After a little over 15 years with a Fortune 100, I decided it was time to change course and walk-away from a good, comfortable corporate job in favor of an opportunity that was more in line with my own values, strengths, and growth potential.
I am by no means suggesting that corporate is a bad place. In fact, I love corporate. I learned a lot and it's a wonderful platform to learn about the world and how business works. And, I'm tremendously grateful to the leaders who supported and lifted me over the course of my career. Corporate is where I got trained, and I wouldn't trade it for anything. But, as time passed, my desires and interests evolved.
My philosophy is that life is too short and the opportunities are too great to settle for anything less than the life you want. However, so many do, and there's no shortage of people who secretly wallow in existential desperation. To compound the issue, people function completely on autopilot for about half of their waking hours, unaware of their moment-to-moment experience. Life gets incredibly routinized so quickly that we often lose our sense of self in the process, and ultimately lose touch with our own goals.
The good news is that life is abundant and tomorrow is always a new day. Whether you are climbing the corporate latter or looking to start your own business, opportunity is everywhere.
The answer to this existential desperation lies in your ability to first reflect honestly and wholly on your situation, then put together a plan (and the courage) to take you where you want to go.
In this article, I'm going to cover the reflection component and then discuss planning and goal setting at a later time.
The 12 Questions
1. What's the first feeling you have when you wake-up?
I love this question because it's the most basic (and probably truest) barometer of your current happiness. If you are waking up, morning after morning, with a knot in your stomach...that sense of dread about the day ahead...then take this as a sign. It's your mind and body telling you that something isn't working. This is your first indicator that you need pause and reflect more deeply about your life.
2. Am I thriving in the areas of life that are most important to me?
How would you rate yourself across your key life domains and why? Not all these domains may be important to your life goals, and that's okay. Only measure the values that matter to you.
Check out the wheel of life exercise to score your answers.
3. What are your personal values?
Your values are the ideas, actions, things, beliefs you deem important to living a fulfilling and happy life.
Many people think they know the answer to this question, but I find very few people have actually spent quality time thinking about their own values. Without any understanding and prioritization of what you value, it's hard to articulate what you need and want in work and life.
And sometimes, we have a lot of confusion about what we value with the type of work we do for a living. Many people will say, "I have a great job, but..."
Pay attention to the "but" because that's where your values start to surface. Often we conflate the idea of great work opportunities with perceived values dictated by social norms. If you justify keeping a job because social norms say it's a good job, and not a lot of people have this opportunity, therefore I should accept, like, and value this work, then I've got news. You're living someone else's values, not yours.
You might have a great job, but if that opportunity doesn't engage you in ways that are meaningful and relevant to your values, then personal fulfillment will always be illusive.
There are a few online tools to help you with values identification:
What are your values? by MindTools, Personal Values Assessment (PVA) by Barrett Values Centre, and the Life Values Inventory.
4. What are your strengths?
Your strengths are the naturally occurring behavior, that when fully realized and applied achieve near perfect performance.
According to Gallup, people who live by their strengths are 6x more likely to be engaged in their work and 3x more likely to have a better quality of life.
And like the values question above, you have to understand what these are in order to aim them in a direction that will serve you and others. People who thrive are able to align their strengths with what what they want out of life.
There are two good assessments for for discovering your strengths, both backed by lots of research: Clifton StrengthsFinder and VIA Character Strengths.
5. Is this my life's work?
For many, there's often a big difference between the work you do for a living and your life's work. Your life's work is your legacy. It's what you want to be remembered by.
Some people will satisfy this need by joining an organization and company they fully believe in, and others will venture out on their own.
6. What would I be doing if I weren't doing this?
The typical 9-to-5 seems to define most people. You're an accountant, lawyer, salesperson, etc. And I get it, in American culture, work defines us. But if you weren't doing the job you're doing now, what would you be doing? This question stumps a lot of people.
Is this who you really are? Maybe that job is aligned with your values, maybe not. And, maybe what defines you isn't entirely your work.
I like to think that the human experience is much more deep and complex than the work labels we give ourselves, and that there is an incredible, often untapped, depth to individuality that many people should explore further. You might find new insights and interests lurking underneath.
You may want to check out the Strong Interest Inventory. This is another assessment tool that's been around a long-time, and great at identifying career opportunities that align with your interests and preferences.
7. How much time do I have left?
We are not guaranteed tomorrow. If you're waiting for the right time or the perfect conditions to make a change, I've got a surprise. They don't exist. I've known several people who will let years pass in the name of the right opportunity, only to never reach said oasis. Movement is life, and movement creates opportunity.
I often hear things like, "well I only need to put in 10 more years and then I can retire." This is all well and good provided that 1) the company doesn't lay you off, 2) your opportunity for growth doesn't stagnate, 3) work stress doesn't contribute to the development of poor health or a serious illness, 4) that you don't ultimately regret selling your opportunity for greater potential in exchange for a perceived safety net.
Time is the only currency that is distributed equally across the entire population. When you think about it this way, the question of, how will you spend yours may have deeper meaning.
8. How's my health?
I want to dedicate an entire question to health. Work stress is a killer. I've seen first-hand what happens to people when they don't take care of themselves--myself included. Work stress can create some very unhealthy habits and conditions for the body. Corporations are doing their best to combat these issues amidst rising health care costs, but the reality is working in chronically stressful environments will wreak havoc on the body.
Check out the Heart Age Calculator from the CDC, the World Fitness Level Calculator, and the Depression, Anxiety, and Stress Scales assessment based on the DASS-42 study.
9. What am I like to be around?
Chronic stress can change a person. Working under stressful conditions can create a veneer and superficiality to a person that is often not enjoyable to be around. People become short, anxious, tightly wound, artificial, disingenuous, unaffected, passive aggressive, and sometimes angry. This behavior is often not the real individual, but rather a projection of the mounting stress.
And if you're not enjoyable person to be around, guess what? Family, friends, and love interests will find someone who is--period.
10. What type of life do I want?
The answer I hear the most is "when I retire, I want to move to [insert country] and live out the rest of my days in relaxation." When I hear a response like this, I'm hearing I'll sacrifice my life, health, and sanity today for the promise of a better tomorrow, except there are no promises for tomorrow.
Think about what you want now. What's your ideal scene? What's holding you back? How might you get there?
11. What are my fears and obstacles?
Our minds are naturally predisposed to lean toward negative thinking. It's a survival mechanism. However, this negative thinking often stifles our ability to make progress or lasting change.
But there is an antidote, and it comes in the form of clarity. When you unravel your fears and obstacles, you'll often find there is no fear or obstacle at all.
In my experience, people tend to find that their fears aren't always true, and the obstacles they've identified they limit to only one solution when there are often many.
Check out Overcoming Fear of Failure by MindTools.
12. What would be the outcomes of success or failure?
I don't like to think of this journey as a success or failure. I think of it more as learn and grow with a few course adjustments along the way.
However, you already have some preconceived notions about success and failure when it comes to your goals, so let's use them for the time being. If you were to make a change in the direction of your goals, what's the best possible outcome? What's the worst possible outcome? And is the worst case scenario really that bad? How do you know for sure?
Check out this Decisional Balance exercise to help you weigh pros and cons of staying the same or making a change.
Ask yourself what is really important and then have the courage to build your life around your answer.