Choosing between Professional Goals and Personal Goals
The following is an excerpt from my upcoming book of business advice for millennials, How to Be a Badass Cubicle Dweller.
And bam! Just like that, I laid to rest the professional goal I’d been running after for over 25 years—Senior Executive Service within the Department of Defense. Literally overnight after meeting with my mentor, I was done with it and sure of it. No qualms, no regrets. I wouldn’t have believed it when I awoke that morning but by the next sunrise, I was positive that my ultimate career goal was not what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I couldn’t have been more surprised.
My last deliverable for Air War College—which I needed for future promotions—was a 9-page paper that detailed my leadership philosophy and my personal development plan for my Joint Strategic Leadership class. When I met with my mentor, he gently pointed out something I’ve known since I was an intern: my philosophy does not fit within the sometimes oppressive bureaucracy (my words, not his) of my chosen career field. Not only that, but my philosophy also doesn’t fit within the rigid structure of the Air Force. Maybe not the Department of Defense. Maybe not even the Federal Government.
But I’ve always known this–that how I see the world does not fit neatly or sometimes at all within the pre-ordained boxes. I’ve always been outside the box, long before and long after “outside the box” was popular. I’ve taken the hard road, caring about the mission and about the people when it would’ve been easier to fall in line and just do my job and remember that it’s “just a job.” I’ve spent my entire career swimming upstream, being creative, being innovative, being unappreciated for it by most and grateful for it by a few. The few have been worth it. For the badass cubicle dweller, “just a job” is never the norm.
My mentor was just pointing out what I’ve always known: that I chose a career field where I have never fit in. Got it. Tell me something I don’t know!
Then we talked about my near, mid, and long-term goals, both personally and professionally, and he pointed out that they were at odds. Again, nothing I didn’t already know. The Lorna Dichotomy. I’m used to that. And yet, I’d never looked at it in the way he suggested.
I’ve always been the quintessential planner but for the last year or two, I’ve been at a crossroads. Do I pursue this job or that one? Do I move from my current assignment? Do I try for a rare local promotion or head to D.C.? Do I career-broaden into another field that I’m not so much interested in as I just don’t know where else to go if I don’t leave the geographical area? Do I move far away from my kids? From my elderly mom? Do I take a huge loss on my house and sell it to move before high-dollar repairs are done? Do I leave behind my closest friends? Do I take a bigger, better job with the Federal Government and have even less time for my writing career and relationships? Do I as an introvert pack up my stuff and move, alone, to a new place where I know no one and start over?
I’ve always been able to see down the road and plod determinedly toward my goals. They were closer when I was younger—SES before 40!, my best friend and I used to say as interns. She moved to D.C. before she was 30, and made it, as did others of our group who were willing to move with or without family. I didn’t leave and took the longer route, staying consistently two to three grades behind my friends who were mobile. But my then-husband and I made a conscious decision to raise our kids in a nice small town where he was a banker and that my career was slightly—and later significantly–secondary to his. I pined for my delayed goal, but it was still looming large in the distance. When we divorced, I put my SES goal on the backburner and took less sexy assignments so I could keep custody of my kids. When custody was no longer a problem and I was free to move for a better job, I was in a relationship that never bore the promised fruit of commitment, and then…and then I was ready to leave and hotly pursue my prestigious career-long goal I’d put on hold for family reasons when a contractor damaged my house, making it financially painful to leave. In fact, that’s when I hit the feeling of being at a crossroads on so many levels and unable to see my direction beyond a few months. For the first time ever, I had no idea what the future held. The goals were still out there but everything around them was suddenly nebulous and I no longer knew how to get there.
I’ve made a habit of knowing when everything has lined up and then making a definitive move. I may not make a decision until everything is in alignment, but when it’s in alignment, I won’t let it pass. It’s part of my philosophy and decision-making guidance systems that says if it’s not a hell yes, then it’s a hell no. The evening after my mentor pointed out that my personal and professional goals were star-crossed, everything fell into place and that night I took my SES goal off the table in favor of transitioning to what I want–what I really, really want–in a way that was clear and that I’d either never seen or never allowed myself to see.
I was born with what some call “writer’s blood.” We can’t help it. We bleed words. We breathe words. Whether they sell or not or whether they are popular or not. We’re born with it, we die with it. I recall telling stories as young as three years old and writing “novels” in elementary school, for which I was inexplicably punished. By the time I was in my twenties, I decided to take the plunge and finish my first novel, lest I one day find myself in an old folks’ home still talking about writing a novel one day “when I get around to it.” That began my parallel career.
When I began selling my novels, I wanted to quit my Federal job, stay home, and write while the kids were in school, but that dream was always two years away. Those two years were always moving into the future, too. I did it all for a while—my Federal career, my writing career between 10 PM and 1 AM while the family slept, children, husband, community groups, extended family, and focus on either pursuing an SES or a full-time writing career and somehow expecting to have them both. To a degree, I did have both, but with little to no support for my writing career.
The income from writing was welcome, but there was no emotional support for that dream. I put it on hold during times when I most loved my Federal job and feasted on the satisfaction I derived from supporting my warriors, and I thought my turn as a writer would come at some point, maybe even retirement. Certainly not before retirement, as my then-husband admitted to me, word for word, that he could not respect me if I stayed home to be a writer and mom instead of being a businesswoman. I had friends who quit jobs as waitresses and retail clerks to write full-time because their wages were low, but I felt I was punished for being successful and even my kids were coached to tell me they didn’t want to give up the material extras that my Federal career afforded us in order for me to pursue my dream. Ultimately, I gave up my dream of writing full-time in order to save my marriage. It was the next to last thing I was urged to give up. That last thing, the final straw, was my spirituality.
By the time I was divorced, there was no way I could financially risk the transition to full-time writer and support my kids and myself. My attention turned back to pursuing an SES. Somehow, it had always been about getting to a point of being successful enough with my Federal career that I could subsidize a hit or miss writing career that I had so little time for and couldn’t get off the ground because I couldn’t really devote enough of my time to it.
So at this crossroads and not knowing exactly how to have both sets of goals and at the same time, putting them on paper in such a way that I couldn’t deny that they didn’t fit, it became clear to me that when I retire from Federal employment, I’ll switch to my writing career. Even clearer was the insight that I am approaching a transition time and that I will never retire from writing.
Donec atramentum desinat. Until the ink runs out.
The question in this exercise was when to make the transition, and how long would I pursue my SES goal, and was reaching that goal a consolation prize for not having the financial freedom to write full-time.
This is when my mentor suggested something utterly transformative. He asked me to visualize life as an SES.
I’m great at visualizing. I’ve used it in prayer, in hypnosis, in goal-setting. I’ve used it my spiritual and mindfulness practice. I look at what it’s like to have that goal, to be that goal, what it feels like to get it. But this was different. Visualizing having that goal and how it felt to be an SES was easy and a lovely dream. Nothing wrong with that.
This time, however, I viewed it in terms not just of manifesting an SES but how it would affect the rest of my goals, my personal goals rather than my professional goals. For all the visualizing I’ve done in the last couple of decades, I have never visualized the things that might be negatively affected by successfully manifesting a particular dream. This might be somewhat like going to a specialist who looks only at the heart as a standard of success and ignores the lungs or kidneys. I didn’t like what I saw—I’d been looking only at my fists and biceps and ignoring my heart and brain.
What I saw was me, three years from now, facing a series of coveted SES assignments for another seven or ten years, in jobs I didn’t particularly like. Or, in jobs that I loved. The latter provided more satisfaction but still missed the point.
This was when it became clear. I could hit my goal, yes, but at what cost to everything I’ve always wanted? Always.
I could see myself continuing to work the same kind of self-isolating long hours I do now but longer and with even more political stress. I’d certainly have a longer commute, more non-personal travel, and even less time to write anything at all. And then the other casualty of what I saw as an SES: less time for a satisfying home life, less time to enjoy family and friends, less time to devote to spiritual study, less time to travel the world, less time to spend with a significant other, and less time to find and cultivate the kind of relationship I want by my side for the second half of my life. After working through my past and figuring out how a healthy relationship looks, how a good man is, would I throw away time with that person to sit behind a nice desk late into the evening? How fair would that be to the kind of person I want to attract into my life?
Other people will be able to satisfy personal and professional goals without any concerns because their personal goals are different and they may have had things I’m still waiting for. The Lorna who sacrifices the things that are personally fulfilling to reach her professional goal is the Lorna who attracts men who see her value in her societal position and her income potential and not in her heart or vision. These are the same men who are satisfied being a business partner kind of significant other and won’t mind her absence at home as long as she meets their definition of success. And that’s not what I want.
It’s time for something different. For everything different.
I may be the only person in the history of Air War College to finish reading thousands of pages of material, use most of my vacation time to take the essay exam tests, and conclude after the final paper that I’m getting out of this career field—and the faster the better—to follow the dreams I’ve had since I was a toddler.
That doesn’t make the time I’ve spent in Air War College or working on this personal development plan a waste of time.
It makes it exactly the opposite.