“Cat: Where are you going?
Alice: Which way should I go?
Cat: That depends on where you are going.
Alice: I don’t know.
Cat: Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”
―Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
This conversation between Alice and the Cheshire Cat has remained etched in my mind as a profound truth which we tend to ignore whether its our career or personal goals. There are many executives, entrepreneurs and homemakers I have spoken to during the course of research of my book who said that their career started with a plan but over time got defined by accident. There are so many stories out there which have valuable lessons.
Nimette for example, specialized in economics with dreams to be make a career in socio-economics research to predict future global models, but after her first job of seven years got derailed by a lucrative offer to be the research leader for a market research firm. She needed the money and social status, thought it wouldn’t harm to take a detour for a few years and head back to the occupation she so loved. Twenty three years later she is the mother of three beautiful children heading to college in a couple of years, manages her own fledgling advertising firm from home and her spouse is the prime income earner whom she loves deeply and met him in her second job. When we spoke, Nimmete said she lost her way ten years down in her career, then lost track of time as life priorities took over and is fiercely proud of her role as the
quarterback for her family. But somewhere her heart yearns to do something more meaningful. Something that she set off to do in the beginning of her career. She met many Cheshire Cats on the way as she navigated her initial career and asked them where she should go from there and they didn’t know. When I told her “but the answer was within you”, she first thought I was making one of those cliched philosophical comments. That is where we spoke about the Alice in her. When the Cat said – “that depends where you are going,” she absolutely meant every word of it. The definition or rather redefinition of where we are headed in our career or life journey is supremely important in today’s world where we are the most distracted than any our past generations. Brian Solis’s research says – “Every time you pull away to check your phone or social feed, it takes 1,395 seconds (23+ minutes) on average to regain your focus.”
But that is not the only distraction where we keep jumping in and out of two different worlds – our current reality and the ‘painted reality’ we see around us. The bigger distraction is that when we see the painted reality, we want to make that real for ourselves. So, we step away from our plans which seem to bring slow success or money, to the lure of picking up jobs or entire careers which could be many degrees of deviation from what we originally wanted to do.
Phillip left a well-paying job he was in love with to take up an international job assignment that promised nearly twice his current income. He could not move his family as his twin daughters were on the cusp of moving to college, and they needed to be rooted in the home country. He and his wife thought it was a great move for a couple of years as it would free up the cash flow a bit, pay mortgages, and pay for the initial college fees for the kids. However, after two years, the long-distance relationship began to put strain on his wife who was taking care of the children and attending to his aged parents in the same city.
Even Phillip began to reconsider the trade-offs between the lure of a low-skill, high-pay job that was giving him diminishing job satisfaction every passing day, and the stretched relationship that was beginning to tell on his health too. He felt hooked inside a golden cage where it was evident that his heart yearned for the freedom to gain happiness outside, in the form of seeing his daughters grow into college and being by his wife’s side to emotionally support her. She had already taken a break from her career to focus on the personal needs of the family. Another year passed, and the situation was fast developing into a silent crisis, and for Phillip the goalpost moved every six months as he took mini family vacations to make up for his distant family relationship. The money was just too good to leave the job. End of third year, he got a call from his wife that she could not take it anymore. They debated and decided this was it – Phillip would resign and move back, but then he had been so busy trying to manage both fronts that he had not built any Plan B. And at his level, new job assignments were not easy to come by in his home country, especially in an uncertain economic scenario where many were in fact losing jobs. It was quite a conundrum. They decided Phillip would move back anyways and look for jobs and try a small gig on his own. Details at some other point but he managed to rediscover what he really wanted to do in his life that would not only make him happy but also pay him well to sustain his happiness.
So how do we discover the Alice in you? Depends on where you want to go! Sorry, I am not being funny here. It is when we need the answer most, we need to step outside our comfort zone to get it. M. Scott Peck stated this beautifully: “Our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers”.
Every person knows this. Well almost everyone. So, what stops us from discovering the answer. It is fear of leaving our status quo and crossing the bridge. Learnings from the most successful CEOs and even those who failed to make a comeback have been clear on one account – they never paused to reflect when the going was good and they were under too much pressure to reflect when the going was not so good.
So, the question for us all is that should we not step aside from the career train for a few moments and ask ourselves now – Where is the Alice in me and is she lost in the woods?