Motion vs. Meaning in Your Career

[Update: Turns out, this was neither the intro or the title used for the book.]

So I dropped a personal career bombshell last week. After five years of focusing almost exclusively on the success of new grads, I’m not only expanding to help executive women, I’m incorporating a dose of spirituality in the mix. (That’s really not as frightening as it sounds.) As I was thinking about how to explain this evolution, I thought I would share a draft of the intro for my next book, tentatively titled Om the Job: A Path to Less Motion and More Meaning in Your Career. I know this is a little longer than a typical blog post, but it’s a good reminder that a your career is a journey – if you stop long enough to enjoy the ride.

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At the beginning of my career, I showed up, followed up, wore the right suits, and said the right things. In return for sticking to the rules, I tripled my salary just eight years out of college. But despite being on what everyone considered to be “the right track,” I often found myself in a state of extreme professional anxiety.

On one hand, I was constantly trying to get to that elusive next level – always wishing and reaching for more, e.g. more success, more clients, more money and, of course, I wanted it all immediately. At the same time, I was grossly unimpressed with the sacrifices required achieve those things. I couldn’t fathom extended absences from my family (at a business dinner once I was horrified to learn it was my boss’ 16th consecutive night away from home) and I hated the subtle, yet omnipresent competition among my colleagues for sales and plum assignments.

I certainly wasn’t looking to lean out of my career, but the view from the corner office wasn’t so hot either – at least not at the price my colleagues were paying for it. So… I drifted along for a few of my prime earning years, feeling like a passenger in my own life. The truly maddening part was I still had tons of ambition, but absolutely no idea where to channel it. I felt capable of much more than I was doing and – even though I couldn’t define exactly what “success” meant for me – I was still routinely frustrated that, whatever it was, it wasn’t happening fast enough. I was putting enormous pressure on myself to succeed but, even after years of hard work, nothing seemed to be falling in to place.

Why haven’t I achieved more by now? What do I need to do to stand out? Why does everything seem to be working for her and not me? These are the questions that would swim in my head constantly and, since I didn’t have any solid answers, I’d distract myself to avoid thinking about them. (Hello, Facebook!) These distractions only proved to be the white sugar of life, a temporary high followed by a guilty crash and, when the dust settled, the same old questions remained.

So, feeling slightly defeated, I quit my corporate job and went on an ambition detox. I ditched my go-to, can-do business books from Marcus Buckingham and Seth Godin and started following zen warriors like Marianne Williamson, Gabrielle Bernstein, and Kris Carr. I began reading a 1,200-page metaphysical text called A Course in Miracles and making green juice in the morning instead of my beloved coffee. The last straw was when I got serious about yoga and started planning a trip to Kripalu, a holistic health center in the woods of Massachusetts.

My stiff-suited, hyper-caffinated friends rebelled.

Ugh Emily, when did you become a hippie,” they’d say – as if I’d decided to live in an abandoned school bus. But something truly amazing was happening. Suddenly, life wasn’t about everything I’d been killing myself to achieve “someday”… it was the moments right in front of me I had been too busy to notice. When I gave up my constant brooding about how to manipulate the future, I opened up a ton of mental bandwidth to fully live in the present. This simple act shifted my perspective in such an extraordinary way that it gave me something I never (and I mean never) thought I could achieve: a quiet mind.

Until then, inner peace was a throwaway buzzword for tree-huggers, far removed from the cycle of overdrive and burnout I called life. Drama-filled reality shows and the deluge of self-centeredness, angst, cynicism, insecurities, and deadlines of the world? That I knew. Feeling centered? Not so much. Still, when I decided to consciously turn the dial inward and focus on what I already had versus constantly feeling frustrated over what I didn’t, it was without question the most profound epiphany I’d ever experienced. I was still deeply committed to my career, but I was willing to accept that “fulfillment” wasn’t the result of it.

And then the survey responses came in.

As I poured through the data from more than 750 women executives across multiple industries and the thousands of comments they generated, one thing became crystal clear. These women didn’t want to climb the ladder in fierce stilettos, pound their fists on the table and announce their arrival at the top. What they wanted most was meaning and purpose in the work they were already doing. It was one of those moments where the proverbial clouds parted. “Of course,” I thought. This was my search too. At that point I knew I had to carry what I was learning about inside-out success to women who, like me, were rushing through each day, dreaming about tomorrow, and ultimately unsatisfied with both.

But there was one tiny problem.

Even though I was totally diggin’ my new perspective in a head-smacking why-didn’t-anyone-tell-me-this-before kind of way, I’d be lying if I said I found it easy to immediately translate the principles of zen to my career. For starters, how was I supposed to “let go of the future” and stay driven at the same time? How could I “forgive” a boss who would drive even the Dalai Lama bat shit crazy? How could I “show love” at work without being a total doormat and how was I possibly supposed to keep my “high-level energy flowing” when I was constantly surrounded by low-energy people? I mean, of course it’s easy to feel calm rockn some vinyasa with fellow nutty nut lovers – but I was used to spending 9-hours a day in a building where the usual elevator chat was what floor is serving doughnuts and how close it is to Friday.

Still, the more I truly started to use the tools outlined in this book, the more the answers started to reveal themselves. Over time I realized I wasn’t as stressed about the “if onlys” that used to make me nuts before (e.g. If only I had that job, lost 10 pounds, knew that person, or lived in that city then life would be fabulous). If I was getting frustrated with a person or situation, I would ask myself, “What is my ultimate intention here?” and react accordingly. Also, if something didn’t work out the way I wanted, I was able to release it and learn from it versus obsessing over how to “fix” it. By gently allowing my surrendering, soul-searching right brain to coexist with my anal, ladder-climbing left brain, I discovered what it meant to “be the faucet and not the water.” In other words, by giving up my innate desire to control everything from relationships to my future, I started to allow great things to happen through me from a more inspired place.

That’s what it means to be seriously empowered.

Stay with me here. Because while this book does touch on spirituality, it doesn’t sink to the deep end of the New Age pool. This is a field guide for women leaders who may never have visited the self-help aisle at Barnes & Noble, but are curious about how to use the very real practice of mind and body training to achieve a new level of career success. One that isn’t based on how high you go, but how well you live and the lives you touch along the way. Less motion. More meaning. No waiting until “tomorrow” to release your inner superstar and and no more feeling like you have to choose between a great career and a great life. (That’s a sucker’s choice anyway since they’re the same thing.)

As with any lasting change, this will take some work on your end. It will also require a heaping dose of blind faith and perhaps even some willingness to surrender your current definition of “success” but I promise you, at the end of the day, we’re going to drop kick the image of who you think you should be and open the door for who you really are. How will you know when she’s arrived? That’s easy. The fruit of this process is how you feel when it starts to work. Calm. It will be as if your mind dial goes from Level10 monkey brain to Level 4 monk-y brain. That little “e” makes a HUGE difference, right? But that’s the funny thing about success. We tend to think it comes from grand, sweeping acts when really it comes from tiny, focused ones.

In my last book, Effective Immediately: How to Fit In, Stand Out, and Move Up at Your First Real Job, my coauthor Skip Lineberg and I wrote about career momentum through sharpening your skills and doing the right things. Eighty-eight chapters of seemingly “little” actions that collectively result in killer growth and professional development. This time, it’s all about thinking the right things though the same general principle applies: Big changes are the result of small steps in the right direction. My goal is to help you get rid of the head clutter and reconnect with your strong center so you can lead yourself and others from an amazing, authentic place. Fierce stilettos are optional.

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