together you start to feel differently about Your Self.
I call this the My Way test. At some point in my career change, when I had finally begun to take tough decisions and choosing my response to hard choices, the words of My Way moved from some cheesy song I occasionally massacred after too much wine, to something that started sending shivers up my spine when out running:
But through it all, when there was doubt
I ate it up and spit it out
I faced it all and I stood tall
And did it my way
Ryan, many of the people we work with at The Career Psychologist are in exactly the situation you describe. They feel stuck in a job they hate. They have also often made a number of career decisions that have turned out badly and have lost trust in their capacity to make wise career decisions.
It is even harder when those career decisions impact on the people you love.
This conflict between your desire to support your family and your need for a fulfilling career is painful. It also means that you need to be very strategic in developing your plan for the next step in your career. So that the next move is more likely to be successful. There are lots of resources on this site to help you think about how to move forwards with care, and of course Rob’s last post was written from precisely this perspective. However, it is likely to take some time to come to a wise decision.
Whilst you are working out your best next step, you will probably have to continue to do something hard (a job you hate) because you love your family. It may be that you have to do this for a number of years. There is a practical risk in this. It would be easy to become irritable with your family and cranky and disinterested with colleagues at work. If this happens, you lose twice. Not only are you spending part of your life doing work you hate, you also aren’t being the person you want to be.
If your sacrifice isn’t to be wasted, then you need to do two things at the same time. Firstly, you need to develop a sound strategy for improving your work situation in the long term. Secondly, at the very same time, you need to make peace with your life as it is in this moment. So that you can then show up as the person you want to be with the people who matter to you.
Professor Kelly Wilson (one of the originators of ACT) wrote a post about the challenge of making peace with life as it is rather than as you want it to be, here is what he said:
“We humans are always bumming out because we are not enough or because we do not have enough. We think enough is a thing and if we can just get that thing “enough” then we will finally be OK.
But notice how elusive “enough” is. Notice how many things we have chased in our lives thinking… “Once I get this! Then I will be OK”. But as soon as we get “this” it turns out that we need the next thing and the next thing…endlessly. Always in the midst of too much and not enough.
And if all that were not enough, we have a world full of people out there telling us what we ought to have. Things that promise to make us or to give us… enough!
Here is the good news.
Enough can be a verb. Human beings, through the amazing miracle of verbal behavior can achieve a state of perfect enoughness by declaration. They can “enough” the very moment they are inhabiting.
That moment, where you declare peace with the moment you are, in is a moment of freedom; of liberation, where you can choose.
No “have to” no “must”.
Albert Camus’s brilliant retelling of The Myth of Sisyphus is an example of how to declare peace with the moment you are in.
Sisyphus was punished by the gods for some slight. The gods gave him what they assumed would be the ultimate punishment. Sisyphus would be condemned to an eternity in which he would push a stone of such enormity up a mountain, requiring every ounce of his strength. But, upon reaching the top, the stone would roll again to the bottom, and, up he would go again.
But Sisyphus beats the gods. How? He claims his own fate. He decided that the rock is his to push. He says ‘Yes’ to the task. He embraces it.”
“All Sisyphus’ silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him.”
“I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe, henceforth without a master, seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night–filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Ryan, I think this is the question you are confronting. Can you give energy to improving your work situation in the long term whilst also making peace with your life as it is in this moment? Can you decide, like Sisyphus, that this moment, as difficult as it is, is enough?
And, from that stance, can you also repeatedly try to show up as the best father, partner and work colleague that you can?
‘In this very moment, will you accept the sad and the sweet, hold lightly stories about what is possible, and be the author of a life that has meaning and purpose for you, turning in kindness back to that life when you find yourself moving away from it?’
For more on Kelly Wilson’s work, take a look at this website: http://onelifellc.com/
my heart ached for you when I read your email, and your question about competing values struck a chord for me personally. Like all good questions, they provoke something in others, and I feel like you’ve helped me to reflect on values conflicts in my own life.
So here’s my own personal take on your questions – in two parts. Don’t take this as advice per se – we’d need a more in-depth discussion for that. These are only my personal reflections, but I hope you find some of it useful in turn.
My own experience of being trapped in a job I hated was that I got trapped inside my own head, like this:
Step 1 Video 5 How the Mind Discounts Alternative Careers - YouTube
Unlike me, you’ve already been brave enough to change roles a few times.
But I’m wondering whether these changes have ever been really strategic? Have they been organised around the things you want, or around the stuff you don’t want? Does your current role feel like you have defaulted to something, rather than chosen it?
If so, you must address this first. You must choose, even if that means choosing to stay where you are for the sake of your family.
ACT is great, and very useful in career change, but it is especially great for problems that aren’t really problems to be solved. This is largely a problem to solve.
So it felt to me like you have to somehow make a decision – and use ACT as part of this process (that’s part 2).
The Need for a Good Decision
You already know there’s no ‘right’ decision. All of your options involve compromises. But you can make a good decision.
A good decision can still go horribly wrong, but it will de-risk those chances considerably.
On a bad day a good decision feels like you took the least-worst option. On a good day, a good decision feels like you’ve permanently stacked the odds in your favour.
And without a decision, it is harder to be more mindful and focused on one’s current life. You’ll always be wondering about the alternatives. And then values are more likely to appear as though they depend on external forces, rather than our own choices.
So, how? Funny you should ask, as in our experience there are…
5 Key Stages (of a Good Decision)
Some of these stages might take 5 minutes, some may take 5 months. But each is critical to the process of getting unstuck.
Step 1 – Understand your Stuckness
Your mind will be impatient to press on with the process. But try not to.
You may well be feeling exhausted – and so busy that it is hard to think. It may take some time for the world to stop spinning.
See if you can find some time for reflection. Take a long weekend. Try to get some distance (physical and mental) from your situation. In your case you’ve been stuck a few times. What experiences in your life may help explain this?
Step 2 – Identify your Decision Criteria
Should you quit and start your own gig? Stay put for the sake of your family? I don’t know. You don’t know. No one can know, because we haven’t specified what ‘good’ looks like for you.
Imagine you were buying a house. You can’t visit every house in the world, so you need a set of criteria to help you narrow the list before you start visiting.
Step 2 Video 1 Why Define Decision Criteria? - YouTube
Your list of criteria will include lots of stuff, and some of it will conflict. Somehow when we buy a house we see this as normal – it’s all a tradeoff. Career choices are just the same. Not all of your criteria will point conveniently in the same direction. That’s normal, too.
But sometimes our minds want to punish us for our lack of consistency.
Step 3 – Identify your Options
Humans make decisions based on comparisons with other options. So without fully understanding your options you cannot make a good decision. For all you know your ideal job could be out there, but you’ve never heard of it.
Therefore, you need to dedicate at least some time to understanding what your options are. This means a period of creative thinking, generating as many ideas as you can think of.
Of the options you know about, like starting your own business, bring them to life by specifying exactly what type of business and what your role in it would be.
Step 4 – Make a Decision
Now everything gets real. You need to get out of your mind and make some real-life experiments. But where to start? Most people need to whittle down their options first.
One helpful way of doing that is to score all of your options against all of your criteria. This isn’t perfect, but it’s definitely rigorous.
Once you’ve scored all your options, get rid of the options that score badly. As you narrow your options you can spend more time researching the options that remain. Eventually, most people are left with one or two options to take forward, so they can…
Step 5 – Make a Plan and Get into Action
Now it’s all about getting out of your mind and into your life. You can’t make a good decision in your mind, you’ll have to get out there and test it.
So you’ll need a smart plan to help you articulate your goal and then get moving:
As you know however, the plan is one thing but reality will look more like this:
So you will need a support team around you. And you will need a plan to manage your risks. That’s a whole other post, but I suspect you’re already good at this bit.
Does it work?
This is a long post, so that’s the question I’d be asking by now.
I guess it depends on what you mean by ‘work’.
Does life get easier when you make a decision and get out of your mind and into your life? Undoubtedly not. It may even get harder.
But I think most people feel that life somehow gets more meaningful and satisfying. So in my view, that’s a ‘yes’.
Rachel and I recently got a brilliant email from a reader who is stuck in his job and struggling to deal with what he calls competing values.
“Supporting my family is a very strong value for me. I managed to find a job that is secure and pays very well, but the problem is that I’m utterly miserable every single day I go to work.”
We’ve heard this kind of story so many times at The Career Psychologist. So many people feel stuck in this way…Ryan is brave though, and has tried to solve the issues many times before:
“This is the third career move for me; each time I was hoping I would enjoy the next place more, but I hate every place I work with increasing dislike.
I understand providing for your family is more than just financial, but I hate the thought of uprooting them a fourth time and moving for potentially yet another job I dislike. My family is happy where we are (but I literally feel like I’m dying inside).”
“My family is happy…but I literally feel like I’m dying inside.”
Try not to gloss over those words too quickly. How would it be to feel like that, yet at the same time feel that you had no choice but to suck it up?
Ryan goes on:
“My other values are adventure, exploration, innovation…I have taken on hobbies to satisfy these values, but there are only so many hours in the day… I keep staring at my job, and feeling like I need to make a change…I’m sure my wife is thinking “oh not again.”
Ryan’s dilemma becomes really acute when he starts to plan for change:
“I really want to throw caution to the wind, and start my own gig up. One would think that I’d be able to start actively planning and preparing for my own company….. but I know I will make less money and it will be a bigger time commitment, which goes against the value of being there for my family. Thus I resign myself to not trying.”
Finally, Ryan asks, how does ACT help deal with these situations where values seem to conflict and actually contribute to stuckness?
“I love ACT, and believe in it strongly. …but value conflicts are something worth exploring if you haven’t already. I just can’t seem to get beyond this problem.”
So this was such a powerful and essential question, I wanted to get others’ perspective on this.
What should Ryan do? How can ACT help Ryan deal with these values conflicts?
If you have any thoughts please comment below the line and in about a week’s time I will also offer my own thoughts.
Let’s see if 2018 can be a happier new year for Ryan – and what must be millions like him.
At The Career Psychologist we know that nearly all of our clients have feelings of anxiety around their careers, and also that fear of change can keep many of us trapped in unfulfilling jobs. It is classic career paralysis.
Recognise what is happening. Start by paying attention to your thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations. They might be a big soup of difficult experiences, but little by little we can learn to separate them out from each other. Start to put labels to your experience, such as noticing that there is a feeling of anxiety present at this moment. Naming it also helps to see it for what it is, and to put some distance between you and the thought, feeling or sensation, such as ‘I am aware that there is a feeling of anxiety present at this moment’. This helps us to step back from the difficult emotions and create some space around the intense feelings so that we don’t get so caught up in them.
Pay attention to how often the anxious thoughts, feelings and sensations are present. All emotions serve a purpose and can give us valuable insights into our situation. If the difficult emotions are there a lot of the time and interfering with our ability to sleep, work or live our normal lives, it can be a sign that you need to seek professional help from a Cognitive Behaviour Therapist, community mental health service (search the internet for ‘IAPT’ plus your town if you are in the UK), or a General Practitioner. If your symptoms are not too severe then there is a lot of self-help that you can do to help to manage your symptoms outlined below.
Visualise your thoughts as leaves on a stream. We’ve created a short mindfulness practice for you to listen to in a quiet moment where you can learn to mentally place your thoughts on leaves and watch them flow downstream. This is a skill that can bring some space to the intense feelings and help you to refocus on taking wise action.
Call to mind all the resources which can help you. What resources do you have inside yourself, in other people, and in the world that can help you at this time? Our mindfulness practice includes a visualisation exercise on the resources you have to support you during your career change.
Take wise action. What can you do right now that would be helpful and kind to yourself? When you are feeling a lot of anxiety symptoms, it’s important to slow things down and to focus on doing one thing at a time with your full attention. Paying attention to a conversation with another person, relaxing and really enjoying a bath or a shower, doing gentle stretching such as yoga, listening to a piece of music, looking at a nature scene or being outdoors can all help.
If you notice your mind slipping into thoughts about the past or future then kindly but firmly bring your attention to what you want to focus on, and do this repeatedly. When your mind is feeling less scattered, ask yourself what small step can you take today towards improving your working life? Do it, and get a sense of agency as you little by little move forwards in your career.
If you want to know more about The Career Psychologist and how we help people to get unstuck, contact us today. We’d love to hear from you.
Florencio Avalos had just escaped from a dark, sweltering hole in which he must have assumed he would die. But now he had a chance for life, and his response was salutary:
“I’ve been buried for 40 years of my life. The truth is I’m going to be living more, along with my wife and daughters”.
Death sheds light on what’s important about life. Just as sorrow deepens our capacity for joy, we need death to remind us to live.
When I tried to imagine what I would want to do in this situation I realised I would worry less about happiness or stress or image, and more about life. More work, better work, more attention to friends, more present with clients, try more, fail more, live more. Less TV.
Less social media.
Yet in the humdrum of daily routine it’s easy to wander through our days largely on autopilot. We don’t notice the autumn trees. How we disconnect from others over time. How our jobs, roles, identities can steal time from us.
“Welcome to life.”
Those were the words uttered to each miner by the Chilean President Sebastián Piñera, as they arrived at the top of the mine shaft in the narrow and battered pod that hauled them.
How Behaviour Analysis Can Help With Stuck Patterns…. And Get Us Unstuck More Quickly
Many of our career coaching clients are drawn towards ACT because of its focus on values and connecting to what matters. However, some are surprised to learn of its roots in behaviour analysis. Isn’t that something to do with salivating dogs? Yes, and it is a simple way of understanding human behaviour, especially the roots of ‘stuck’ patterns of behaviour.
Here’s the 5 minute guide…
The key insight from behaviour analysis:
If an event (Antecedent) leads to a Behaviour whose immediate Consequence is less negative than alternatives, the chain is strengthened.
This is useful for:
People who are stuck, going round in circles or deep in career paralysis.
Brief Example COMPLETELY Unrelated to Me
Let’s imagine that a certain someone always feels anxious before going to a social event like a party. This certain someone fears being judged and found wanting by those around them.
Let’s call ‘being asked to go to a party’ the antecedent…
Now, this certain someone doesn’t want to be judged and found wanting at a party, so instead decides to watch The Wire on boxset. This is the behaviour. The behaviour also sometimes involves ice cream, another behaviour.
This then leads to the consequence.
In this case the consequence is relief – no more anxiety about being found wanting – and excitement at watching The Wire, the greatest boxset of all-time. And there’s ice cream.
This then reinforces the behaviour of the certain someone, and the chain is made stronger.
How does behavioural analysis apply to career paralysis?
Duncan had been experiencing career paralysis for a few years. His work in finance brought acute feelings of meaninglessness. At the end of the week he consoled himself by getting very drunk. This was reinforcing because 1) he had a great time with his friends and 2) he forgot all about his job. So the chain got stronger.
The problem was Duncan was not resolving the problem, only anaesthetising himself. As the chain continued to strengthen he also started to drink during the week, especially if he’d had a bad day.
In the short term this meant he would solider on in his meaningless job whilst ‘living for the weekend’. In the long term this pattern was reinforcing his stuckness, eroding his spirit, and making him ill.
Why do we avoid problems we really need to fix?
By viewing stuck patterns through the lens of behaviour analysis, people can begin to see how avoidance behaviours provide immediate reinforcement that makes the chain stronger.
Our client Mia had been feeling stuck in her law career for over 5 years. She’d seen many coaches in her time but always with the same pattern: initial hope and excitement, followed by lots of research and analysis, but then slowly tailing away. This she puts down to her being ‘lazy’ (!)
How does this work out under behaviour analysis?
Mia feels like a ‘cog in a machine’ at work. Her feelings are most acute when she reads articles about people working for themselves, and when she talks to her friend Katherine who has loads of autonomy as a freelance graphic designer.
Mia’s behavioural pattern then is to research alternative careers – from yoga teacher to charity worker and in-house lawyer. This phase feels rich with possibility – highly reinforcing.
However, as she then moves into analysis mode, she begins to find problems with each option…. Yoga teacher? No pension. Charity sector? Badly paid and badly run. In-house lawyer? Same lack of autonomy.
Each option is analysed and rejected….
The consequence is that she begins to experience acute disappointment and loss of hope. These feelings then act as another antecedent, whereby she plunges herself back into her work, trying to forget how miserable she feels.
If you feel stuck, try this:
If any of this resonates and you find yourself getting stuck in weird behavioural loops that don’t serve you, try teasing out the antecedent from the behaviour and then exploring the consequences of that behaviour (both short and long term).
Does understanding the pattern in behavioural terms help you make sense of seemingly ingrained patterns of behaviour that are keeping you stuck?
What changes could you make to the behaviour to break this pattern?