Dying to Grow: How to find meaningful professional opportunities within a stark and barren landscape

From my vantage point things are bad. Not a week goes by without a friend of a friend contacting me asking for help with their job search. Most are currently employed, with either their position coming to an impending end or an unshakable sense that they need to get out and find something healthier or more fulfilling. And although their situations are all unique, they seem to share a collective sense of suffering that is distinctly palpable- they are literally dying to grow.

One cannot overstate the suffering that comes with craving growth and change while feeling stuck in an unhealthy situation. Although this scenario often plays out in the realm of personal relationships, it can be equally traumatic when it transpires within our professional lives. And if you are taking the time to read this post, there is a good chance that either you are currently in this position or care deeply about someone else who is. But before I share the guidance that I offer those who find me, I feel compelled to offer a few words of caution based on experience and observation.

First, I urge you to resist the tendency to self-destruct. Once we recognize the need to grow or move on it’s as though all of our faculties work on overdrive to make it happen, even if the right opportunity has yet to emerge. Hopefully you’ve read some of my earlier posts about framing and high-trigger labels that pull us down into the weeds and prevent us from achieving growth or stability. Once we perceive a situation to be a threat or somehow toxic, the “danger” and “fear” labels kick in and our reactions tend to become highly emotional and charged. When this happens we can inadvertently exacerbate behaviors that undermine our success and feelings of security and strength, which in turn can send us on a downward spiral resulting in further damage and complications.

I find that the best springboard for growth is stability and thoughtfulness. Clearly, if you yearn to grow and find more fulfilling work, you are seeking something better and more meaningful. That desire or sense of readiness is enough, you don’t have to prove to yourself or anyone else that it is so bad that you have to leave. In fact, if you are fortunate enough to have a current position, then you should embrace and nurture that role, even if it is not something you want long-term. I often tell my mentees that the nature of a job search looks very different depending on the urgency of your security and basic needs. The luxury of a stable salary allows you to do the clarifying work necessary for finding the best opportunity, so allow yourself to see your situation as a (temporary) gift rather than a crisis from which you need to immediately flee.

My second caution relates to our tendency to jump to the “I could do that” phase of a job search. Although our ability to know when we are unhappy or dissatisfied in a current professional role is quite developed and accurate, we often lack the self-awareness and tools to clarify our core needs and gifts that are tied to our sense of fulfillment. Without this clarity, attempts to define our next steps through exploring available opportunities and job postings that may or may not align with our core needs and contributions, is a crap shoot at best. And at worst, it perpetuates a state of vulnerability and need for external validation which is a slippery slope in itself. Of course you need to be realistic about the current landscape of opportunities, but beginning your process with this exploration before you do the necessary clarification work will limit your options and lead you back into the weeds rather than the upward trajectory that you crave.

So alas, how does one effectively create opportunities for growth when the landscape seems so stark and desolate? Here are a few of my high impact practices that you might consider.

• Begin your search by spending some time clarifying the outputs of your dream position. In other words, what do you want your contributions to be, and who is your target audience/ client base? I realize that this is somewhat opposite of how most people go about a search, but I assure you that it is well worth the investment of time and effort. There are a few ways to go about this, one is through the “I believe….I promise….I expect” exercise that is described in a past post by the same name. Another is through the MOVE Mapping Process that I have developed which clarifies who you are at your best and what you have to offer relative to the surrounding needs and context related to your contributions. Any way you do this, you need to clarify what you can uniquely offer the world, in any domain that you are interested in. This piece will serve as the foundation for your search and also your application materials- so don’t skip this regardless of how challenging and time consuming it may be.

• Once you can articulate what you hope to contribute and to whom, you need to go back and reweave your experiences and qualifications (CV or resume) through this new narrative. Clearly, you can’t go back and change what you’ve done or accomplished to perfectly fit your dream job, but your experiences should all hang together around your focus and should tell a comprehensive and compelling story about what you have to uniquely offer. I find that there is often a pronounced disconnect between what individuals tell me, verbally, about their qualifications, and what their application materials suggest. However, once they have found the right frame for what they offer and stand for, they can organize their experiences in a much more compelling way and suggest their unique qualifications for the particular opportunity they are pursuing.

• Work with the job posting and make it crystal clear that you meet all specified qualifications. You need to understand that search committees must show that all specified qualifications are met before granting interviews. While it is important to articulate your unique skillset and experiences that will benefit the position, you cannot skip the critical step of demonstrating your suitability with regard to specified qualifications. When you craft your cover letter, I strongly suggest referencing the qualifications or categories of qualifications listed in the posting with clear statements about your background and experiences. I am surprised to find that many applicants ignore the specific requirements and frame their letters around their unique backgrounds and skillsets as well as submitting generic resumes organized around their own sense of importance and prominence. By doing so they place more work on the committee to effectively map the provided information to the specified job requirements and run the risk of being eliminated or dismissed regardless of their actual suitability.

Now obviously these suggestions assume that there are postings that align with your core needs and contributions as clarified in the recommended exercises. In order to maximize the possible space of opportunities, I suggest the following additional activities:

• Spend some time clarifying the ideal environment most conducive to the “best version of you.” Our growth is not only tied to the work we do but also the environments in which we work. It’s helpful to plot out differences in your “output” in relation to different types of contexts. There are numerous assessments out there that can provide insights into your ideal work environment, but I find it’s not that hard to gain insights on your own. Simply begin by asking what situations evoke the greatest levels of productivity and work fulfillment vs. those that make you miserable. Having a clear understanding of this range will allow you to explore possible options but also reveal new possibilities related to non-traditional avenues of employment that you will find more fulfilling.

• Consider separating your monetary needs from your growth needs. Since our efforts to find more meaningful work can often be compromised and muddled by our monetary and security needs, I find it is often helpful to separate the two. Try spending some time clarifying how much money you need in order to “buy” your security and create some space to work on your professional growth. Perhaps you can decide to stay in your current position for a set period of time or maybe you need a part-time or full-time job in order to achieve the necessary income. But regardless of your situation you can think of the money-making part as separate from the space to create and nurture your professional growth which you might accomplish part-time, or through volunteering as a necessary step toward a full-time career opportunity. Understanding exactly how much you need to make and the best way to accomplish this, can free you to focus on your growth at the same time, without thinking of yourself as a failure or taking steps backward.

• My final recommendation for the purposes of this post is to think of your fulfillment and growth holistically- not necessarily all wrapped up within one perfect job or professional role. Once you know what your core gifts and contributions are (see my recent TEDx talk available on my blog site) you can begin to piece together different activities and experiences into your own unique quilt or tapestry. I know many of us yearn for a professional role that will allow us to fulfill all aspects of our life work in terms of professional, community, and social contributions- but it is possible to fulfill these needs in multiple ways. Ultimately, doing so will allow for new opportunities to emerge through which you can leverage and bring together your various experiences- but in the time it takes for those to develop, you need to continue to pursue them even if they don’t align with a specific or current job description. That is why the clarification work is so critical, it will allow you to create a path forward and to fulfill your needs and contributions even when your current position is less than ideal. By evaluating your fulfillment and satisfaction in a more holistic way, you can buy yourself some time and space to continue to grow and develop, without a sense of urgency and fear that can drag you back into the weeds and away from the growth you seek.

I hope these suggestions are helpful and I would greatly appreciate some feedback from those of you who are struggling with your own professional growth. Please share any comments, insights, or further questions through the “reply” function and I will try to respond via future posts.

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