Every few months I have an intense, wide-ranging phone conversation with my friend Robert Bengston. This week one of the many topics we talked about was how you move from one stage of your life to the next. And the way we framed the issue was: Do you have to take a leap, or can you grow there?
I've taken several big professional leaps in my life. When I decided to leave journalism so that I could work directly to help people who were homeless instead of just writing about their plight, I sold my car to finance a job search in the nonprofit sector. Seven years later, when I was ready to move on from social services in order to focus on how technology could transform nonprofit management, I quit my job and trained my replacement while I was waiting to learn if I would be accepted into business school. And seven years after that--apparently I run on seven-year cycles--I resigned another leadership position to launch my executive coaching and consulting practice.
In each of these cases I felt that I had to take a leap in order to get where I wanted to be. I'd climbed a ladder with some success and had done some very rewarding work along the way, but that ladder was no longer headed in the direction I wanted to travel. And so I just...jumped off.
I had support from plenty of sources--most of all from a wife who believed in me--and I'm well aware of the many advantages I enjoy that allowed me to leap knowing that even a crash-landing would be somewhat cushioned. But I was still scared, and I still lost sleep wondering if I'd made a rash decision.
And yet in every case the leap paid off. After selling my car I landed a job working for a woman who would be the best mentor I ever had. After leaving social services I was accepted into Stanford (and although I explored a lot of different career paths during my two years there, after graduation I became the first Executive Director of the Nonprofit Technology Network, a job that could have been scripted from one of my b-school admission essays.) And after leaving management to launch my coaching practice, I had the opportunity to return to Stanford as a Leadership Coach, and the past three years there have been the most gratifying experience in my professional life.
But despite these positive outcomes, I've also realized (with Robert's help) that I'm done leaping. I've found my calling--my vocation--in coaching over these last three years, and with that knowledge has come a sense that I'm no longer climbing a ladder; instead, I'm growing. I'm certainly not free from status anxiety, but I know that there's no relief to be found on a higher rung--or on another ladder, for that matter. Wherever my life is headed over the long run, I now feel that I can grow there.
For me that means: 1) people who come into my life on a regular basis--weekly, at times--who share my values and my passions and who expand my professional universe; 2) the knowledge that every day I'm doing work that brings out my best self--not every minute of the day, by any means, but enough that I'm wondering if 10,000 hours is within reach; and 3) the awareness that my personal and professional development are intertwined--to develop as a coach, I have to continue to develop as a person.
So where are you going? And do you have to leap...or can you grow?