At the age of 5, I remember being asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I had no idea. Since I was short (as in, not tall), I remember answering, “I want to be a shrink,” even though I didn’t know what that meant.
Lately, I’ve been doing some thinking about the question: What do you want to do with your life?
My career trajectory took its own direction and momentum. I grew up and worked at several different jobs, got a degree in English and Psychology and then a Masters in Counseling and worked as a counselor in private practice for 14 years. At the end of those 14 years, I knew something needed to change. Then, I took the time to think about what I wanted to do. The thinking didn’t produce any clear results, so I decided to feel. Feeling my way to a decision produced a different result than my thinking did.
Jennifer Earls, a Contemplative Career Counselor from Boston, believes feeling might be the best way to make life decisions. In her Newsweek article1 , she tackles the subject of mindfulness as it relates to career choices and concludes that it’s more important to look for something that feels right and meaningful rather than robotically taking the next logical step. A good fit is a good fit because it feels right.
This opinion is shared by Antonio Demasio, whose book Descartes’ Error2 concludes that thought alone is not useful for decision-making. The emotional machinery of the brain is the best foundation for making a solid decision. In fact, one neuroscience study3 showed that people who had lesions or damage to the emotional regions of the brain had a harder time making decisions, even one as simple as choosing between a chicken or turkey sandwich.
These conclusions point to the notion that mindfulness and meditation could be the best starting point to figure out what to do with your life. If your mind is a swirling sea of options, and your head is full of possibilities, pitfalls, and risks, then it stands to reason that it might help to sit quietly in the silence of your own mind and begin to allow your emotions to emerge. Your gut instinct is there for a reason. It can serve as a warning, confirmation or guide. Mindfulness can get you in touch with your gut instinct. It can give you access to your heart over the noise of your head.
I worked hard to get through graduate school. I committed myself to a private counseling practice, dedicating myself to paying attention to the lives of my clients. The work mattered to me. The clients themselves, even though I no longer have a caseload – still matter to me. The career, however, had come to an end. My mind couldn’t see it, but something in me felt it. What we’re talking about here isn’t burnout or job changes per se, it’s about direction and a sense of rightness.
Neuroscience encourages mindfulness as a way to make good decisions, but what do successful business leaders say? My spouse, who has worked in Corporate America for more than 30 years, quotes a leader in her firm: “There are no completely good or bad decisions, just tradeoffs.” My spouse’s job includes mentorship, and mentees often present themselves in her office with questions about career choices and direction. She tells them to go find a quiet place and project themselves emotionally and thoroughly into each possible decision and outcome as if it had already happened. Then, to feel the resulting emotion deeply. Is there regret? Joy? Something else? Only after thoroughly feeling each possible outcome deeply should a decision be made. She doesn’t stop there, though. Her final instruction is: “Now make a decision and then make it right.”
Being a businessperson has taught her that sometimes it’s too late to be sure that a choice has been the best one, but it’s never too late to make sure that the choice, once made, can be made right. She adds an element of personal responsibility to the situation – not just thinking or feeling one’s way through a situation, but taking action in a way that means being accountable for the consequences.
The way I see it, my personal experience, neuroscience research, and business advice all come together to suggest this: Use your brain, but more importantly, use mindfulness to feel your emotions and get in touch with your gut instinct. Then, commit yourself to taking action to produce results that matter and that make you feel satisfied, fulfilled, and at peace.
Use mindfulness to feel your way toward the best fit. Ask yourself a series of questions and pay attention to the emotions that come up as you answer:
- Where do you work best – what type of environment suits you?
- How do you work best – what is your style of work: the long haul, rapid spurts, 9-5 or flex?
- Why do you work — what is it about work that provides you with purpose, fulfillment, or peace?
- Do you work merely for the paycheck? If so, how might you inject meaning into some of the more mundane tasks that comprise your workday?
- What do you notice about the ways in which your work enriches your life and teaches you new things?
- How does it feel to open yourself to noticing moments of impatience or gratitude? Do you notice yourself experiencing your work as insufferable? Adequate? Interesting? Or, divine?
It’s a luxury to be able to muse or meditate about what suits us, what feels right, and which of our many options we might choose. Gratitude toward that luxury – the ability and freedom to make a choice – is a good place to start your decision-making process about what to do with your life.
- “A Neuroscientist-Approved Brain Trick That Can Help You Make Better Career
Decisions.” Newsweek. N.p., n.d. Web.
- Kirkeben, Geir. “Descartes Embodied Psychology: Descartes or Damasios Error?”
Journal of the History of the Neurosciences 10.2 (2001): 173-91. Web.
- Szalavitz, Maia. “Making Choices: How Your Brain Decides | TIME.com.” Time. Time, n.d.