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The Road Ahead: Reading the Signs

by Mark Guterman and Dan King

Image of navigation signsAs we open the door to 2012, we’re looking for a sign — any sign — that will convince us that the worst of the recession is behind us and better days lie ahead. And we found one posted at the entrance of a now-disbanded Occupy camp. It was a standard traffic sign: diamond-shape, four feet across, orange in color. But its intended message, “UTILITY WORK AHEAD” had been modified to read “FUTILITY WORK AHEAD.” It inspired us to look for meaning in the signs we see every day.

As career counselors and coaches, we experience firsthand the “futility” that many feel during these trying times. In addition to official and unofficial unemployment numbers, the data continues to show a growing divide in the socioeconomic picture, with the vast middle becoming increasingly hollowed out, while the top 1% continues to speed ahead.

Hopelessness has become pervasive and millions, including the Occupiers themselves, are having a harder and harder time imagining any type of positive, possible future. Sometimes it seems that all roads are closed and our chances of ever achieving a meaningful worklife have taken wrong turn.

But rather than succumbing to the futility, we suggest taking an alternate route. Meaning doesn’t come to you — you need to find it yourself. Here are some directions to help you map out a brighter path forward.

Reduce Speed: Slow down and put your current circumstances in perspective and recognize that this time, painful as it might be, is temporary. Accept that your ups and downs are cyclical, and manage them accordingly. When you’re feeling down, take an afternoon off just for yourself — work out, read, visit a museum — so you can reenergize and reposition yourself for a more productive day tomorrow. The old adage, this too shall pass, is particularly useful to keep in mind.

Be Prepared to Stop: After a long period of stagnation, you need to stop, review what you’re doing, and reevaluate your approach. What’s not working for you? What are the obstacles in your way? What issues are you facing? Develop a habit of looking for non-obvious solutions to issues and problems. If you’re not particularly good at visioning, invite others to brainstorm with you.

Take the Carpool Lane: Be selective in how and with whom you spend your time. Surround yourself with people who will continue to challenge you to become better. If you surround yourself with people who are mediocre, you will likely face mediocrity in your own life. But if you surround yourself with people who accept only the best from themselves and others, you are likely to become exceptional as well. Tap into their wisdom and the fact that they care about you and the state of the world.

XING Ahead: When you come to a crossroad, you need to assess your options. Clarify your values and strengths and articulate those personal characteristics that make you unique. The intersection of these is your “brilliance” and can serve as your guide to the future. Learn to truly believe in your value and let your attitude reflect this confidence.

End Detour: While it’s perfectly natural to succumb to the futility and to rant about the people and systems that created our economic mess, you don’t have to park yourself in it permanently. You can reorient your thinking and get back on track. Reclarify and reclaim your purpose. By anchoring your plans and actions to that which is fundamental and most important to you, you will find the patience and persistence to push beyond whatever roadblocks are in your way.

Follow the Scenic Route: Musician and producer, Brian Eno, wrote, “It’s not the destination that matters, it’s the change of scene.” Focus on the beauty around you, not the litter. Signs are that things will change soon. How you navigate these tough times says a lot about your ability to forge ahead during good times. By committing to positive and disciplined action now, you can mitigate the futility and find meaningful solutions for the future.

In other words, learn to enjoy the ride. The journey is as important as the destination.

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