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Since we know the grass isn’t always greener, focus on the soil and seeds instead.

Navigating through fear on your career development path.

Photo by Keven Kaddi

I had heard it plenty of times before and never really taken the time to question it. Hell, I have most certainly mindlessly lobbed it about myself in discussions with peers, supervisors, those I have mentored, family and friends over the years. Late last year, at a key turning point in my professional life, it was offered up to me again by a mentor and respected leader in my field.

At the time, I found myself frequently depleted by projects at work that were out of alignment with my purpose driven orientation. After several months of running on empty, I was contemplating moving on from the firm in the hopes of finding an opportunity that was a better fit. As I finished sharing my feelings about it all with my mentor, I was ready to take her advice as given. She had been through similar experiences at other companies and certainly had found success within them and beyond. “Keven, the grass ain’t always greener,” my mentor began down the familiarly pragmatic advice path.

Now, earlier in my professional career, this ubiquitous warning had often invoked a fear in me that could silence even the brightest of hopes for positive renewing change. On this particular day however, the statement held very little emotional resonance. The rest of her advice during our conversation did nothing to stall my desire for a change and I wanted to understand why.

Rooting Out the Fear

It’s worth mentioning that, as the son of career military and foreign service parents, and as an arts professional that has made a living juggling my creative career alongside my corporate career, I am certainly not risk or change averse. In fact, I thrive on diversity of experience and the opportunity to shift gears with relative frequency. That said, my familiarity with change and experience coping with it has done little to alleviate the exhausting fears that regularly accompany the process of making dynamic professional changes.

There is truth to the statement. There is some truth in the fear. The grass is NOT always greener. So, we often settle. We remain. We play it safe. We hide. We do not get to work testing the soil around us. And yet, that is the only way forward.

Upon deeper reflection, I realized that one reason I was able to slow down and avoid fear taking over is that I had a stronger understanding of my own capacity to resist positive action and change in my life. Over the past two years of my learning and development research, I have studied both mindfulness and cognitive behavioral therapy techniques that have changed the way I navigate challenges in my career and personal life. I am now keenly aware of how much power fear can hold over me when facing the prospect of making any change that could potentially negatively impact my financial, professional, or social stability. More importantly, I now regularly employ tools to break down such fear by testing it so that I can successfully move beyond it.

I am certainly not alone in facing such fears, nor is the awakening I had in response to hearing this expression for the 97th time all that unique. Many successfully see right through it. What I did not anticipate at the time was how it would soon define the next year of my professional life.

With this new awareness of fear-induced resistance to change in my life, I heard the advice for what it was — a pragmatic offering packed neatly inside a suitcase of my own doubt, insecurity, and panic. Panic that I might lose everything if I dare fall for the trick and lure of an unknown “greener pasture” which, shortly after arrival, reveals itself to be the same fallow, barren field I just left behind, thus starting the cycle all over again. Given it has happened this way before to people we know and love (recounted over and over again in vivid detail in similar career development discussions) the expression maintains its power to consistently stall career aspirations if we allow it to do so.

There is truth to the statement. There is some truth in the fear. The grass is NOT always greener. So, we often settle. We remain. We play it safe. We hide. We do not get to work testing the soil around us. And yet, that is the only way forward.

On this unassuming day, I discovered that my personal lesson would live in the testing I had yet to do. In the moment, after stripping away the fear it came bundled within, I was offered the practical notion that I might already have all the professional sustenance I needed. Perhaps I should not risk giving that up. There was only one way to be certain.

Watering the Wonder

Rather than play it safe and blindly settle, as I had countless times before, I dug into the soil around my feet right where I stood in my role at the company. I studied it. I learned as much as I could about new responsibilities I could potentially own and about the immediate and future needs of our internal and external clients. I dug into the structure of our department, where it was headed, and how it fit in the broader strategic vision of the firm. There was a lot of new potential to be found. From there, I began testing how my role might fit into that vision and where I could conceivably move closer to projects I was energized by. I studied the projects of my peers and colleagues to better understand both what fueled their energy and drive and what depleted it as I came to better understand the same about my own work.

Armed with this newfound knowledge, I set about applying it to my future career potential at the firm. In the process of doing so, I realized I wasn’t seeking greener grass at all. I didn’t even want to grow grass per se. I wanted fertile enough soil that would afford me practice at growing all sorts of new creative offerings. I am not yet at a point in my career where I want to settle on one particular offering to harvest. I need to experiment, try new things, offer what I am best at and discover new crops regularly. For the sake of pushing the metaphor to completion, I was at a point in my career where I needed to mix it up, to experiment by attempting to grow flowers, or vegetables or forests of trees.

Amongst my peers in the same company, there were seemingly thriving arboretums. As a firm, we were successfully planting and harvesting plenty of vibrant and worthy offerings of which I was an integral part. So, it wasn’t necessarily impossible to achieve, I simply had to determine if my own aspirations were viable in the land around me. The more I sifted through the fear and down to the root of my challenge, I uncovered that it was not that my role, my department, or my company did not offer fertile soil, it was that what I wanted to grow was incompatible with it.

Planting New Potential

Now that I had properly diagnosed the issue, I first determined which seeds I most wanted to plant. I set about discovering what types of work lit me up inside and connected me to my core purpose and motivations. So much of my work up until that point had been draining my energy and very little of the new harvests refueled me. Once I had identified the work that nourished my drive again, I turned over the soil around me, mixed it up, watered it, and opened up the blinds by my desk to let the sunlight shine brightly. Then, as a test, I began planting these seeds by taking on new passion projects and seeking out innovative ways to share my strengths in alignment with our business needs.

Over the next year or so, I kept at it. To my surprise, some of the plants took root and bloomed in the very same soil that had yielded nothing the year prior. Other plants died instantly. In some ways, my career at the time was capable of growing green and in others it was still a barren desert. However, despite the disappointment, the lessons learned gave me greater confidence. I had a new found sense of accomplishment given I had worked hard, dug really deep, and answered my own questions and doubts with tangible evidence that supported my initial hunch I shared a year earlier with my mentor. I needed to move on in pursuit of the type of soil that would nourish the greatest variety of plants I seek to grow professionally.

I was ready now. I knew what I wanted to plant and how to do so. I also uncovered that some of the areas of my career where I had once sought creative fulfillment might best be suited for soils outside of my main career path. Perhaps they were better-suited endeavors in a tandem professional pursuit, or in a new hobby at home, or in a project with friends and family.

“Never forget: This very moment, we can change our lives. There never was a moment, and never will be, when we are without the power to alter our destiny. This second we can turn the tables on Resistance. This second, we can sit down and do our work.” 

— Steven Pressfield, The War of Art

Harvesting the Lessons Learned

While we should certainly continue to embrace and value advice from our trusted advisors, mentors, teachers, family and friends when facing potentially risky career decisions, I challenge us all to probe below the roots of any advice that we find has a negative emotional hold on our ability to move forward in life. Pragmatism is valuable only in so far as it prepares you to cope with the inherent challenges of taking big risks. When fear takes over, unpack it. Break it down. Dig into the Earth around you and determine which seeds are not viable, and those that are. Then, apply that knowledge. Set about the work ahead of finding the most fertile career environs to plant your next crops. And if a year or two or five or twenty later, you look around and find nothing grows, start the process again.

Even after all the effort you dedicate to identifying and regularly aligning or re-aligning with your career purpose, you may still need to tend to a dying crop on occasion, till the soil the next season, and try again. Whether you shift locally in response or move on in search of new soil, do your homework first, unpack your fear of the unknown, persist, and adjust when faced with unfavorable conditions. There is much to be gained in doing so given we all deserve the most regular, vibrant, abundant and fulfilling career harvests we can possibly imagine. 

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