On June 11, 2013 I received official notice that I’d graduated from university with a PhD in Human and Organizational Systems, thus ending the doctoral journey that began in the fall of 2007. I hadn’t anticipated the journey to take this long but life has a funny way of forcing you to pause, often when it’s least convenient. The bumps in the road, however, are not the focus of this blog. Instead, I want to focus on the unexpected turns life can take and the untapped potential that can be missed when we define ourselves, or view our clients, from just one perspective.
When I was a little girl I dreamed of being a ballerina. I started dancing when I was 3 and never looked back. I performed in countless recitals, progressed through the Royal Academy of Dancing’s examination system, and entered a half day professional program that allowed me to attend high school half time while furthering my dancing career. Needless to say, high school was something I had to do, not something I wanted to do. None of the subjects were relevant for my chosen profession – ballerinas rarely have to calculate the square root of anything. Lack of relevance led to lack interest, then to lack of effort. In turn, this led to poor grades and the firm belief that I wasn’t smart. If ballet didn’t work out, I was in big trouble! Of course, like thousands of little girls with big dreams, ballet didn’t work out. Near the end of grade 12, the bloom had firmly fallen off the rose. For a wide variety of reasons, I knew ballet wasn’t a fit for me . . . it wasn’t an environment in which I could thrive and, therefore, be successful. But if I wasn’t “the dancer” then who was I? I’d rarely paid much attention in school, was lucky to graduate, had a belief that further education was completely out of the question, and had no clue of what to do next. At the time, the future seemed quite bleak.
Fast forward to today and I find myself among a small contingent of individuals with PhDs, am a leader in my field, and just finished some pivotal research around what factors help individuals maximize their career engagement. So, what changed? How was I able to re-write my belief system, create a new identity, and find hope? Honestly, I’m still not sure how it all happened but can recognize now, what I couldn’t then . . . whether I wanted it to or not, ballet had left an indelible mark on my soul. It taught me life lessons that helped me to grieve the loss of my future, my “self” as I knew me, and move on. Things like determination, dedication, perseverance, and passion . . . with a good dose of stubbornness and perfectionism thrown in for good measure.
I distinctly remember people encouraging me to frame a future attached to the “dancer” identity. As if, somehow, all those years would be wasted if I didn’t do something related to dance. “Why don’t you teach?” was a common question and I did give it a try, finding it really wasn’t for me. Others saw me from a different perspective – through my lacklustre academic performance, believing that I had sabotaged my future by not doing better in school.
My story, however, is not unique. There are countless young musicians, hockey players, dancers, and singers who dedicated their youth to pursuing their passion, not caring about academic performance, then finding themselves unable to “move up” and uncertain how to “move on.” As CDPs we may see these clients after, perhaps, becoming young parents, hopping from job to job, or dropping out of college. I’m reminded of the teenage mother who had once been on the fast track to Olympic stardom in figure skating and the young man who, after an injury sidelined an incredibly promising tennis career developed a problem with addiction; both of these people were defined by this new life, with their counsellors not realizing or recognizing the highly skilled individuals they still were, underneath their current circumstances.
I realize our time with clients is often short but it is important to take the time to consider your clients’ stories – what their journeys to your office have entailed and the skills and personal strengths they’ve developed along the way. Focus beyond the skills developed in work or school to consider how the full range of life activities has influenced the individual sitting in front of you today.