[Below is an excerpt from my book, The Lighthouse Method, that describes a common problem: Why smart women get stuck trying to figure out what they want to do next. If you’re feeling stuck, I hope it will help you be less critical of yourself. To learn more on how to overcome this problem, please check out this webinar I recently gave.]
Why Smart Women Get Stuck Trying To Figure Out Their Next Career Move
I have found three common reasons why smart and capable women get stuck and can’t figure out what they want to do next. The first is that they have focused too much of their energy on other people’s needs and neglected their own. They have sought to be good mothers, daughters, sisters, friends, co-workers, bosses, and employees. Some women have the tendency to be what Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton Business School and the author of Give and Take, calls “selfless givers”: they feel drained and depleted because they give all their time and energy to others without considering their own needs or ambitions. Grant found that people are “givers,” “matchers,” or “takers,” and that givers tend to be either at the very top or at the bottom of the success ladder. What distinguishes givers at the top from givers at the bottom is the ability to care for their own needs and tend to their own ambitions while giving to others. (You can learn more about this here.)
In my practice, it seems that selfless giving leaves women so depleted that they often don’t have the time or energy to do simple things they enjoy; some can’t even think of an activity they might enjoy if they had two free hours to do anything they wanted for themselves.
The second reason for getting stuck comes from having invested too much time in one career, so much so that it becomes too difficult to switch to another. Quitting seems too scary, like jumping off a cliff. Similarly, giving up the role of primary caregiver of children feels like losing control. Thus dreaming about other possibilities and exploring undefined or underdeveloped desires becomes risky.
Finally, the third reason for getting stuck comes from wanting something that feels unattainable. I worked with a bright woman who had a successful career in finance, then stayed at home to raise her children. She dreamed of becoming a vet, but she didn’t have the confidence to make such a leap; it would require her to “start over.” Making such a dramatic change just felt so outlandish and indulgent to her. Likewise, many corporate lawyers or high-level executives who have spent years in their specific fields can’t envision a rewarding and satisfying career without working excruciatingly long hours. They don’t believe it is possible.
What Keeps Smart Women Stuck
While these are common reasons for getting stuck, what keeps women stuck is perfectionistic thinking. Most people believe, as I once did, that in order to succeed in a task, with a project, or even in life in general, we first need a plan. More specifically, we believe we can’t take action until we have:
- A clear idea of the destination
- A detailed map of how best to get to there
- A host of tools to stay on course and avoid obstacles
This is what I call the “plan-and-prepare-first” method.
When the destination and path are clear and straightforward, a well-laid plan can serve you well. For example, if you know want to become a doctor, you know what you need to do. First survive chemistry your freshman year in college, then survive organic chemistry your sophomore year. Take other pre-med courses and get good grades. Take the MCAT and get good scores. Apply and get accepted to medical school. Do well in school, do well on your boards, get a good fellowship, etc. When the goals are clear, the plan-and-prepare-first method works well.
The plan-and-prepare-first method becomes problematic, however, when:
- you’re a perfectionist, and/or;
- you don’t have a clear destination, or you don’t know what your end goal is or what you want.
First, when you’re a perfectionist, having a well-thought-out plan doesn’t just make sense, it is required. For many perfectionistic women who are well-educated, successful, and motivated, the plan-and-prepare-first method served them well in the past (e.g., in school) and in many aspects of life (e.g., keeping a tidy home, managing a multifaceted project with various deadlines). The method is rational and scientific. It appeals to our desire to be both efficient and effective. Perfectionists especially want to calculate risk and weigh options before starting in order to avoid mistakes, setbacks, or failure. For perfectionists, there is no room for mistakes. As a result, only when we figure out a perfect plan do we feel safe enough to take perfect action. This belief puts the “plan-and-prepare-first” method into overdrive. It becomes the “first-perfect-plan-then-perfect-action” belief that is the pervasive and strong yet hidden undercurrent that prevents us from moving forward. Talented women get stuck because perfectionism compels us to fear mistakes and procrastinate until we have a perfect plan.
But humans, as smart as we can be, make mistakes. And we are not always rational. We have emotions, preferences, desires, attitudes, and thoughts that are not always logical. Our lives are far from scientific; we don’t live in highly controlled environments or laboratories. Our lives are messy and unpredictable, and we respond in irrational ways.
Thus the perfect plan does not exist. Yet so many women strive for perfection, believing it will make life better and easier, when in fact the opposite is true. As Alice Domar, psychologist and author of Be Happy Without Being Perfect, describes in her book: “It is impossible to do a great job with your marriage, your home, your kids, your career, your body, your friendships, your health habits, and everything else. Yet that’s our goal—to do everything well. And when we can’t, we feel like failures.” Similarly, when perfectionists are neither able to develop the perfect plan nor take perfect action, we automatically assume we have failed and criticize ourselves harshly before we’ve even really tried anything.
Indeed, perfectionism has been associated with anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, guilt, and disappointment. Brene Brown, a research professor, popular TED Talk presenter, and author of the Gifts of Imperfection, states in her book, “Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: ‘If I look perfect, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame.’” This is the source of the pain, or the chronic ache we sometimes feel when we have been stuck for a long time.
The plan-and-prepare-first method also fails us when we don’t know where we’re going. It’s hard to chart a course when you don’t know your exact destination. It is impossible to come up with any plan (perfect or not) when we don’t know the end goal. Not having any plan, and not having all of the information we need before we start, feels scary or reckless because we won’t know what pitfalls to avoid. We fear we’ll make irreversible mistakes we will regret. Perfectionists, especially, have exaggerated fear that those mistakes will bring us failure and shame. If we believe no vision and no plan means greater likelihood of failure, it’s no wonder we get stuck before we start.
I have my clients to thank for The Lighthouse Method, which presents an alternate method to being hyper-prepared. As my clients have pushed themselves to overcome perfectionism, try new things, and be willing to make mistakes, The Lighthouse Method has allowed us to find an effective and easy way of getting started and figuring out what they want.
[This is an excerpt of my book, The Lighthouse Method, to learn more, please visit LighthouseMethod.com,]
Some of the links on this page are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive small commission. A portion of these funds will be donated to the New York Women’s Foundation.