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  • Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Career Coach: Getting Unstuck
May 3, 2009 - 8:49pm


I found you online when you responded to a student's concerns about leaving her academic schoolwork (you posed 8 questions). Am curious if you have a list of questions designed for people wanting to live their mission in life but feel stuck, not exactly sure what it is, or know what it is but aren't moving in that direction.

Thank you,

Last week, I responded to Samantha’s request for help in discovering her mission. This week, I will focus on her other concern: What if you are certain of where you want to go, but still can’t seem to move forward?

The seeming inability to achieve desirable, obtainable goals frustrates any number of intelligent, motivated people, and drives some of them to overeat, drink too much, or engage in ill-advised romantic entanglements. It doesn’t seem to make sense that we could want something that is within reach, and that we’re perfectly capable of obtaining, and yet not take the clear, necessary steps in that direction. Often, though, the reasons for holding back lurk just under the surface. Here are some questions that might help illuminate what is going on:

1. What will happen once I reach my goal? The immediate answer to this might be, “I’ll be ecstatic,” but there may be other answers as well. After you finish your dissertation, you will have to enter a scary job market. If you achieve tenure and can relax a bit, marital issues that you’ve pushed aside might demand attention. If you publish a well regarded book, you might have to endure unwelcome publicity. Try to envision all of the possible consequences of success, not just the intended ones. For many people, once the underlying issue has been identified, it can be addressed separately, freeing up energy to pursue the desired goal.

2. Who is threatened by the prospect of my success? Are you the designated underachiever in your family, the one whose lack of momentum makes other members feel better about themselves? Is your sister the official scholar/genius/writer? Might she experience your success as an encroachment on her territory? Is your partner a little threatened by your achievement, or afraid that the balance of power in the relationship is shifting? The fear of loss of love is a powerful deterrent to success for some people. It may be that important others in your life require some reassurance that you’re not going to abandon or annihilate them just by moving forward with your life. Or, if they are not able to accommodate your goals, you may need to consider moving on without them.

3. Are the strengths that have brought me this far adequate for my new needs? If we have a history of success, we often assume that we are fully equipped for whatever life throws at us. But sometimes the tools that worked for us in the past—study and research methods, social skills, or time management techniques, for example—don’t apply completely to the next phase. Try breaking down your goal into smaller steps, and listing the skills needed to achieve each step. You may wish to consult a career counselor or a professional in the field you wish to enter for help in compiling these lists. Then look realistically at your skill set, and take whatever action is necessary—a seminar, a coach, or an internship, for example—to close the gap between where you are and where you want to be.

For a more complete exploration of this topic, you may wish to read my book, Getting Unstuck without Coming Unglued: A Woman’s Guide to Unblocking Creativity.

Have a question for the Career Coach? E-mail her here.


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