Caminante, no hay camino. Se hace el camino al andar.
Traveler, there is no road. You make your path as you walk it.
—Antonio Machado

All that you touch
you change
all that you change
changes you
the only lasting truth
is change
god is change
—Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower

“I want to get clear about what job I want, and then I want to know how to get it.”
“I want to feel confident about the direction I’m heading in.”
“I want to feel certain that I’m on a path that will take me to my vision.”

Sound familiar?

Over the past several years that I’ve worked as a career coach, I’ve heard similar phrases from new clients countless times.

The number one word that my clients use to describe what they want from career coaching is “clarity.”

When most new clients tell me they want to “get clear” about where they’re headed, they mean that they want to feel free from doubt about the job they want and how to get there.

This sounds like a reasonable thing to want, right?

The problem is, one of the biggest things that holds my career clarity clients back before they start working with me is the belief that they first need to get clear about the work they want before they start taking steps to get there.

An attachment to clarity holds many people back, contemplating their future without actually moving forward, sometimes for years. This is partially due to the stories we’ve grown up with.

Modern-day culture sells a false sense of control and certainty. Marketers— including career coaches— tell us that we can control the future if only we have the right tools. Many of us— especially those of us with the privilege of being White, well-off, or male—are raised to believe that we can do, be, or have anything we want, whenever we want it as long as we take charge and make it happen. Even those of us who are passionate about social justice fall prey to the notion that we can change the world with our own two hands.

In other words, we’re taught to believe that if only we get clear enough and identify the right steps, we can control and predict the future.

But the truth is, no matter how hard we try, we cannot control the outcomes of our actions.

It is impossible to predict the future. You cannot foresee the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. You cannot know with certainty what you will want a year from now or even tomorrow.

The Buddha lived over 2500 years ago, and he called impermanence one of the three distinguishing marks of existence. I wonder if life felt as unpredictable in his time as it does right now, but either way, uncertainty and the lack of ultimate control have always been a fact of life.

In the past few decades, the world of work has become especially unpredictable. The days of graduating from school, joining a company, and working there for your entire career are long gone. A predicted 40% of the US workforce will be freelancing to some extent by 2020. The average employee tenure in the United States is four and a half years, and it’s even lower for millennials. Meanwhile, all sorts of unprecedented opportunities have emerged— crowdfunding, maker revolutions, and jobs that didn’t exist a decade ago.

Fear is a normal response to all this uncertainty, and it’s how you choose to respond to your fear that matters.

Have you heard the story about the Chinese farmer?

Once upon a time, there was a poor Chinese farmer who tended his fields with his son and his horse. One day, the farmer’s horse ran away. All the neighbors said, “That so bad for you!” The farmer said, “Is it good? Is it bad? I don’t know.”

A few days later, the farmers’ horse returned with a herd of wild horses, and the farmer went to work taming the horses. All the neighbors said, “Good for you!” The farmer said, “Is it good? Is it bad? I don’t know.”

While working to tame one of the wild horses, the horse kicked the farmer’s son and broke his leg. All the neighbors said, “That’s so bad!” The farmer said, “Is it good? Is it bad? I don’t know.”

A few weeks later, the Chinese army came into town and gathered all the boys to go fight in a battle. Because the son’s leg was broken, he was allowed to stay home. All the neighbors said, “That’s so good for you!” The farmer said, “Is it good? Is it bad? I don’t know.”

The farmer knew that despite our human desire to make sense of our world, it’s impossible to know for sure how things will turn out. Dictionary.com offers twenty-seven different definitions (twenty-seven!) for the word “clear.” Some of these depict what my clients are typically seeking when they first come to me— “without ambiguity,” “free from confusion, uncertainty and doubt,” “convinced or certain,” “perceiving or discerning distinctly.” As we’ve discussed, it’s not possible to attain this type of clarity about the future.

However, among the many definitions for clarity, you will also find the words, “serene, calm, untroubled.” You can find this sense of inner clarity and calm as you move forward in life, just as I imagine the farmer felt. This requires a shift of perspective about how people get clear. Here’s the shift—

Most people believe that clarity precedes action. However, most of the time, action precedes clarity.

Clarity is an iterative and emergent process. It’s not a straight line from one place to another. A “clear” destination doesn’t already exist.

It’s hard to get clear sitting at your desk. It’s much easier once you gather the courage to start trying things out. Rather than waiting for clarity to dawn upon you, you get more and more clear with each experiment you conduct and each conversation you have. Each step informs the next. You gather new information, repeat the steps again, and gradually, your path unfolds and comes into view.

It’s as though you were walking through a dark night holding a lantern. When you pay close attention to the few feet in front of you, you can clearly discern your steps forward, though you may not be able to see far ahead.

Now, I’m not suggesting that work and life are only about the journey. I do believe that outcomes matter. Impact matters. What I am saying is we get clear about how to reach outcomes that will serve us and our communities by taking baby steps and reflecting on what we learn each step of the way.

When we let go of our attachment to certainty, we open ourselves to the gifts of the unknown.

Life is a fathomless mystery. Sometimes, the vistas will be vast, and you’ll be able to see for miles ahead. Other times, you’ll find ourselves in a dense forest, only able to see your next step. You can never know when you may encounter a landslide or a wild animal or a sudden sandstorm. Roadblocks and surprises are an inevitable part of every journey. What seems like a crisis today might bring massive blessings tomorrow. As Pamela Slim writes in Body of Work, “One of the most wonderful, and terrifying, things about life is that we have no idea how it’s going to turn out.”

I cannot promise you how long your journey will take or where you will end up. But I can assure you that if you choose to face uncertainty with curiosity, experience each moment as a fresh opportunity to learn, get comfortable with discomfort, and greet the unknown as a teacher, you will receive gifts you never imagined. You will discover unexpected opportunities, chance encounters, and newfound confidence in your ability to discern what works for you.

Here’s a quick exercise to highlight the gifts of the unknown in your own life:

Think back to a real success in some realm of your life. This may be when you met your partner or made a new friend or discovered a new hobby or undertook a fulfilling project or any other moment that brought you joy.

Then, connect the dots that brought you to that moment. Even if you planned many steps that led to your success, there were probably contributing factors you could not have foreseen. Consider how impossible it would have been to predict how each seemingly insignificant step led to the joy you experienced.

I’d love to hear from you!

What experience came to your mind? What is a joy or success from your life that you could never have predicted?

Please share in the comments below, and I will make sure to respond. Thanks!

Do you have a friend or two who’ve been trying to figure out their next career for some time now? If so, I’d be grateful if you would pass this along. Thank you, and a hug!

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