Don’t Plan the Novel – Live the Chapter

In the early stages of their careers, women often feel pressure to plan out their next ten years in order to achieve their aspirations. I found my long-term planning was in vain, as I was thrown into twists and turns I could never have anticipated. I finally realized that life is a novel, made of many chapters, and rather than write the full novel of my life and career, I had to break it down into manageable chapters, and live one chapter at a time.

I have had many chapters in my career including chapters focused on building my career, chapters focused on taking risks in my career and chapters in which my family was at the forefront, with my career taking a backseat. And now I am in a chapter in which my own health must come before my career.
The key to successfully getting through a career / life chapter is to:

  1. Recognize that your current situation will not last forever; this chapter will eventually come to a close as the situation changes;
  2. Determine what you want to achieve in this chapter and how you would like this chapter to end;
  3. Do what is in your control to direct the chapter to your best ending.

As an example, I immediately and unexpectedly entered a new chapter of my life when my son was diagnosed with Type I diabetes. Suddenly I found myself in a situation that required my son to be my primary focus, regardless of what was happening at work. What I wanted at the end of the chapter was my son to feel safe and secure in his care, with both of us developing a keen understanding of how to best manage his disease so he could lead as normal a life as possible. I also did not want to quit my job. While I could not control my son’s diagnosis, I could control our learning about his disease and how to best care for him. So I took a 2-week leave of absence from work, voraciously read articles and books on diabetes management for children, spoke to doctors, and spoke to parents with diabetic children. I then developed a support network for my son, as well as a comprehensive routine for his care. I returned to work with a commitment to myself that I would spend more time working from home so that my son felt my presence and felt safe. For about six months, I did my best to avoid taking on challenging and time-consuming projects, and I declined invitations from recruiters to explore job opportunities that sounded exciting and interesting. I knew these moves would impact my career advancement, but I achieved the best chapter ending I could given the situation. My son was safe and I had a job.

Another reason to think about your career in chapters:  it allows you to shape your novel over time by integrating lessons you have learned in each chapter, and by examining what aspects of life you want to ensure are part of your novel. We all want to lead a joyful and fulfilling life, but we cannot do everything at once. I used to think I had to have four things to feel whole and happy: career, family, friends and community. I realized I was trying to balance those four things in my life every single day – it was like the zone diet for living. Dressed in my work suit, I would go to morning Gymboree with my infant, hand him over to the nanny, go to work, fit in lunch with a friend, and then try to do volunteer work on the weekends between my kids’ soccer games. It was exhausting! Now I see that each of my chapters can focus on just one or two aspects of life that are important to me. And in the end, when I look back on my collection of chapters, i.e., my complete novel, I will have experienced all the aspects of life that I deemed important.

So don’t get caught up in writing and planning your career / life novel from start to finish. As they say, “life happens”, and no act of planning can stop life from happening in unexpected ways. Focus on the chapter you find yourself in, and trust that your collection of chapters will eventually lead to a fulfilling novel.

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