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power points

When we hit a career impasse or pivot point, many voices – often conflicting – call out from within. It can be confusing and hard to navigate.

Having coached many people in such situations, Timothy Butler, senior faculty advisor for career and professional development at the Harvard Business School, says we need to figure our way through four vital life elements to find our way forward: identity, community, necessity and horizon. Those may not seem immediately obvious, which is what makes them helpful. And the key, counter to our instincts, is to be less analytical. We need a more meditative approach, freeing our mind to wander and express our inner feelings.

In this context, identity is the human need to be identified as an individual, to emerge from the career chrysalis as someone who has recognizable talents, interests and intentions. Who are you? What do you want to do next? What do you need to do next? How do you find out?

Identity, Mr. Butler notes, is an “inside” and “outside” phenomenon. There is something deeply within you but the outside world also contributes, amplifying and confirming your instincts. You are searching for your role and contribution to that world.

He recommends spending time in a relaxed, meditative position, remembering moments when you were deeply engaged at work. Find the crux of the experience and capture it in one sentence, as a way to understand your essence. “The road to identity never travels in a straight line,” he stresses in his book The Four Elements.

The second element is community: the need to find a place that is right for us. It’s not just geographical. It includes many dimensions, such as family, circle of friends, and social and religious organizations.

Career decisions involve more than work, but we also obviously must come to grips with what “work” community means to us. As Mr. Butler explains: “Are we energized in a highly competitive professional environment? Do we respond better when warmth and collaboration are the established norms? Do we like the predictability and clear rules of formal hierarchical structures or do we like more informal ‘flat’ organizations where communication across levels or seniority is encouraged?”

This time his free-attention process of discovery begins by imagining a time when you felt a deep sense of belonging and connection with the people and the atmosphere of your workplace. Allow five descriptive adjectives to emerge, find the non-negative opposites for each adjective and use that to piece together the essential dimensions of the work culture you seek.

The third element is necessity: requirements and obligations that are crucial to any decision. The most common is remuneration. You need a certain amount of money to make things work out. But health can arise as a necessity, such as a job with less stress or where a family member can continue to receive special medical care. He also raises obligations to something powerful and uplifting, perhaps even spiritual, in your life, from worship to being able to figuratively climb mountains. Free-attention inquiry begins by asking who in your immediate circle of obligations has needs now that are the most pressing?

The fourth element is horizon: What are you walking toward? What does your work bring into the world and how does it feed your being? What are your work and life choices about? “Horizon exerts a pull on us; it is compelling. We know that there is something larger than not just what we know, but larger than what we are now, at this time,” Mr. Butler writes.

He emphasizes that horizon is not a goal: It is always a revelation to the analytical mind. Ask yourself what you already know about horizon and see where your thoughts take you.

Together, these four elements cover the main issues that need addressing when we hit a pivot point in our career – and what we must understand to make the best decision.

Quick hits

  • If you struggle to interject your ideas in a Zoom meeting where everybody else is quicker off the mark, executive coach Melody Wilding suggests typing in the chat that you would like to speak (as well as, of course, raising your hand through the software feature). She also points out you can read the agenda in advance and let the organizer know when you will want to contribute.
  • When introducing a guest speaker, consultant John Millen says to be brief and remember that it’s not about you (so keep any personal experiences minimal), but do share your excitement for what’s ahead.
  • Movement catches our attention, so it can be helpful in presentation slides but keep it controlled and tied to the mood you want to set. PhD student Amy Boone says PowerPoint animations such as “random bars” and “bounce” can be excessive and clunky.
  • Productivity consultant Mike Vardy notes that when someone says they had the best of intentions, it is often followed by an admission they weren’t able to accomplish what they set out to do. His lesson: Intentions come up short unless you give them the best of your attention.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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