MPW Insider is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: Describe one make or break moment in your career–how did you navigate it? is written by Lauren Stiller Rikleen, president of Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership.
“What if” is the uninvited companion that emerges anytime we are pressed to make difficult choices. It becomes a nagging presence that leaves us wondering about the path not taken. It also clouds our judgment at times when we need clarity. But ‘what if’ we could conquer that voice of doubt, and consistently make choices that best align with our values?
Accomplishing this requires us to understand our internal compass and learn how to steer past the noise that erupts each time a significant choice must be made. We all have the internal tools we need to successfully navigate complicated career decisions. However, maximizing our ability to choose wisely requires some advance planning. For me, the most difficult career choices arise when work and family responsibilities intersect. I realized that I needed a guiding principle in order to decide among the opposing voices that wrestled for my final decision So I made the hard (but important) decision that anytime work was in direct competition with my children’s needs, I would choose my kids.
This principle served me well and allowed me to attend many field trips and last minute school events with less angst about any unattended work. For example, I remember when–as a result of a leadership position I held–I was invited to be one of very few individuals included in a meeting with a high level government official I had long admired. The meeting, however, conflicted with a school event that I had promised to attend.
Despite the momentary pang of disappointment at a lost professional opportunity, I felt an incredible freedom. My choice became an easy one to make, consistent with the guiding principle that I had set for myself. And my career did not suffer as a result of the rule I created for myself. It may have complicated sleep patterns or required an apology for a delayed response every so often, but the benefits on the other end were well worth it.
We live in a world of tough choices, in both our professional and personal lives. There is a never-ending tug on our time and attention, and often those tugs require choosing among competing priorities. Navigating through those conflicts in a way that minimizes the drain on our emotions is important to our overall well-being. By setting our inner compass to be consistent with the values that drive us, we can avoid the fear that lurks behind each decision. We can set a path where we are true to ourselves in each decision that we make, knowing that we are living and working in accordance with our core beliefs.
Read all answers to the Leadership Insider question: Describe one make or break moment in your career–how did you navigate it?
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