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How to catapult your career and life by accepting the blankness

Lessons in originality and change from great photographers.

photo by Dana Poul-Graf
photo by Dana Poul-Graf

Your career is humming along when, suddenly, someone or something slams on the brakes.

Maybe your boss assigns you to a new industry, an area where you have no experience or knowledge. Maybe you or your partner are pregnant — a happy brake slam, but a slam nonetheless. Perhaps your spouse announces one night at dinner that the company is sending him — and therefore you — overseas. Or maybe your company is downsizing, and you just learned that you’ve been deemed part of the “excess weight.”  

In any case the effect is similar: suddenly, you find that you can’t rely on what formed a firm foundation in your life up to this point. 

There’s a sudden blank. 

Suddenly you must redefine yourself. 

It happens. Challenging moments arise in every career.  Some moments not only test your capabilities, endurance and intellect; they also make you question what you know and who you are.  With a good dose of self-awareness, honesty, and a willingness to develop new talents or shift your mindset, you may be able to turn such situations into an advantage, using them to catapult your life and career. 

But how exactly can you do that?

How can you use a challenging moment to springboard your career or re-create your previous success under new circumstances? 

Recently, I came across an article on Medium that reframed my thinking on how to handle situations like those. (Thanks Renae Gregoire  for introducing me to Medium.) The piece is by Josh Rose, a photographer who shares his insights on cultivating originality in photography. In it, Rose discusses the process of creating pictures, and the sad fact that while we may think we’re original in the way we take photos, most of us aren’t. Most of us also cannot rely on tools and technology to differentiate our photos because the same tools and technology are now available to everyone. 

This is true in business as well. When it comes to getting that promotion or winning that bid, neither studies nor certified trainings will make you stand out. Today, training and expertise are a given.

What can you do? Can you still be original?

The simple answer is YES. Yes, you can. 

As Rose says, being original is about finding something unique about yourself. Most of us brush our teeth in the morning, so being original is more about how you apply original thinking to a specific endeavor, rather than attempting to be original as a whole person. (The latter seems in best case like a false ambition, in worst case, a nightmare!)

My mentor and I recently spoke about how our unique experiences shape our equally unique ways of looking at the world. No one else sees the world exactly as you do.  This is important in business because understanding YOUR perspective helps you formulate your niche, know how to market yourself, and identify which audience to serve. 

Understanding your uniqueness is also crucial when redefining yourself, as re-definition is an intense, self-awareness process. Rose, describing his recommendation for “creating your own original footprint in the world,” suggests, as a first step, that you accept the blankness. “There is power in accepting the blankness,” he says, speaking of a blank canvas. “Don’t try to take what you’ve been doing and meld it into something unique and new.”  

That sort of change is tough for us humans, as accepting the blankness doesn’t speak to the part of our brain where rational and systematic thinking resides. In the book “Integration, The Power of being Co-Active in Work and Life,” authors Ann Betz and Karen Kimsley-House explain how the left hemisphere of our brain is concerned with logic, analysis and the sequential movement of things. The right hemisphere is more concerned with relationships, emotions, the big picture, meaning and purpose. The magic lies in balancing both areas of our brain. It lies in effectively using the positive aspects of both hemispheres and not letting one of them rule our thinking or life. That middle point on the seesaw of both hemisphere is how I envision blankness.

We tend to look at resumes and CVs expecting to see perfect ladders, with each step following a path of higher and higher hierarchical levels or deeper and deeper expertise. In speaking with business leaders, I’ve found that the path to success of even the most influential, top executives is rarely a straightforward journey of logical, linear steps. There are jaunts into different arenas, and explorations that tap different parts of the brain. Rose says it’s the same with artists, who tend to avoid the straight and narrow: musicians become creative writers, actors turn into directors, and those skilled with the brush find magic in music. 

Just as you need a blank canvas before painting, you need blankness to make a fresh start in business.  When you accept the blankness, you’re pushed to examine your true self and to act on purpose. When you act on purpose, you’re on the path to long-term fulfillment. You’re on a path to be happy. 

Betz and Kimsley-House explain this beautifully: “… there is a satisfaction that comes from the familiarity of choosing between two relatively known aspects, even if they are both unsatisfying, rather than opening up to all the possibilities of the unknown, which is where most of the magic happens.”

For example, when you’re looking for a new role, it’s natural to consider two non-thrilling job offers rather than being open to all possibilities. Those two job offers represent the familiar: maybe one of those offers is for a role in your industry or area of expertise, while the other represents a promotion on your current team. Whatever the familiar element is, something “known” is easier to consider than opening yourself up to the process of exploring possibilities for which you have no evidence (yet) that they are a good fit. Our brains are effective processors of experience!

Last week, I met a friend in my hometown, Bratislava, after 25 years (25 years! ouch!). She was the same as I remembered her from when we were children in school – extremely bright and ambitious.  As a successful executive in a corporate environment, my friend expressed her concerns over where her career is heading. I listened carefully, and then asked what would happen if she left that environment, where she wasn’t appreciated. Her major concern was that she’d be “throwing away” everything she’d built so far. Starting fresh felt to her like she’d be starting from zero, which seemed a bad trade-off considering how much effort and dedication she’d put into working for her current employer. 

But would she really have to start from scratch?

I recall a similar sensation when I left my long-term position as Head of Global Communications due to my family’s relocation to the US.  I certainly didn’t know in advance that our four-year stay in America would allow me to enjoy a whole new area of business and enrich my perspective on business and life. 

The brakes had slammed. 

What would I do? Although I wasn’t sure what awaited me, two things helped me get closer to accepting the blankness before I left the European continent: one, handing over my role to the best successor I could have imagined, someone I, myself, proposed; and two, having a clear realization that I’d bring myself with me wherever I went. 

I wrote a note to myself in my journal this way: “Dana, I’ll take you with me.” 

Has your life been turned upside down? Are you striving to find the right place, the right career, the right path? 

Don’t limit yourselves to what you know.

Be ready to accept blankness. 

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