“How much did they pay you to give up on your dreams?”, Ryan asked.
After a moment, Bob responded softly, “$27,000 a year”.
That’s a line from a movie called Up in the Air. It stuck with me when I heard it and I’ve come back to it again and again when reflecting on my own journey, and when coaching others through theirs.
Our dreams change over time, they ebb and flow as priorities shift through our lives, they grow as we grow, and they sometimes flicker as our tenacity and motivation to pursue them starts to wane. And honestly, there’s just a fortunate few out there who actually land their dream job, and stay in their dream job through the duration of their career.
Responding to change
What I want to acknowledge and address here is how we respond to change. More specifically, how change can be an opportunity for us to realign ourselves with a desired state that at some point or another we may have lost sight of.
In the movie Up in the Air, Ryan, played by charmingly by George Clooney, was a consultant whose job it was to let go of employees as organizations downsize. While his delivery of that unfortunate news was soft and empathetic, his character was far more cynical. But that question and the concept of how easily we deviate from the paths that we at one point aspired to resonated with me.
Change very rarely happens when we plan for it. It’s seldom convenient or welcome. Chances are if you’re reflecting on your current state in your career, or in life, it’s because you’ve slowly started to realize that your values or priorities don’t align with where you’re at, you’re unhappy with your current position, or change has been thrust upon you (like Bob who was just delivered the news that he was being packaged out in that scene).
But believe it or not, change can be a beautiful thing. The end of one chapter always means the beginning of a new one. Part of how our character is defined is not by what happens to us, but by what we do when something happens to us.
When I left my previous career I wasn’t happy. I took the weight of my work and a truly awful manager home with me every day. My motivation waned as my ambition to pursue a career with my previous employer dimmed. And one thing became abundantly clear, that if I didn’t make a change, the best case scenario was that ten years down the road I was only as unhappy as I was at that point in my life. If I stayed on that path maybe I’d have a little more money, but the cost would be watching really good days go by from the inside of a cubicle that brought only disdain.
Dreams versus goals
So, what comes next? Well the big question is how can we move ourselves towards a more desirable state. Dreams by definition are abstract and remote. They are thoughts without action. Goals are different, they are a future state with a plan in place to get from here to there.
It is commonly assumed that happily fantasizing about success in realizing a dear wish or blissfully daydreaming about solving an upcoming challenge will be enough to bolster energy and commitment to actually fulfill the wish and master the challenge (Peale, 2007). There’s a popularized notion by some authors out there (not going to name names) that manifesting wealth and putting yourself in the frame of mind of your desired state will alter your behaviour such that your desired state becomes a reality. It’s not that simple.
A key difference between achieving a desired future state and happily fantasizing about it into the foreseeable future can be the practice of mental contrasting. When people use the self-regulation strategy of mental contrasting (Oettingen et al., 2001), they imagine a desired future (e.g., improving academic or professional performance) and immediately thereafter reflect on the current situation that stands in the way of reaching this desired future (e.g., obstacles and temptations such as having little time or being distracted). The immediate contrast of the desired future state and the immediate reality makes both simultaneously accessible and links them together. This allows us to develop a greater understanding of what obstacles must be overcome, and what skills or tools must be developed and leveraged to reach our goals.
It should also be acknowledged that from a motivational point of view, an intervening variable in this equation is overall feasibility, and how realistic our goals are in relation the steps we are willing to undertake to reach them. When feasibility is high, people strongly commit to attaining the goal; when feasibility is low, they form a weak goal commitment or none at all (Oettingen et al., 2009).
Getting from here to there
So what does the mean for someone dealing with a sudden, or even a long overdue change? Start by reflecting on where you are today with respect to your values, work-life balance, and career standing. And think deeply about how those contrast against your long term desired state. The next step is crafting a plan for everything that comes in between and setting clear, time bound, checkpoints for gauging your progress.
Individually you can do this, but success is far more likely with the support of accountability partners. This is also where a career or life coach can be a powerful support. In either case, studies have shown that embarking on the journey of change is an endeavor best shared with others. Change isn’t easy, and if you’re reading this, you could be at the beginning of the process. If you are, if I can leave you a few philosophical words of value or hope, it would be those of Socrates who once said, “the secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new“.
Peale, N. V. (2007). The power of positive thinking. New York: Random House.
Oettingen, G., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (2001). Goal setting and goal striving. In A. Tesser & N. Schwarz (Eds.) & M. Hewstone & M. Brewer (Series Eds.), Blackwell handbook in social psychology: Vol. 1. Intrindividual processes (pp. 329-347). Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell.
Oettingen, G., Mayer, D.A., Sevincer, T., Stephens, E.J., Pak H., and Hagenah M., Mental Contrasting and Goal Commitment: The Mediating Role of Energization, Pers Soc Psychol Bull 2009; 35; 608 originally published online Feb 12, 2009