Category: Career development

Ambition: When you don’t want what they’ve got

[This was originally written back in 2019, as a guest article that I recently discovered is no longer available online. Here it is, republished. The article may ostensibly have been written for women, but there is a message for everyone in there. If you’ve ever felt an unravelling of the path you’d hitherto been following, and realised how vital it was for you to re-evaluate what matters to you in your life and career, then have a read – and let me know what you think.]

Ambition

I vividly remember my very first work appraisal back in 2005. I was 24, full of ambition, a perfectionist and ultra-high achiever, and I’d spent the first 6 months in my new job doing whatever it took to impress senior management and not let myself down.

Driven by that ambition, I was regularly in the office well after hours and on the weekends. I’d missed my best friend’s wedding because I couldn’t afford to fly 6,000 miles only to be able to stay for the weekend, let alone get the time off for the plane journey in the first place.  At the appraisal, my boss told me something I’ve never forgotten: “You’re the best administrative officer I have ever had”, she declared, before we discussed my tendency to be ruthlessly harsh in my own self-assessment. Then she said, “You could be a Registrar* in years to come.” A pause. “If you want it.”

I’ve recalled this conversation many times in the intervening years. It came back to me in my early thirties, during a coaching training session when I was in the role of client. The exact content of our conversation escapes me now, but the turning point was when my coach looked me in the eye and said “Why are you in such a hurry?” 

The memory of this conversation resurfaced again when I returned to my employer in 2018 after a year’s career break. During my sabbatical I’d set up my coaching business, and, as part of a new portfolio career, had also negotiated a new part-time contract that was far more aligned with the career direction in which I wanted to go. 

This decision meant that I was consciously to take myself out of what had previously been a potential trajectory to the top. I’d gone in with my eyes open. Yet, a couple of months into the job, I found myself blindsided when my contemporaries started getting Director-level jobs. I knew I didn’t want their jobs and everything that came with the territory. But a part of me really wanted to know I’d have been well in the running. 

Moving Through Change and Doubt 

As a coach and mentor, I’ve worked with numerous women over the years who’ve found themselves unexpectedly wrong-footed by the question of ambition. Many had risen through the ranks as single, career-focused individuals, their drive focused squarely on performance and promotion. At some point in their careers, however, something had begun to change.

For some, this had come about as a result of motherhood and the re-evaluation of purpose that often accompanies this kind of major life shift and extended time away from the workplace. A second group, burnt out from the chase or having otherwise reached a tipping point, had been forced to step away to recover and reassess. For others, it was nothing quite as dramatic – over time, however, a nagging feeling of discontent and unhappiness had emerged and persisted.

With all of them, there was a feeling of guilt. Overcome with thoughts like: I’m not performing well enough anywhere. I’m not a good mum, not a good partner, not a good employee. Then doubt, moving between the polarities of wanting it all and wanting something completely different: I should want that. Why don’t I want that? What do I actually want? Worry, too: I thought I’d be much further along by now. Why is it that she can do it, and I can’t?

Asking some Important Questions 

What characterises ambition? You’ll find two main definitions in dictionaries: (a) a strong wish for fame, power, wealth or status; and (b) the desire to achieve a particular end. The first is fairly self-explanatory. The second bears somewhat more scrutiny. 

We’re conditioned to compete. The scourge of that competition is that while it can lead us to excel, comparison with others can often find us seduced by what others have and inevitably feeling like we come up short. Leaving the arena, then, and setting out on the lesser-trodden path, can be hugely freeing. Of course, it can also be scary and destabilising, but this is the thing about fear: being scared of something is all the more reason to face it.

So, where to start? You can’t go far wrong with asking yourself some important questions, and taking the time to give yourself some very honest answers.

Who am I? (And who do I want to be?) 

Your identity develops over the course of a lifetime. It’s rich and multifaceted; a community of selves. And because you’re always learning and growing, you will almost certainly reach various turning points throughout your life that will make you ask: Is this life an honest reflection of the person I am? And if not, am I prepared to live it anyway, or will I take the plunge and connect with who I am really meant to be?

What’s important to me? 

Now is the time to take a step back and think: what is your driving purpose and what values do you want to see reflected in your life and work? Some people want to make a difference through the execution of their vision for a better world – social change, environmental work, political activism. Perhaps your driver is focused on touching people’s hearts and building them up at an individual level. Or perhaps your fundamental values are all about freedom and independence, yet somehow that wild spirit has ended up on the predictable rhythm of a treadmill. 

What am I good at?

If you’re searching for work that will give your life more meaning and fulfilment, then you need not only to understand your values and what you identify with, but also your motivated skills and strengths – the things you’re not only good at, but also like doing. Are you good with people? Or are you more comfortable with data? Perhaps you’re great with your hands, or when working with concepts and ideas. How well do your top strengths and skills align with your current work? 

What dream am I chasing? (And whose dream is it?)

Is it the one that you think you should want, the one that the you of yesteryear did want, or the one that you actually do want? If you think you might be heading in the wrong direction, ask yourself: If all jobs paid the same, what would I want to be doing for a living? What would excite me and help me grow?

When we stop looking outward to external standards of achievement and ambition, we become free to focus on what is infinitely more valid: our own measure of what constitutes success. That may look very different for everyone else, and that’s ok. Are you being true to yourself, and if not, what choices are you going to make about that? 

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass, Quiet Space Ltd 

(*Registrar: The head of the central administrative service in a UK university.)

Taking control of your career

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I had a cake and coffee date with a colleague today (well, it ended up being lunch and cake, but I really liked my swan from this morning, so here you go). They’d asked for a meeting a while ago for a conversation about my career break experience, coaching, and opportunities in general within the organisation. As it turned out, it was all quite serendipitous – we’re looking, they’re interested. It feels like there’s chemistry, so we’ll see what happens next.

When you’re seeking out new career opportunities, how active are you in your search? Do you rely quite passively on job boards and agencies, or do you like a much more active handle on things, for example with networking, informational interviews etc.?

Are you taking your career by the horns or letting it happen to you?

Do you love the life you’re living?

I was messaging one of my best friends last week and he asked me what my purpose in life was. I thought for a little while, and then I wrote: “Making life a little better for every person I come into contact with, whether it’s for a moment or for the long haul. Helping people to believe in themselves. This life has got to be about something bigger than yourself – working towards a greater purpose. Maybe that sounds a little worthy? I feel very strongly about it though.”

I’ve been thinking about that today as I reflect on the past few weeks. Why do you do the work that you do? Do you love the life you’re living?

What is your driving purpose – that particular thread that pulls everything together for you? Some people want to make a difference through the execution of their vision for a better world – social change, environmental work etc. None of that floats my boat much. My driver is wanting to touch people’s hearts and build them up at an individual level.

Some people are perfectly happy just being – in some ways that is the ultimate goal, finding perfect happiness in this moment. But that needn’t detract from searching for what it is that will give this life meaning and fulfilment.

If you’re searching, then you need to understand your values and how to turn those into something worth pursuing. You also need to understand your motivated strengths: the things you’re not only good at, but actually like doing.

While continual introspection without action is pointless, action without understanding why can be counter-productive. How do you expect to end up where you want to be if you don’t know where you need to be heading?

Those of you who have attended some of my workshops or have been coached by me will know that I love using cards as a coaching resource – used well they can really facilitate discovery of key strengths, skills, values etc., and they also make a great self-coaching tool.
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These are from Barefoot Coaching Cards (the Coaching Cards for Every Day pack, which I’ve been sorting through today while chatting with a dear friend about purpose and direction). Perhaps one or more of these questions will find impact with you this week.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Time to fly

 

It’s your time to fly. There is so much waiting for you, somewhere beyond the current boundaries of your ordinary life – something new, and wonderful. But you’re not going to get it by doing the things you’ve always done. So it’s time – time to spread your wings and get out of that comfort zone. Time to find something extraordinary.

Go out there and achieve the greatness you have in you.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Becoming a guided meditation leader

Meditation for fidgety skeptics

So I’m currently training to be a guided meditation leader. I’ve been meditating for some time and wanted to develop a new way in which to work deeply with my clients, which will become a core strand in the transformational development programme and retreats I’m planning to deliver this coming year.

It’s been really exciting to see my coaching practice develop over this past year. I originally trained with classic behavioural coaching models like GROW and later took on a career development specialism, but in finding my own identity as a coach this past year, after setting up Quiet Space last September, I have found myself making increasing use of psychological approaches alongside a growing affinity with a more philosophical style. I’m completing further training in psychological coaching later this month and am really looking forward to it!

My personal meditation practice is still in its infancy and will no doubt evolve, but right now it’s a mix of mindfulness and a way of connecting with God (I’m a practising Catholic). I find the science of it fascinating too. I’m a little way off designing and delivering my own group guided meditation sessions, but if anyone’s interested, they’re not going to involve crystals, chakras etc. as that’s not me. They will, however, involve candles, cushions, blankets and tea, and be suitable for fidgety skeptics. Probably.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Idealist or realist?

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If you’re looking for a new direction in your career or in life more generally, do you (a) weigh in on the side of pragmatism, or (b) always follow your dreams?

The trouble with being relentlessly ‘realistic’ is that you can easily cut off your options too early and never discover what could truly drive you. Could you benefit from giving your ‘ideal’ and your ‘impossible’ a chance to grow?

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Life is short

Time’s a-ticking; life is short. NOW is the time to start your journey towards the full life that you were meant to live! If you’re on the cusp of major changes in either your personal or professional life, and need support to realise your full potential, drop me a message and let’s work together.

Video taken in June 2018 of A Million Times At Changi, @humanssince1982, Changi Airport, Singapore.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Your life, in a sentence

Be the author of your own life

I was delighted with this display from The Novel Encounter when I saw it at the National Gallery in Singapore a few weeks ago. A surprise novel in a beautifully minimalist wrapper, summarised in a single sentence. It made me think of three things.

1) Curating my mystery retreat boxes as part of my new transformational development programme for women (currently itself under development!)

2) What the summary of my own story would be. I’m still writing it, so I’ll get back to you on that one.

3) Those Penguin Books memes about the story of your life. Will yours be:

– Oh shit was that today: A memoir
– Well I was clearly into that more than you were: A love story
– Plan B
– If only: A tale of regrets
– Don’t actually press send: Advice from the grave
– How to accept anything: A story about giving up
– Well, that didn’t go as planned
– Finding that special someone: A guide to dying alone

Well? What’s yours going to be? You can pick, or if you don’t like any of those then write your own. Make it a good one, ok?

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Breaking barriers (and ceilings)

I’ve got a thing for ceilings. The more architecturally interesting, the better. When I posted this on my personal Facebook timeline a few days ago, a friend left a comment that made me stop and think.

Me: I’ve got a thing for ceilings.
Her: And trying to break them! Go Nat! 💪

I’ve never thought of myself as breaking ceilings. But then it occurred to me that this is what I work on with people all the time – breaking through their barriers. And the more architecturally-significant the ceiling, perhaps all the more its being fair play. Right?

Now stop reading and go break through some ceilings.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Career: Capitalising on chaos?

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We talked about the chaos (Pryor and Bright) and planned happenstance (Krumboltz) theories of career at Quiet Space’s inaugural career reinvention day last Saturday. Only briefly, because career development theories aren’t really the best thing for a post-lunch slump (unless you are a geek like me).

I quite like chaos as a conceptual backbone to careers theory. In a nutshell, the chaos view of careers says that you and I are complex systems who are subject to complex influences and chance events. It’s all about unpredictability and non-linear, continual change. Planned Happenstance similarly embraces the idea of serendipity and being open to uncertainty, maximising your ability to capitalise on unforeseen opportunities when they happen in your life.   

More traditional theories of career development typically invoke some sense that career can be logically planned and the plan then followed. In contrast, chaos and happenstance shift the perspective from prediction and control to saying that indecision and not knowing are in fact part and parcel of living well within our complex and changing reality.

This is not to say that life is random. Instead you might like to think of life, and career, as a fractal… starfish.

fractal-starfish

I like fractals. They’re infinitely complex systems created by the recursion of a simple process over in an ongoing feedback loop. As an analogy for life, I think the fractal starfish is pretty spot-on – daily life can be so simple, yet so complex and beautiful. Just like the emergence of a fractal, life isn’t predictable, but needs to be understood in the context of the multiple possible and interconnected outcomes of a dynamic process in a complex system.

Growing up, I wanted to be an archaeologist, psychologist, astronaut, teacher. Aspirations directed me into triple science before I funnelled myself into the arts and social sciences, via a college that I only went to because the other one I liked was too far away and I didn’t want to go to the same college as my overachieving elder sibling. A scholarship scheme that I discovered by chance gave me one of two coveted full overseas university scholarships throughout the duration of my degree, before the Asian financial crisis prompted me to stay in the UK for graduate study and my first job. I found myself in University administration after an initial research post, simply because I wanted a permanent fixed-term contract. They were recruiting for two possible jobs via the same interview process and I secured the one that would eventually prove to give me greater visibility and profile, because of a hunch from the hiring interviewer about best fit. Between 2004 and 2017 I found myself in four different jobs, all internal moves (none of which I was interviewed for), chiefly due to the right connections and being in the right place at the right time. In 2016 I had a mental health crisis that had been brewing for a while, which I can link directly to seizing hold of the day and taking the plunge to launch a new career in coaching in 2017. And I feel like I’m finally where I want to be. Will what I’m planning right now materialise the way I’m currently envisioning? Probably not. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’m making the most of the journey, always focusing on continual learning and growing, and being comfortable with not knowing.

Both the chaos and happenstance theories of career talk about the kind of skills that we can develop to allow ourselves to best take advantage of those unexpected opportunities when they come our way. In brief, these are:

  • Curiosity – has an appetite for learning and for seeking out new knowledge and experiences
  • Persistence – tenacious; not easily discouraged or daunted by failure
  • Flexibility – adaptable and open to change; able to cope with the unfamiliar or unexpected
  • Optimism – has a positive mindset and is able to take the best out of situations
  • Risk – has a healthy and confident attitude towards the management of risk
  • Strategy – is able to plan ways to improve their ability to influence and capitalise on chance events
  • Efficacy – has confidence in their ability to take control of their own life and the belief that luck and circumstances need not determine their destiny
  • Luckiness – believes or expects to be lucky.

If you look back at your own career, how much of it would you say has occurred by planning and design? And how much by circumstance, accident or sheer luck? Did you find your way to where you are now having planned for it? Could you have predicted what factors would have underpinned your future career decisions? Do you have regrets about any decisions you’ve made, or do you take the view that each choice you’ve made, though you didn’t know it at the time, has led you inexorably to where you are?

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd