Have you had situations where you’re doing GREAT work, but these opportunities for growth don’t seem to come your way? Why? The inclination is to say that those people are lucky. That they were in the right place at the right time. That it was possibly “favoritism” by management. That it is other people’s fault.
The truth is that, usually, this is not about other people – it’s about you. At least that was my experience. Of course I’m not perfect, and there are many improvements that I still need to make, but I think there is value in sharing what I have learned over the course of my career thus far.
Previously in my career as a control system engineer, I valued my work. I loved solving problems for customers and I loved doing a great job. I would work late (even pulling all-nighters when I needed to), work weekends and I would always deliver great work on time.
What did it buy me? More work! I was becoming an expert in my field, but I was clearly further cementing myself in the role I occupied. And in terms of career growth, I felt stuck.
In my life, I’ve learned that if nothing changes, nothing changes. Over the past 10 years, I have spent thousands of hours researching personal development, identifying my own weaknesses and self-limiting beliefs and making changes to help me improve and overcome these weaknesses or beliefs.
The changes I’ve made are not always obvious on the exterior – they’re not conversation tricks or hacks for how to get what you need. They are subtle but fundamental shifts in your perspective that lead to different decisions and different attitudes. They are what I call career superpowers. When I’ve put them into practice, the results have been both immediate and reliable. And even though it may seem to others like opportunities have been given to me, I believe they stem from changes I’ve made.
The first step I made that really made a difference for me was to change my relationship with fear. I’m not referring to facing your fear, confronting your fear with aggression or forcing your way through the fear. What I do suggest is that you work to change the way you recognize and perceive fear so that you can politely sidestep it or patiently wait for it to pass.
Have you heard of the concept of the ‘lizard’ or ‘reptilian” brain’? I’m not a neuroscientist, but my layman’s understanding is something like this – the lizard brain is the most primitive part of our brain. It’s the part we share with all animals and controls the basic instincts that have served to keep us alive for hundreds of thousands of years.
When we are confronted with change, when we start to attempt something we haven’t attempted before, when we have uncertainty in a result, this lizard brain steps up to keep us safe. What happens when you confront a lizard? It may pee itself, lose its tail or even run! The same thing can happen when we must face a boss, deliver a big presentation or deal with a challenging customer. If we had tails, surely, they would fall off.
This is the same instinct that kicked in 10,000 years ago when we ran into a bear in the woods -and it was valuable then. But there are no bears in the office. There are just people – most of which are pretty kind and understanding. Simply put, in the office we just need to ignore our lizard brain. When panic strikes, when that fear response kicks in, just realize that it’s the tiny little part of your brain controlling it. Your higher consciousness (aka: the sane mind that got you the opportunity to be in the situation in the first place) knows that what you’re about to say or deliver is your best work. So, don’t let your lizard brain cause you to self-sabotage in an effort to get out. Calling out the fear as your idiot lizard brain in action can help you to take away its power and can empower you to do what you need to do to succeed and grow. Here’s a blog about Beating your Lizard Brain.
Perhaps you don’t think of yourself as afraid of anything at the office. Well – are you ever stressed about work? Where does that stress come from? It comes from inside. And if you’re being honest, that stress normally comes from fear – fear of not delivering on time or failing in one way or another.
The bottom line is that just because you feel something doesn’t mean you have to act on it. Just because a thought enters your mind doesn’t mean it’s true. Fear and the thoughts that arise from it seldom help you in the business world. Instead, take your good ideas forward to create change. Remember – changing yourself is what is going to create the change you’re seeking.
It’s funny – we live our lives and participate in literally BILLIONS of experiences. But we cherry pick 4 or 5 things that we did or that happened to us and we use those to define ourselves. We are an engineer, or an artist, or “not a good cook”, or uninterested in math, etc. But what we say about ourselves – externally or through self-talk – is simply a story. If we picked different events to define ourselves – or even events that haven’t happened yet, but we would like to happen – we change our story. And when we change our story we change both how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us.
Perhaps you consider yourself a runner or a great public speaker. How many times do you have to run before you are considered a runner? How many times do you have to do something before you are that thing? The truth is that you’re a runner the moment before you decide to get up and run and whether you'tr engaging or not, the moment you speak in front of a crowd- you are a public speaker. The story you tell yourself dictates the actions you take.
No one is going to tell you that you are a leader. You tell yourself that story and then you DO. Leaders lead. So, the moment you decide you’re a leader is when you can lead – you only need to give yourself permission; there’s not a certain amount of experience you must have to begin leading. You can change your story now – after all it is your story.
Changing my story required me to take the lead. I saw things in our engineering center that I thought could be done differently or “better” and so I started doing them: organizing small teams to discuss issues and develop solutions; implementing strategies to improve our business; taking the initiative to make the phone call to set things right. I decided I was a leader way before leadership roles were offered to me. I created the story and I acted accordingly. And because I acted like a leader, I was given the responsibilities of one. If you don’t feel comfortable leading or don’t see opportunities to lead within your role, volunteer to lead a team, event or committee in an employee resource group like Women in STEM.
What qualities do we expect in a leader? Focused. Calm. Thoughtful. Trustworthy. Wise. Sharp. Patient. Decisive. Fearless.
If we want leadership opportunities, it makes sense that they will more likely be offered to us if we exhibit leadership qualities. The behaviors you don’t see include: Reactive. Anxious. Unreliable. Scatterbrained. Angry. Fearful. Shaken.
With a calm mind, we more often demonstrate these positive leadership traits and in doing so people trust us to make decisions. They trust that when they invite us to their meeting or put us on their project, we will be able to handle it without adding unnecessary complexity or drama. A few years ago, I really struggled with this. I was overwhelmed by the number of demands on my time in and outside of work and as such was very reactionary. I was in the mode of putting out fires and responding in haste or anger when people asked more of me or challenged me. I realized that this is not who I wanted to be – it was not serving me.
So, I began working on breathing. Taking a deep breath before you respond gives you the space to choose how you want to respond. And when you have the choice in how you respond (rather than just reacting), you can make better decisions –ones that don’t push people away or burn bridges. Choices that encourage others to approach you, listen to you, trust you and ultimately entrust you with more leadership responsibilities.
Try a quick exercise. Take a deep breath in through your nose. Then breath it out through your mouth. Do you feel your shoulders soften? Do you feel your energy drop from slightly-high strung to slightly-less high strung? That (as you know) is your breath calming you down. It’s a weird interaction – because your breathing is one of the only functions that is controlled by both your autonomic nervous system (you’ll continue to breathe even if you aren’t thinking about it) and the central nervous system (you can make yourself breathe), it creates a connection between what you do and how you feel. Pausing and breathing like this physically changes your brain over time and makes you more relaxed and happier.
You can develop this ability even further through a daily meditation practice. Spending between 10- 20 minutes a day quietly focusing your attention on your breath helps you practice becoming more aware of your actions and become more what is often referred to as more “mindful”. I use an app called Headspace to help me practice this in and out of the office. When I started a daily meditation practice, I began coming up with all kinds of new ideas including patentable technologies and overall, I believe I make higher quality decisions – all value-adds to the reduced anxiety that I was initially seeking.
As I learned to implement these changes in myself and applied them regularly, opportunities began to come my way. I’ve received bigger budgets, a graduate education, management responsibilities, a leadership titles and ultimately a more-rewarding career that offers me better work/life balance than the days of working longer hours and sacrificing more for the job. My hope is that you can apply some of these same concepts in your life and career. I choose to believe there is no such thing as the status quo – you’re either growing or you’re shrinking. So, as for me, I’ll continue my learning journey…
What ‘Career Superpowers’ have you learned? Share them with the community by replying below.
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