Our world is being reinvented. The COVID-19 pandemic, a sudden economic depression and the movement for racial justice will forever leave individuals, families, the workplace, countries and the planet changed.
Reinventing yourself, your career, your team or your company can be scary; so much so, that we often stop ourselves before we start, preferring to stay comfortable. But, you’ve probably already experienced the reinvention process without realizing it (or calling it that), going from student to working professional, single to married and perhaps back to single again, married to widowed, from childless to parent, working to retired, getting promoted and so on. Since COVID-19, you may have become an unexpected caretaker, homeschooler, or remote student or worker. As the Black Lives Matter movement accelerates, maybe you’re reinventing yourself as a new leader or getting off the sidelines and into new causes that speak to your heart.
There are steps you can take to facilitate the reinvention process and create the change you want in your life and at work. Many people ask me how I reinvented my career, and these are the main steps:
Acknowledge the grain(s) of truth. I affectionately call this the “Sergeant H” rule. Sergeant H was in my breakout room during one of the army resilience training courses I taught. He hadn’t said much during the program, but one day, for whatever reason, his hand shot up in class and he blurted out, “I’m an asshole!” Stunned, we invited him to say more. He said, “I’m on my third marriage, and it isn’t going well. I just realized that I’m part of the problem!” I smile every time I think about him because the first step requires that you to confront aspects of your personality, career, family, past decisions, regrets and more that you’d probably rather keep tucked safely away.
Be intentional. Making lasting change doesn’t begin by closing your eyes and throwing darts at a dartboard, hoping you’ll get a bullseye. You have to be intentional. When I finished college, I knew I wanted to continue my education, but I didn’t know in what. So, I thought, “Why not go to law school?” (Random Dart Throw). As I was burning out, I was desperate to figure out what my career post-law would look like, so I thought, “I love to bake, why not go to pastry school?” (Random Dart Throw). I applied to the French Culinary Institute in NYC and was accepted, but first, I asked my brother to help me get an internship at a swanky restaurant near his apartment in San Francisco. On my way to the restaurant that first day, I began dreaming about my eventual James Beard award and all of the beautiful desserts I would create. What hadn’t occurred to me is that I might not like it. Within two hours of starting, I knew this wasn’t for me. Within two days, I had come to hate every minute of it. While it turned out to be a good decision on many levels, my lack of intentionality landed me back at square one.
In order to become more intentional, I created the LIST. I spent several hours one Sunday afternoon writing down all of the things I had loved to do from way back when, that I thought I was good at, that other people recognized me for, my values and what I knew I needed to have in my next career. That reflection helped me create a very intentional list of traits from which I have built and grown my business. You can use the LIST to get intentional about change with your workplace team, your leadership style, or the qualities you want in your next relationship. Or, ask your team to think about what matters most to them, what they want the team to look like or grow into, what obstacles stand in their way and what changes are they actually willing to make?
Try stuff out. Take all of the ideas you generate and conduct small experiments. My failed pastry internship was an example, but an experiment is anything that will give you data about what you’re interested in so you can visualize alternatives in an experiential way. COVID-19 forced an experiment that I’ve wanted organizations to take for years – give people some flexibility to work from home. Leaders finally realized that even though people might decide to vacuum the house at 2pm, taking a conference call in your shorts is pretty spectacular and the work still gets done. Try having a tough conversation about bias on your work team, call the CEO of the non-profit you want to devote time to and ask some questions or review the requirements of the PhD program you’re interested in.
Get feedback and try something else. What did you learn from your small experiments? What worked and what didn’t? As data comes in, take that information and make changes, fine-tune potential solutions and scrap anything that doesn’t seem to work. Maybe you realized that those team conversations about bias require a trained facilitator, so now you’re going to ask around for a referral; the non-profit CEO was so happy to hear from you, she said you can start volunteering yesterday; and maybe you discover the PhD program is too costly and time consuming for where you’re at in life right now, but a master’s degree is much more doable. Keep collecting data and refining your direction.
Act. Once you’ve validated the utility of your solution, it’s time to act. Apply to the master’s program, ask her out on a date, create a new co-parenting plan, hire the skilled facilitator or take a sabbatical.
Most importantly, reinvention requires vulnerability. In the last 10 years I have stopped my law practice, gotten a master’s degree, started a business from scratch, worked with soldiers, adopted a child and am about to start a new chapter in my life as we speak. You will need support along the way. You will have to admit hard truths (if to no one else, then to yourself). You may have to forgive. You will have to talk to your employees in a new way. You may have to admit that you’ve not been the parent, leader, spouse or friend you could have been. This is a messy, iterative process and you will try, and you will fail.
The payoff, though, is what’s on the other side waiting that you can’t yet see standing “here.” Reinvention is a privilege. I could have stayed practicing law, but then I would have missed the adventures that I never could have predicted – meeting some of the most amazing people who have helped me grow and become my friends and family, making an impact, saying yes to projects that scare me, and out of the billions of people on the planet, somehow getting to be mom to a little girl who is more like me than any person I could have given birth to.
What you don’t want is to get to the end of your life and wonder, “What if I would have had the courage to show up?” What next step will you take?
Paula Davis-Laack is the CEO of the Stress and Resilience Institute, and she is writing a book about burnout prevention and teams to be published by the Wharton School Press in March 2021.