Contributor: Morgan Motzel
Work and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton. Every Tuesday at 7 pm EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community, and the private self (mind, body, and spirit).
On Work and Life, Stew Friedman spoke with Jenny Blake, author of the forthcoming book The Pivot Method: A Blueprint for Becoming More Agile in Work and Life (Portfolio/Penguin, 2016), and the founder of the Life after College online blog and program. As a career strategist and international speaker, Jenny helps smart people organize their brain, move beyond burnout, and build sustainable, dynamic careers they love. Jenny spoke with Stew about how individuals can find greater meaning in their work and offers suggestions on how to successfully navigate work and life transitions and uncover your values in order to make deliberate choices.
The following are edited excerpts of their conversation.
Stew Friedman: Jenny, I just shared with our listeners a quote I love from Anne Frank: “No one has ever become poor by giving.” In what ways have you been enriched by giving in your life?
Jenny Blake: I love that sentiment because I think it’s really at the root of careers. Often career change is a question of how can I best be of service? Your question is one that I ask my clients a lot. For me, it’s how can I turn my challenges and struggles into something helpful for other people. That’s not to say that any of us would ever welcome really terrible times, but we recognize that they can be transformed and shared. We all get this level of compassion and depth from going through adversity that makes us stronger. I think sharing one’s own experience by telling your story is a great gift which has no monetary association at all, but it can be really key to helping each other through transitions or times of need. Sometimes I think life can be sort of like a seesaw: someone is up and someone is down. I think being able to help pull each other through confusing transitional times in our life is a huge gift.
SF: Jenny, that’s what you’ve been doing, and that’s what you’ll be writing about in your next book. Let me back up here though—you spent five years at Google on the Training and Development team and a couple years before that at a tech startup. How and why did you transition to career coaching?
JB: At Google, I was doing AdWords product training. I learned that I loved being in front of a classroom every day, but I was more interested in the people who were sitting in my classroom than in the material. I had a coaching session that really changed my life, in which the coach asked me what my life purpose was. Nobody had ever asked me that before! It’s certainly not the go-to thing to discuss. Typically with friends, for example, I find we’re often complaining about one thing or another, and not really asking those big questions. I became very fascinated by the person behind the career and understanding that person’s hopes and dreams and fears. I wanted to know how I could help them facilitate their desires and navigate through challenges, so that’s really what led me to coaching. I was 24 when I started going through coaching training, and people looked at me like I was nuts: What are you doing here? Why do you think you can be a life coach? What do you even know?
SF: Seriously though, what does a 24-year-old know that puts them in a position to give life advice to other people? How did you respond to that criticism?
JB: I just did the best that I could. I chose to work with college graduates where I felt I could at least be of service to them. I wasn’t trying to tackle the whole world, but I also felt strongly that one of the beautiful things about coaching is learning a skill set such that coaches don’t have to be the expert in every single person’s life or in each specific challenge. It’s about listening and empathy and encouragement and cheerleading. Yes, some of it is about life experience, but I think so much of it too is about being a presence for other people—something we can all give.
SF: Certainly—our presence, our attention, our devotion, and our concentrated awareness of the other. How do you see presence as a gift, in terms of the impact it can have in a coaching exchange?
JB: I think presence is rare. Of course people today get a bad rep for looking at their phones or being distracted or not making eye contact, but beyond that I think it’s very rare for a person to have one whole hour to talk through what’s going on in their lives—what they really want to create and what challenges they are facing. Presence to me is such a gift because if the person listening can remove themselves from the equation for a minute, and not try to give advice or to judge, but really just ask a few big questions—studies show that we actually create new neural pathways in our brains when we’re asked to answer a question we’ve never heard before. Clearly, someone doesn’t have to be a trained coach to do this. At upcoming parties or family get-togethers you can ask, what are you most excited about this year? What are you most proud of from 2014? What’s the big, wild, and crazy thing you would do if time and money weren’t an issue? Go outside of the box a little bit and just listen. Hear what people have to say.
SF: I think those are three really good questions that people should be asking each other around this time of year. That’s great advice that we can all do to be informal coaches to our family members and friends.
JB: I also love asking questions like what did you learn this year? What are the three biggest lessons that you learned? Or even what was the biggest blessing in disguise? That last one I especially love because it takes something which, at the time, could have seemed like a really bad situation, and then it asks a person to find the good in it.
SF: Back in 2005, your book Life after College came out, which you wrote as a shortcut manual to guide college students through a major time of transition into the working world. Could you give us the one-minute version of what insights you distilled down about creating simplicity out of complexity?
JB: I would say the biggest thing is taking the time to ask yourself what do I really want? That’s not to say that we can have everything we want, and we can have it tomorrow; it’s not about being entitled. It’s about uncovering what is important to you and what are your values. What do you want to create in the next year, in terms of your career? Your friendships? Your family relationships? Your home environment? Your physical activity? What rejuvenates you? In my book, there’s a chapter dedicated to each of these main life areas—I provided tips, quotes, questions; a whole hodgepodge of resources.
I would say the real value is actually to be had when a reader writes in the book. I say on the front: This book is not precious, please write in it! I think that actually goes for all books—write in the margins, circle things, dog-ear it—make it your own, and own it. It’s not about the author, and I’m not an expert up on a pedestal; I’m not perfect by any stretch. The real value comes when you can read someone’s work and get a hint of inspiration and then take a small action.
SF: Let’s get into successful career transitions. What are the key ingredients? What must people be mindful of as they’re thinking of changes in their careers and how those changes will affect the rest of their lives?
JB: The first thing I want people to remember is that there’s nothing wrong with you. We’re going to change careers much more frequently than previous generations. The mid-life and quarter-life crises are, in a way, relics of the past. We can expect that feeling every few years, so “pivot” is the new normal. We talk about startups pivoting and changing direction, and now people are going to have to learn the skill as well—at least the ones who are going to be the most agile and flexible.
The way to pivot is to think like a basketball player and have a three step process: plant, scan, and pilot. If you can picture a basketball player, they start by rounding down in their plant foot. Your planted feet are your strengths, your networks, what you love, and what you’re good at. Essentially, it’s what’s already working. I think so often we forget what we already have so much under our belts, and we’re so overwhelmed by what we don’t have or what’s not working. You really have to start from that grounded foundation—what are my strengths, what do I know—and then scan just like the basketball player with one foot grounded. Scanning the horizons should actually be fun: talk to people, see what’s out there, and identify your options. Then the third step, pilot, is all about taking the pressure off to have the next perfect career move. Pilot implies small experiments, just like a pilot TV show is one episode to see if the whole show is really going to catch. In your own career, what small, tiny experiments can you run to just assess, do I like this thing? Am I good at it? Is there more where that came from?
SF: Can you give us an example of that?
JB: Sure. When I was at Google doing AdWords product training, I started to realize that I was mostly interested in people. I had an idea that I wanted to make coaching as easy for Google employees to sign up for as a massage, one of the favorite perks of the company. I created a Google 10% Project with a friend to make coaching accessible to all employees, not just executives. Up until that point you had to get approval for coaching from your managers because career coaching is quite expensive. We created a program called Career Guru, and it ended up becoming a global program a year-and-a-half later, when a career development team was formed at Google. I was well-positioned to get a role on that team, but if I hadn’t done my little pilot and started with that 10% Project, I may not have gotten on the team when it was eventually created.
SF: That’s a great example. I’d love to hear you talk about how that enriched the rest of your life. That’s really the focus on our show here: how changes in work and life can influence the other parts of your life and vice versa.
JB: Stew, I love the idea you talk about regarding having that dance between work and life and a healthy integration between the two. I also love the idea of piloting as being a scientist in your own life. I think the enrichment extends far beyond work: what hobbies bring me joy? Maybe I take one cooking class, and it leads to a whole flurry of activity, but it has to start with just one little experiment to see if you’re going to like the thing you’re trying out.
I think the same goes for relationships too. We put feelers out. In careers, for example, there’s a lot of pressure to find a mentor, but I’ve always found it awkward to just go up to someone and say, will you be my mentor? The pilot approach, on the other hand, would be to just schedule one phone call. If you hit it off, great, and if not, that’s okay too. Over time you can let it develop into something.
SF: That reduces the pressure by making it lower risk, and, as you mentioned before, there’s a lot to be learned in that encounter, especially if you’re paying close attention to what that experiment might yield.
JB: Absolutely. I think the spirit of always piloting is that you’re never done. You don’t have to be perfect and you don’t ever have to have all the answers. I think we humans like a challenge, and we like complex problems, so if we knew exactly what we wanted next in our careers and in our lives we would be bored! There’s definitely some element of just celebrating the confusion.
SF: Earlier you started talking about how Millennials should begin to see pivoting as a regular part of life and perceive the “new normal” to be one of continual transition. What do you see in the millennial generation specifically in terms of managing the relationship between work and the rest of life? How is that playing out, and what advice do you have for people starting out now regarding that crucial relationship between work, home, community, and the private self?
JB: In a way, people are wanting to integrate these dimensions of their lives now more than ever. Work is no longer something that we just leave at the office. I think there’s a real sense today that people are willing to forgo some amount of financial compensation in exchange for more meaning in their work. Right from the get-go, Millennials are not trying to be entitled, rather they just want to contribute. They want to give, they want to serve, and they don’t want to file papers because they want to have an impact. I think that’s wonderful.
The question becomes, how can you start at the entry level—where you likely don’t have the perfect job yet—and still add meaning anyway? If your job isn’t 100% integrated into your life the way you would like it to be, or it isn’t your most-soul connected job, then do what you can do on the side. That’s not to say that I think everyone needs to create a side-business, but even if it’s just one hour per week of writing or volunteering or joining a professional association, I’d invite you to create the solution that you’re seeking. It doesn’t all have to happen from your day job.
SF: Find some small piece of what you’re doing that’s going to give you a sense of purpose that will inspire you. That seems to me also to be the single defining feature of the Millennial generation: this desire to create meaning and to heal the broken world that we’re living in, in ways that the previous generations haven’t really taken as seriously.
JB: Right. I find that, first and foremost, Millennials want to feel that they’re growing. If they’re not growing within an organization pretty quickly, they’ll be antsy, and rightly so, because they don’t want to become obsolete. The other side of the growth, however, is impact. People of all ages who are very growth-oriented individuals and enjoy learning feel most engaged when they are personally learning and growing. After that need is met, they want to focus on making a bigger impact. The question is when you do hit a plateau in your career, what skills would be most exciting to cultivate? And how can you build a bridge from where you are now to where you want to go and the impact you eventually want to have?
SF: So it’s finding time to complete those small steps toward an idea that inspires you and allows you to give in ways that you’re not able to right now?
JB: Absolutely. And building a long-term bridge drops the need for credentials. Stew, back to your original question, regarding one small thing we can each do to add value to someone’s life? Listening does not require any extra credentials than you have now. Anyone can do that.
Jenny is the author of the forthcoming book, The Pivot Method: A Blueprint for Becoming More Agile in Work and Life (Portfolio/Penguin, 2016), and Life After College (Running Press, 2011), which is based on her blog of the same name. Today you can find her at JennyBlake.me, where she explores systems at the intersection of mind, body and business. Jenny is based in New York City. Follow her on Twitter @jenny_blake.
About the Author
Morgan Motzel is an undergraduate senior in the Huntsman Program in International Studies and Business at Penn focusing on Management and Latin America.