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What Goes Up Must Come Down
Several weeks ago, I watched our puppy, Lulu, chase one of our cats up a staircase. Lulu tussled with the cat at the top of the stairs for a few minutes before the cat deftly descended the staircase to escape her enthusiastic canine pursuer.
Lulu appeared eager to give chase, but for the fact that she could not figure out how to get down the stairs she had just climbed.
So, she sat, which you can see in the photo.
As I watched Lulu contemplating her predicament, it occurred to me that her situation paralleled a professional conundrum of so many of us “seasoned” professionals. Throughout our careers, we have pursued the top of the staircase, if you will, as we chased big dreams, audacious goals, greater responsibility, a bigger paycheck, and more influence, fulfillment, accomplishment, or success. We ran up the stairs with a singular aim – to obtain that thing at the top.
Through dozens of conversations with people who have achieved amazing heights in their careers, I have surmised that it is more difficult to head back down the stairs as age, health, or a desire for fewer professional demands upon our time nudge us to modify our careers or simplify our lives. We are a lot like puppies in this regard. Going up the staircase had come quite naturally, and it is taking a whole different kind of coordination to go down the staircase. For some of us – like Lulu – going down is way more difficult than going up.
From an anatomical perspective, going up a staircase requires power. We rely on the strength of our calves, quads, and glutes to lift our body weight. Going down a staircase requires control; specifically, our calves, quads, and glutes slowly lengthen so that they are controlling the weight of our bodies, allowing a foot to land on the next step. Without control, our muscles would release, and we would fall onto the next step (or further) – possibly hurting ourselves.
So, to keep going with our staircase analogy, we rely on strength to climb the staircase, which may look like determination, passion, stamina, will power, etc. But, what does “control” look like as we descend the staircase of our careers? I believe control is the ability to choose. Control may look like the ability to choose whether to reduce our responsibilities, work schedules, and/or workloads (based largely upon our financial preparedness). Control may also look like the ability to choose how quickly we descend the staircase and what each step may look like. Therein lies the biggest mystery: What do our steps look like? How do we go back down in a way that is authentic to who we have become, allows us to slow down, and is still satisfying?
Many people understandably work with executive coaches, life coaches, or mentors to help them sort through the options and navigate the timing of the journey down their career staircases. (There are also a plethora of books on the topic, including – relative to the Exit stage – my book.) This can be particularly helpful for those of us who cannot independently figure out how to untangle from our overwhelming professional responsibilities or who must first figure out who we are since we have enmeshed our identities with our careers. The good news is that, despite the challenges inherent in figuring out how to descend the staircase, it is actually healthier for us than going up, even if that means continuing to work in some capacity!
While it may not come easily or look elegant (watch this sweet puppy figure it out), it is important that we take the time and employ the resources necessary to learn how to navigate our own descent. No one wants to be stuck and bewildered at the top.
When it’s time, move one step at a time, but do move.
(And, if it’s not yet time, leave some breadcrumbs on the staircase for yourself – little reminders of the things you fantasize about doing when the demands of your career lessen. One day those ideas may help you move down the staircase with greater ease, inspiration, and joy.)