When Your "Race To Nowhere" Has Ended

There is an interesting commonality among many of the professionals coming to Wayfinder Advisors about transforming their careers: Many of them actually started their ‘career’ at 13. In high school they joined clubs, played varsity sports and instruments, starred in plays and aced standardized tests in order to build an insanely competitive resume that would get them into an elite university. Once they got to the university level, surrounded with other super stars, they upped their game and used their intelligence, time and every resource available to position themselves to earn the best job, fellowship, or graduate school acceptance they could manage. Once they got into the professional realm, they set their sights to the top and started scaling the corporate ladder. Over time, they learned to use these measures as a proxy for their worth to the world.

In high school and college there wasn’t much time to stop and think about (much less explore) budding personal interests or purpose, because strategizing about what the next logical step to “success” was and collecting the experience, contacts and knowledge necessary to get there was all-consuming. For many of these students, the only thing they truly felt passionate about was over-achieving, winning and all the external validation that brings, even though at times it cost many of them their physical or mental health. When you’re competing in a decades-long race to be the best against the most elite, you’re so busy trying to win that it is easy to forget what you’re actually competing for. Many often find the reward isn’t worth the effort.

Some professionals who competed in this ‘race to nowhere‘ start to question the value of their choices in their late 20s to early 40s. The pristine education / career pedigree they worked so hard for and that they wholeheartedly thought would buy them a happy, secure, successful adulthood just…didn’t. Instead, many of our country’s ‘best and brightest’ feel empty, confused, and anxious. As these professionals take stock of their careers – the hours they work, how they spend them, their impact on the world, the people they surround themselves with and how they feel everyday walking into the office, many think, “Surely this can’t be the prize for all the work I’ve done trying to be the best since I was a kid?!” Yeah, sorry. It is.

I know. I’ve been there too.

Of course, there are plenty of high achieving professionals who have worked hard all their lives and are perfectly content with where their career has taken them and how it has paid off. That is awesome. Kudos to them. But many others have fallen out of love with working just to ‘win’. The hoops to jump through get fewer and farther between and the prizes of getting through them become less engaging for many professionals over time.  With age, effort and experience, they begin waking up to what they really care about, what gets them pumped up, what inspires them – and what doesn’t. Coming to terms with the fact that the goals they’ve been setting and attaining for years do not honor their true nature and that they may be so far off course from a life that fulfills them is terrifying and disorienting.

Slowing down to figure out what other purposeful professional possibilities exist is a daunting task – especially with the substantial financial obligations like student loans, mortgages, 401ks and 529s that tend to be attached to an overachiever’s lifestyle.  Getting deeper than that requires faith, vulnerability, courage and honesty. But the sort of person who has been competing to win all of these years with some of the most talented people in the world usually has all of these qualities in spades. They also generally possess above-average intelligence, creativity, strong networks, and a fierce work ethic. It turns out, with all of these things going for them, veering off a career path that is crushing their soul isn’t the risky gamble they’ve made it out to be in their minds. Staying is.

I eventually untangled myself from the lie that I was only as good as the schools I went to, the companies I worked for and the amount in Box 1 on my W-2 every year. If your race to nowhere story sounds similar and you’re at that point where you’re wondering if it’s even possible to change course, some advice: Fight the urge to discount how well positioned you are to do ANYTHING YOU WANT, even if it has nothing to do with what you’ve been up to for most of your career. You can use all of the experiences and lessons you’ve learned on your relentless journey to ‘win’ to actually figure out what you want to do, and go do it.  Do not let a generous paycheck and title become an excuse to do nothing. Take the time to remember who you are and the gifts you uniquely bring to the table.  Don’t waste your potential and the years you have left to contribute to your family and society by doing something you hate, or that you’re bored with. You cannot afford it, and neither can the rest of us.

You have a choice.  You can keep doing what you’re doing, burned out and stagnant, reminding yourself you graduated from an elite university summa cum laude while medicating to try and quiet the inner knowledge that you’re off course.  OR you can choose a new journey, one just a little bit or a lot off the path you’ve traveled and wake up to what you were meant to contribute to the world. Taking the time to explore who you are and what you actually want doesn’t diminish who you are and what you’ve accomplished thus far. Quite the contrary – it’s the only thing that is going to bring you to a higher level. As Parker J. Palmer wrote in “Let your Life Speak” (a book I would recommend to any professional seeking purpose),

“Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am. I must listen for the truths and values at the heart of my own identity, not the standards by which I must live – but the standards by which I cannot help but live if I am living my own life.”

So what to do?  Make your race be worth something. Start today. Read some books, hire a coach, or practice mindfulness and do something in the next 30 days you’ve always been curious about or want to do. You don’t have to make a living doing what makes you come alive, but you need to prioritize it.  You already know you’re good at getting the things you set out to do, so here is a new challenge – wake up to your life, take responsibility for your true potential, and contribute – you have more advantages than at least 98% of people on earth. Make all the hard work and all the gifts you possess actually mean something to you – and to the world. We’ll all thank you for it.

Photo Credit: HBO

(This piece was originally published by Theresa Sullivan on June 14, 2016 on LinkedIn).