By Valerie Young
We all know the story of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. Swept away to the enchanting but forbidding Land of Oz by a tornado, Dorothy endures all manner of challenges in an attempt to achieve her one and only dream of returning home to her family in Kansas. It is not until the end of her frightfully wondrous journey that Dorothy has an epiphany. "…if I ever go looking for my heart's desire again," she tells Glenda, the Good Witch of the North, "I won't look any further than my own backyard." More often than not, it’s the same way with career options.
Too many people either fail to see – or outright dismiss – how the personal experiences in their own "backyard" are ripe with possibilities for income streams or indeed complete careers. Every small business I ever had originated from some event, realization, or challenge I’d personally experienced.
In the early 80s, I took a course at the University of Massachusetts called Dynamics of White Racism with a dynamic and utterly passionate doctoral student named Judith Katz. To say the course had a profound effect on my world view would be a gross understatement. So much so that I didn’t just want to study with Judy Katz – I wanted to BE Judy Katz. (If you’re interested in the field of diversity training you can read an interview with Judith at http://DTUI.com/awards.html). That single course also set me on my future career direction.
A senior at the time, I went on to enroll in the same graduate school Judy was just getting ready to graduate from. A few years later, I was the founding coordinator of what is now the Social Justice program there. I paid my way through school as a self-employed facilitator conducting training programs on racial awareness and diversity for resident assistants (dorm counselors) at colleges and universities around the country.
When it comes to actually applying your experience to your work, who you are - your personality, your temperament, your skills - are as important as the thing you love to do. In this case, the key to my success as a speaker standing up in front of audiences as large as 400 to 1200 people about potentially loaded "isms" was my sense of humor. I used it to effectively diffuse tension, minimize unproductive guilt, and get everyone - regardless of race, gender, religion, physical ability or sexual orientation - to take the issues seriously and yet also learn by laughing at themselves.
I loved being a graduate student. The hours were pretty flexible and although I had assignments to complete, in a lot of ways I was my own boss. Things were going pretty well… that is until it came time to actually hunker down and write a 200-plus page dissertation. That’s when the self-doubt, procrastination, and intense feelings of intellectual fraudulence set in. It’s also when I stumbled upon a study in a psychological journal on the so-called Impostor Phenomenon by Dr. Pauline Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes.
No one could have felt like more of a fraud then I did. I mean who was I kidding? I was this 24-year old, working class, first generation college kid – and the only one to go on to graduate school – in a doctoral program with all these mature, much smarter, and far more worldly professionals. I mean, who did I think I was? I’m still not sure how I managed to slip through the admissions process undetected. But there I was. So rather than waste three years of course work, I realized I’d better finish what I’d started and get out before I was discovered.
That’s when it hit me. If I have to write the darned dissertation anyway, why not focus my own research on understanding perfectionism, fear of failure, ambivalence about success, chronic self-doubt and other self-limiting patterns and philosophies that seem to plague so many women and quite a few men?
Studying the thing that was the most troublesome to me at the time was what helped me work through it. The writing part proved to be every much the ordeal I knew it would be, but at least I knew I’d have a publishable document at the end. Researching achievement blocks and interviewing other women from different fields and stages of their careers help me to lower my own internal yardstick to a far more attainable human level. As exciting, I like to think that the over 30,000 people – men and women alike – that have attended my workshop on How to Feel as Bright and Capable as Everyone Seems to Think You Are have benefited from my experience.
From here, my career took a detour that led me, at age 30, to take my first real job-job. What a change from the comparatively care-free life of a perpetual student. Talk about your rude awakening. You see, my consultant friends at the time were pulling down the big bucks consulting to corporations. Most of my clients, in contrast, were colleges or professional women’s organizations.
So I decided to take a job in the corporate management development and training department at a Fortune 500 company so I could 1) demystify the corporate world (that took about a week) and 2) earn my corporate credentials to take with me when I returned to consulting. My plan was to stay in the cube world for a year, two tops. After a year and a half, I switched to a management job in strategic marketing and five years after that, there I was – well-paid but miserable.
When my mom passed away unexpectedly from a heart attack at the too young age of 61, I realized life was too short to not work at what you love. For the next year and a half, I spent just about every waking hour of my personal life plotting my exit strategy. Little did I know at the time that I would go on to take everything I was learning about finding your calling, about the beauty of multiple income streams, and what it takes to change course and turn it into my vocation.
There are lots of ways to use your own personal experiences, and the unique insights and lessons learned along the way, to guide you onto a new career path. Take some time to reflect on your own life and think about how you, too, might profit from experience.