5 questions to ask if you’re afraid of making the the wrong choice

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Yesterday my friend and I were trading stories about our mentoring and coaching experiences. One of his mentees is a senior at Stanford. His mentee has a job offer at a top consulting firm, but he’s trying to decide between that, working for a startup, or staying in school one more year to earn a master’s degree.

“My mentees often ask me, ‘What should I do?’ But I can’t tell them what to do. They have to make that choice on their own. But they seem terrified of making the wrong choice. What advice would you give them?”

It’s funny. The fears of those undergraduate students are not that different from the fears I see in the experienced professionals I coach. It’s not actually the fear of “What if I make the wrong choice?” (As I’ll explain in another post, there are methodologies you can adopt to avoid the regret of making the wrong choice.) Really, at the root of their fears is one super-scary question: “What happens if things don’t work out?”

This question is scary because the unknown is one big bad scary monster. Most people would rather stay in a situation they know is bad than walk away from that bad place and into the unknownUncertainty is scary. It’s like the fear of the monster under the bed. It’s scary, because you can’t see it.You don’t know where exactly it’s lurking or when it’ll come out to get you. It’s like fear of noises in the dark, which cause your imagination to run wild about whether it’s just a deer sneaking into your backyard, or a psycho serial killer from a movie.

The best way to mitigate the fear of the unknown is to bring some certainty into the situation. Shine a light into the darkness and see what’s there. To do that, think about the following 5 questions:

1) What is it that you fear? Often, people are afraid of “What will happen if things don’t work out.” Well, what does that mean? “Losing everything” is too vague, and that will feed your fear. Have you lost money? Friends? Time? Your reputation? How much? Be concrete about what it is you are afraid of.

2) What is the absolute worst that can happen? What is going on in that situation? Paint a vivid image of what life looks like in that worst case scenario. Ask yourself, how realistic is this scenario? What are the chances it could actually come to this?

3) What safety nets do you have to protect you from that worst case scenario? If you lose your job, what other jobs would you be willing to take? If you can’t pay rent, where could you stay? If you need support, who may be willing to help? Also, if you don’t feel you have enough of a safety net now, identify what can you do now to ensure you have more of a safety net in the future.

4) How will you know when things are not working out? It’s not that common for things to go from awesome to awful in one day. More often, things unfold over time. What are the signs that things aren’t working out? How can you proactively and periodically check in on how things are going?

5) What action will you take when you know things are not working out?Shift the question from “What will happen if things don’t work out” to “What will I do if things don’t work out.” Take control of your fear by taking control of your actions.

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This post originally appeared on Medium.com on February 19th, 2014.

 

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Envision your dream life (and make it real)

Back when I was in the third or fourth grade, I came up with a list of things I would do the time I turned 30:

-graduate from college
-get a job
-buy a house
-get married (closer to when I turned 30)
-get ready to have kids (by doing the rest of the things on the list)

It recently occurred to me that it’s time to come up with a new vision for my future.  I’m 29 now, and I’ve done almost every item on my by-the-time-I’m-30 list.  (I’m not married yet, but I am engaged.  Love you, Sam!)

This time around, I’ve chosen to approach my future in a different way.  Ever since my sister watched The Secret, she had talked about how we should create vision boards for ourselves, visual representations of what we wanted in life.  I liked the idea, and we agreed that someday, we’d get together and do just that.  For years we put it off, but with the impending completion/expiration of my by-the-time-I’m-30 list, I figured now was a good time to get together over a weekend and get it done.  My cousin came over, too, and my living room turned into an arts and crafts and vision and encouragement fest.

Visions are different from goals.  Continue reading

Defusing the I-need-a-job-freakout

Let’s be honest.  Two years ago, after I graduated without a job,  I had days when I freaked out.  Last winter, months after my friend also graduated without a job, she freaked out.  A few months ago, when my boyfriend realized that his under-employment was not sustainable, he freaked out.

(source)

We’re all bound to go through it: the “I need a job!” freakout.

It’s ok.

Freaking out can be legitimate. We all have bills to pay in order to maintain life’s necessities, like food and shelter.

Freaking out can also be therapeutic.  If you’re around a bunch of other people who don’t have jobs, it’s something you can commiserate about.  Aaaah freakout! Le freak, c’est chic.

But there’s a point where all that freaking out isn’t healthy.  And I doubt it’s making you happy.
Continue reading

How to answer the question “What kind of job are you looking for?”

***DISCLAIMER: The following dialogue is a dramatization, and in no way reflects how much whining my boyfriend did in the early stages of his job search.***

“So, what kind of job are you looking for?”

“Arrrrrrrrrgh!  I don’t know.  Why do you keep asking me that?”

My boyfriend, now employed, told me that getting him to answer that question was the single most helpful thing I did during the months I coached him through his search for a full-time job.

“So, what kind of job are you looking for?”

“I don’t want to talk about this anymore.  I just want to find a job.”

Well, babe, it’s kinda hard to find something when you don’t know what you’re looking for.  More importantly, it’s especially hard for someone to help you find something when you can’t define what it is you want to find.  Continue reading

New Year’s List and the Law of Increase

The holiday season is officially over and it’s time to return to my regularly scheduled life.  Around this time, it seems like everyone is making lists, and I am no exception.  I feel compelled to make lots of lists: of things I would like to do differently, of places I would like to go, of people I want to see, of things I want to make, and all sorts of other stuff.  It’s not even a new year’s thing; I just like to make lists.  Lists make me feel like I have a plan, and crossing things off my list makes me feel like I’ve achieved something.

However, a lot of the cultivation-of-happiness work I’ve done this year makes me feel like creating another list of things to do isn’t the best course of action.  One of the lessons I learned in 2011 is that I spend far too much time thinking of the past and the future, and not enough time in the present.  So instead, I’m going to apply one of the lessons that popped up in a number of things I read this year.  Srikumar Rao calls it:

The Law of Increase
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What if I can’t get there right now?

Take time to find out what you want.  Make time for the things you love.

What happens now will not determine the rest of your life.

Those were the three pieces of advice I gave during my presentation to a group of undergrads last week.  And then I opened it up to Q&A.

“What if I kinda know what I want to do, but I don’t think I can get there right after I graduate?”

Excellent question.  I did a lot of talking about how important it is to figure out what you want, and told a story about how I finally got it.  It’s only natural to think that I am encouraging folks to go out and get their dream life.  I am.

It’s risky.  It can be scary.  And for an undergrad who is still building up his savings, resume, network, and life experience, it can be difficult to get to exactly where you want.  In an economy like this, it may mean just taking “a” job.  The important thing to remember is to keep moving forward somehow and guard yourself against getting stuck.

4 Steps to Staying on Course


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Advice for my undergraduate self

About a month ago, I received an invitation to speak in front of a group of undergrads.  I had spoken on panels before, but I had never been asked to give a talk, by myself.

The invitation asked me to talk about my MBA experience and the type of options my MBA allowed me to have after my graduation.  Doing that could take less than ten minutes.  I had up to an hour to fill.

Q&A could fill some of that time, but what could I tell them to ensure that they would have questions to ask?  And be comfortable enough to ask them?  I began to think about what would be the things they may not think to ask.  What were the things I would not have known to ask, when I was their age?

It occured to me that many of the students in my audience would be freshmen and sophomores, and it’s been a full ten years since I was in their shoes.  I crafted my talk around what would have been helpful for me to hear ten years ago, as a freshman in college.

Here is a recorded, condensed version of the presentation I gave at UC Berkeley on Monday, March 14th, 2011.

The pursuit of happiness is not what you think.

“There is nothing you have to do, get, or be in order to be happy.  Happiness is hard-wired into you.  You cannot *not* be happy, because it is your innate nature.”

These are the words of Srikumar Rao, who I went to see speak at an alumni event last week.  Six months after I concluded a year of inspiration and deep introspection, I was in need of a psychological tune-up.  I went to see Dr. Srikumar Rao, because I had heard great things about his previous talks and his course, Creativity and Personal Mastery.  Bald, smiling, Indian, and a Ph.D. in marketing, he is a guru for type-A personalities.

But if happiness is my innate nature, why am I not feeling it right now?

“You do not feel happy, because you have spent your entire life learning to be unhappy.”

Type-As are a skeptical set.  But how do you *know* that happiness is my innate state?

“How do I know?  Have you ever seen something so spectacular that it took you outside yourself to a place of great calm?”

 

In that moment I was back on the deck of the house I lived in during grad school, where I would lose myself in the beautiful view of the area I called home.

Grad school was the most hectic two years of my life.  It was the first time I found myself needing to manage my time all the way down to 15-minute increments.  Yet no matter how worried, stressed, or completely overwhelmed I felt, that view from our deck could always give me refuge.

“Why were you transported? Because, somehow, you were able to accept the universe exactly as it was. Your habitual wanting self dropped away, so you didn’t have to do anything to experience the happiness innate in you, it just rose up and enveloped you.  I know it exists, because you remember it.

“When you are unhappy, it is because you are rejecting the universe as it is.  And the universe is not playing ball.  It is beating you.”

It sure is.

I reflected on the moments when I’ve been less than happy.  Sometimes it’s because I am engulfed by not-so-pleasant mental chatter that is preventing me from connecting with the situation or people right in front of me.  Maybe I am replaying everything that went wrong.  Or I am obssessed with trying to shape the future into exactly the way I want it to be.

Thanks to some time off between graduation and re-entering the workforce, I had made strides in learning to quiet my mental chatter, and I’m going through exercises to tame my inner critic.  But it’s been an awful lot of work, and there are moments where I wonder whether I’m really capable of just being happy.

It dawned on me that I had this “pursuit of happiness” stuff all wrong.  When people coined this phrase, they didn’t mean “pursuit” in terms of  chasing something beyond me, but “pursuit” in terms of an activity which is always accessible and I’m regularly engaged in.  I just need to choose not to forget that it’s always with me.  And reminding myself of that is as easy as remembering a sunset.

What is a network, anyway?

When I was growing up, my dad wasn’t one to push me or give advice, unless it was his weekly reminder that he didn’t want to see me having babies until after I graduated from college.  I can only remember him giving me advice about college twice in my life.  The first time was in the first grade, when I brought home my first report card.  He looked at it and said, “Wow, good job!  Hey, maybe you should go to Stanford.  It’s a good school and it’s close to home. ” (Apparently this piece of advice really stuck with me.)

The second time was in high school, around sophomore year.  It went like this.

“Hey, maybe you should apply to USC.  I heard they have a good network.”

“What’s a network?”

“Ehhhh, I don’t know.  But they have a good one.”

That piece of advice also stuck with me.  In that moment, I may not have understood what a network was, but I did understand this: A good network is something you want to have.

But what exactly is a good network?

Wikipedia defines a “social network” as “a social structure made up of individuals (or organizations) called “nodes”, which are tied (connected) by one or more specific types of interdependency” (source)

That last word is a key part of what a network is: interdependency.  I think that some people are averse to networking because they think it’s all about what you can get out of relationships with people.  But developing a good network is building those interdependent links, or links in which both you and the other individual have something to exchange.

Let’s go back to the USC example, and alumni networks in general.  The reason why my university’s alumni network is so strong, is because we all have a stake in our network’s reputation.  Some alumni I’ve reached out to may help me out of the goodness of their hearts, but their other motive is that  if they help other alums become more successful, they improve the aggregate reputation of our alumni network and increase the value of being a part of that network.

Even in the most altruistic-seeming relationships, there is an exchange taking place.  I have mentored and coached a number of people.  I have given them advice, guidance, resources, and connections.  But they have given me something as well.  They have given me the satisfaction of feeling helpful, which makes me feel good.  In some cases, they also give me friendship, inspiration, and support.

A good network is one where you have numerous relationships in which the interdependency is strong enough, or the potential exchange of value is high enough, such that people will want to help you and have the means to help you.