One of the findings that surprised me when I did my doctoral research on the personal challenges of high-achieving women was the lack of clear career direction these otherwise determined women had.¹ The women loved having new goals to achieve and interesting dilemmas to resolve. Yet they were hard-pressed to come up with personal development plans that had a distinct path toward a vision of big difference they wanted to make.

I am not saying you have to know exactly what you want and that you should never veer from the path. I “fell” into my career as many of the women I interviewed for my study did as well. Although a few knew what they wanted to do from the start and set out to establish their technical and professional expertise, it was more common to try out jobs before finding what they most enjoyed. Then they moved on when the work was no longer meaningful, fun or fulfilling. A few had parents with joy-less careers so their motivation was to keep their options open.

My concern was ignited when I asked the question, “Why did you make that career choice?” The women gave me many reasons for leaving their jobs. Few made choices based on the future. They knew what they didn’t want anymore. They weren’t sure what they wanted for themselves going forward.

As a result, I found that these women did not feel they were at the pinnacle of success whether it was holding an executive position, being recognized as a thought leader, or running their own successful businesses, because they didn’t know what that looked like for them. A "zigzaggy" career is not wrong but it could lead to frustration, regrets and a sense of losing yourself along the way.

What often holds women back is not a lack of ambition but the lack of direction.

The doors of opportunity have opened for women. We are told we can be excellent at most anything we choose. How do you know what to choose? How do you know when it is the right time to move on?

I see career planning similar to writing a novel. Most of the women I know would not write a boring, linear plot line. They want their story to stay interesting. The trick is to have a desired end in mind.

Without a picture of this desired end—what might give you a sense of fulfillment if not ecstatic joy to work toward—the story falls apart along the way.

I challenge my coaching clients to write their leadership stories. I ask them to define the person they want to “live up to.” We focus on who the person is and the life they are leading at some point in the future more than on a particular position. Yet the position might show up in the process.

Once my clients define who they want to live up to being, they work on the chapters, the critical scenes and the vital characters that should be involved.

To keep the story interesting, they explore possible obstacles, desired challenges and how they might grow along the way.

I got this idea after reading Donald Miller’s book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. Miller wrote a memoir but it wasn’t until he was asked to turn his memoir into a movie that he was forced to focus on what was most meaningful and memorable about his life. This realization launched him to take his current life, which had become stale, and write risk, uncertainty, loss, meaning, connection and love into the pages he was living.

Take a moment to ask yourself about the story you are living right now. Is this the best story for you? How is your chapter leading toward you desired ending of who you want to be? Does your current job move your story forward? Do your relationships and family support your chosen story line? What changes would you author if you had control of the pen?

Start developing your new story by asking yourself, “What am I longing to experience?"

When choosing your plot line, consider these questions. In the story you want to live, are you…

  1. Creating something that would affect many people’s lives or are you doing something that makes you feel the incredible depth of your wisdom or creative expression?
  2. Giving people hope or direction or are you improving something that wasn’t working before?
  3. Getting your sense of joy from helping other people or are you achieving great things that make you feel proud?
  4. Working with many people or working to create more time to let nature nourish your soul?

You might find your plot line by answering one of the questions or you might find your story in a hybrid of answers to two or three questions. There are no correct answers. It is your story.

Consider what the ending looks and feels like, the plot that leads to the ending, the chapters you want to include, and the characters you want including their motivations for being in your story. Consider the surprises you might have to embrace if they show up. Twists and turns keep your story moving.

You still will change your story line on a regular basis. Tension helps you discover what you stand for. Conflict, if you take it on, moves your life forward. It will be a great story as long as you keep the end in mind.

Remember, like most memorable stories, it’s not how the stories end that is most important, but what you become on the way to the end. The vision of the end is just a place-holder.

What is the story you want to live? How does it play out this year? This decade?

Write your story and then muster the courage to share it with others. This might inspire them to think about their stories. Your story could change their lives, too.


¹ The research design and results are detailed in the book, Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction (Berrett-Koehler, 2010)

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