When I read that Leaders in Heels was looking for stories of career transformations, I was compelled to share my own. My story is one of transformation, but the transformation was not in leaving, it was in coming back home.
The straight and narrow path
I have long had a theory that men and women go into engineering for different reasons. Men tend to go into engineering because they like building and making things. In comparison, many women were led into a career in engineering because they excelled at math and science. I definitely fell into the latter category; I am not sure if even knew what an engineer was when I chose it as my major.
Whether or not I knew what an engineer was, I definitely understood being an engineering student. I went “straight though,” completing Bachelor’s, Masters and PhD with a one-year break to backpack around South America. After college, I landed a position in the research group of a top engineering firm. I really enjoyed much of the work. At its heart, engineering is about solving problems, and I still love that aspect of the job.
But I didn’t feel like it was “me”
But there was one aspect of the job I didn’t like. I felt like at work I was expected to represent just a narrow slice of who I was. During grad school, I had done a lot of spiritual development work and it has been a strong interest ever since. But at that time in my life, I felt like I was supposed to hide that part of myself from my co-workers.
For Generation X, I believe meaning comes from our work being an expression of who we are. In the end, by not feeling like I could bring my whole self to work, the work was intellectually stimulating, but lacked meaning. When I looked around, it seemed like a lot of other people in my cohort felt the same.
So I started speaking up to management about how people felt, in a way that perhaps only people in their twenties do! My biggest lesson of my twenties was “people don’t care about what they don’t care about.” Sounds obvious, but not to me! I was talking about the concerns of my generation, but on our terms instead of management’s, a recipe for ineffectiveness if there ever was one.
What was more frustrating to me was my sense that people of my own generation were not willing to speak up for what they wanted. That they were willing to move on to the next job, hoping it would be a better fit, but unwilling to put themselves on the line to change the organisation they were already at. I wanted to understand what would help them find their voice. So, I decided to quit my job and become a life coach, all over a period of around three months.
The biggest lesson of my twenties was “people don’t care about what they don’t care about.”
News flash: life coaches work alone
To make a long story short, life coaching wasn’t at all for me. My extroverted side could not stand being by myself for much of the day. And I came to the realisation that I have little patience for the pace at which most people adopt change (which, for the record, is really, really slowly).
A year later I returned to essentially the same career, but as a different person. What I changed was that I decided that I was going to be my whole self at work. And that is what changed everything. Through this process I discovered something very important. It was never the company or my co-workers stopping me from bringing my whole self to work, it was me. I was the one who was not comfortable drawing outside the lines of the norms of my organization. I had been constrained, but by bonds that I had created.
Nowadays, I work for an organisation that values all of what I bring to the table. Engineering skills, yes, but also my ability to build relationships and my love of personality psychology! It is those parts of me that are outside the norm that make me so good in my job marketing engineering services. And being a PhD and an ex-life coach has turned out to be a pretty unique personal brand!
Now for my regrets
I have no regrets (at least, not about the job switch!). If I hadn’t left, I may have never fully landed into who I am. I know a lot of people who hold onto a dream, and I get it. But in some cases, it seems like that side dream is stopping them from being completely engaged in what they are doing. I was recently having lunch with a protégé of mine, another engineer who loves comedy. I challenged him to figure out how to bring that side of him to work, because I see the pain of feeling like there is a part of you that isn’t welcome. But in the end, we are the only ones who can roll out that welcome mat.
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Nicki Pozos brings a diverse background, encompassing a PhD in Civil Engineering and former work as a life coach. She works as a marketing manager with a major Architecture and Engineering firm in Portland, Oregon. Nicki aspires to be the world’s first engineering psychologist, bringing engineering thinking to understanding what makes people tick! She blogs at LiveMoreLeadership.com and tweets at @livemoreleader.