In college, when adults would ask me what my major was, my response was always, “Psychology, because I have no idea what I want to do but I find it interesting.”
I always felt I had to be defensive about my degree, partially because I really didn’t know what I wanted to do with it, which therefore made it feel indulgent instead of practical.
After graduation, I took a job working in procuring special education services for babies. After a year, I had learned some valuable lessons and skills, and felt ready to move on to the next challenge. As I look back a decade later, I realize that the greatest skill I honed was learning to listen to my intuition tell me when it was time to move on, when I was no longer growing, was stuck in a flat hierarchy, or was surrounded by too many toxic influences.
However, I also learned a few more lessons that allowed me to create the life I love and finally accept that I should be appropriately compensated for what I do.
Lesson #1: How to use emotional intelligence
I walked away from that first job understanding the impact my words could have on a family whose child had just been diagnosed with a developmental delay or disorder. I couldn’t fix the problem for them in that instant, but I could offer my listening, my empathy, and connect them to more permanent resources that could support them on their journey.
I moved on to my next job with that skill and continued to refine it while working in domestic violence. Again, I found myself in a position where I couldn’t always offer solutions, but could offer support and resources. Having an asset-based mindset means framing challenges as opportunities for growth. Families who were able to see next steps through a lens of possibility had consistently better outcomes for their babies than families who were paralyzed by their feelings of fear and anxiety.
The same is true of any workplace. Any challenge, regardless of magnitude, can be seen as a roadblock or a detour. Only one of those will keep you moving forward. After a year and a half there, I was accepted into Teach For America, and began my teaching career.
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Lesson #2: How to swim when you’re thrown into the deep end
I showed up on my first day of teaching with exactly five weeks of summer school student teaching under my belt. I had taught English/Language Arts over the summer and was now being asked to create the entire English as a Second Language department at my school. I had never taught ESL before, had little pedagogical understanding of the theories and research behind best practices, and had never worked in a school before the summer.
Nevertheless, I was given a department, little guidance, and a lot of latitude. I talked to experts both within and outside of my organization, researched everywhere I could, and ultimately went with my gut. The first year wasn’t perfect but every decision I made was with my students in mind, and even if it wasn’t always right, it moved us forward. I couldn’t have done it if I had been afraid to ask for help or convinced I knew everything I needed to already. I had to be humble and inquisitive, and willing to both make mistakes and learn from them.
At the end of three years of teaching, I felt ready for a new challenge and location. I had just completed my Master’s in Social Work and wanted to do more social/emotional work. I moved to a new city and was ready to move into more of a leadership role in social services.
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Lesson #3: Sometimes you have to go backwards to go forward
I quickly learned that three jobs and six years into my total career, I was still missing a major component to my resume: I had never been a clinical social worker. No one was going to hire me in any sort of management role for social services if I’d never been in the trenches. As a result, I decided to take a clinical role, even though I had been expecting to make a diagonal move from teaching to social services supervision. I realized that I would not be as effective of a leader without that hands-on experience. I could only have learned about the nitty-gritty of being a therapist from actually doing it. I learned more in my first clinical therapist job than I can put a name to, including mindsets and skills that make me an excellent coach.
Lesson #4: You don’t have to stay on a sinking ship
By the time I had settled into being a therapist and was working at an alternative high school, I was burning out quickly and spectacularly. I loved working with my students and their families, but my bosses made me feel like Sisyphus pushing the eternal boulder up a hill. Organizational management was a mess, there was constant turnover at the most senior levels, and each individual leader was trying to serve their own conflicting visions. I, and many of my colleagues, experienced sleeplessness, emotional eating, hypervigilance, exaggerated startle reflexes, and as an overall result, increased absenteeism.
I finally sought advice from a professional mentor, baring my anxiety over potentially leaving the school and abandoning its mission. He said to me, “You keep talking about ‘abandoning the mission’ of the school, but what about your personal mission? If you stay in this job, you will burn out of the entire field of social services completely. You keep prioritizing what everyone else needs from you. When will what you need be as important, or more important, than what everyone else needs?”
It was a complete turning point for me, and forced me to identify my own personal mission statement. I realized that the way I want to show up in the world did not align with the school, and I left to start my own coaching business. I have never been happier and know that I am doing the work I was meant to do, in the way I was meant to do it. Learning to trust and prioritize myself was a long road, and I stumbled many times along the way. I still stumble, and every time I do, having the ability to focus on my own personal mission brings me back to my purpose in life and allows me to recalibrate.
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Lesson #5: Know your worth
After I started my own business, I focused most of my work on individual coaching and therapy, supplemented with corporate workshops. After two years, I got into a solid rhythm and felt ready to take on some different challenges. I came across an opportunity with a hedge fund, doing work that was both new to me yet completely within my wheelhouse. I had not been considering taking on any contracts for full-time work, yet everything about this was exactly right. I was hesitant to report to someone again based on past negative experiences, was reluctant to give up my flexible, self-directed schedule, and wasn’t sure I could balance all of my clients with the work.
But instead of doing what I might have in the past, which would be to assume the answer is no, I laid out my case and made arguments for what schedule I needed to ensure I would perform best. Together, we built in flexibility, performance-based benchmarks to be clear on what was expected, and hard stops to the workday when I have clients to see in the evenings.
More than anything else, I listened to my intuition when meeting every team member. Despite being apprehensive about returning to an environment that I could not control, I had set clear parameters, and came to every conversation with research and evidence to back up what I was asking for. As a result of my body of work over the last decade, I was able to speak to a variety of skill sets and showcase my passion for people-centered work, which ultimately put me in the position to be able to negotiate for more than double any previous salary I have ever made, while maintaining my coaching and therapy practice.
~by Jenny Maenpaa for Fairygodboss
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