Why Investing in Yourself Matters

Why can it be so hard to invest in ourselves?  I have writing I want to do, work on IncipitCareer that I want to get out in front of clients and potential clients; I have content that I want to develop, things I want to bake, hikes to do.  Yet it just seems so hard to stop and carve out time to write, think, bake, go out for a quick walk or hike.   I've been musing on this all week because of a toilet.  

Recently, my girlfriend and I bought a house.  It's an exciting but scary journey because the house needs quite a bit of work.  We're committed to replacing big, expensive parts:  the roof and the gutters as well as doing work on a bathroom.  Despite our estimates and budget, there've already been a few unexpected expenses that have us nervously waiting for the final bill and watching our bank account.

So I wasn't thrilled when the contractor called on Monday (of all days!) last week.  He reported that the elderly toilet in the bathroom had developed a large crack in the tank and was leaking.  There was nothing to do but sigh, okay his request to replace the toilet, and add a little more to the bill.  When the toilet breaks, what are you going to do?  

We're coping with the fallout of delayed maintenance.  Little things have built up over time until bigger, and more expensive damage has been done. I thought about this in terms of my own work.  How easy it is to let things slide for another day.   It's easy to think: "I can write a new blog post tomorrow."  "Today's busy; I'll get around to that market research tomorrow night."  And then suddenly two months have gone by without me writing a new post or working on new content.

How many times have you done this?   Delayed self-care, eating well, working on that side project that energizes you, taking that risk?  How can we give to ourselves when we already feel so maxed out giving to and helping others? Doubt, fear, and the fact that self-investment takes time and commitment holds us back.  

But I've found that when I make time for myself--to write, to move, to create--I'm a happier, healthier, more joyful human being.  And yet, many days this seems less achievable than going to the moon.  And so I wait until the metaphorical broken toilet to act.

But today I took twenty extra minutes this morning to finish this blog post.  One small step in avoiding delayed maintenance.

Where are the broken toilets in your life?  What small step can you take to invest in yourself and reinvest tomorrow?




Over the holidays, a job popped up on a Facebook group I'm part of.  It looked interesting, and it was mostly remote, a huge plus for me since I'm geographically restricted to small-town Oregon.  My skillset mostly aligned with what the job description outlined.  But there were a couple of areas where I had some, but not much, of the required expertise.  The job poster wanted to move quickly, and I could see from the comments that four people had already PM'd her.  I dithered.  Should I?  Was it worth my time to apply?  Ultimately, I did nothing.  And later spent more energy wondering if I should have.

Self-sabotage or realism?  What makes self-sabotage such a hard concept is that sometimes the answer is very gray, the line very fuzzy.  I, like all of us, have only a certain amount of time in my day.  Spending it applying to jobs where I'm not qualified and have little or no chance of landing an interview is not a good use of my time and actually prevents me from doing work that helps me move forward in my personal and career goals.  That's easy to see.

But self-sabotage is more pernicious in the times when we talk ourselves down or out of doing something.  As my friend and co-host, Lisa Munro says in "Who the Hell Are You," wanting success is too scary.  And so we stick with failure because it's safe and familiar.  But in order to make progress in our lives towards the things we want, we need to start calling out when we self-sabotage ourselves.  

Self-sabotage is a tough topic to talk about.  Like those things we do or say that make us squirm with embarrassment when we think about them later, we don't like to think about self-sabotage as something we do. Self-sabotage is something that happens to us or is the result of an internal trait, so we like to think.  Spent two hours rewriting a paragraph to get it exactly right?  "Well, that's because I'm such a perfectionist," we tell ourselves.  Or, we have to spend all of that time grading because we're thorough and students need the feedback.  We know it's not helpful, but it's become part of our internalized narrative.  We're perfectionists and that's what perfectionists do.  Obsessing over details doesn't help us write more efficiently or get through that stack of grading so we can move on to our other work, but it's part of who we are.  As a result, it becomes very hard to back down from engaging in perfectionism.

But there's a difference between traits and behaviors that hold us back.  Recently I decided I was tired of being late.  I've been one of those chronically late people:  late to social events, late to work, getting chores done late.  This is a life-long struggle for me.  And I'd adopted lateness as a trait.  Even though it was harmful, it was something I seemed to be stuck with. I was a person who was Late to things. I was trapped in a feedback loop:  the more often I was late, the more I engaged in behaviors that made me late to start with (hitting snooze alarm a few times too often sound familiar to anyone?). 

A few months ago, I noticed my pattern of behavior around being late:  each time I was late it was because I'd failed to manage my time well. I would become simultaneously angry at myself and blame both myself (I'm lazy; I'm a flake) as well as others (if only everyone else in the house cooperated, I wouldn't be as late as I am now).  I'd also engage in self-pity (It's just so hard to get everyone out the door on time.  The only way I can do this is to get up at 4:00 am). And I would be afraid that others would judge me or blame me for being late. I would arrive at wherever  I was supposed to be, late, and a stressed mess. 

Once I noticed this pattern, and (this is the important part) accepted it without my usual cycle of blame and defensiveness, I was able to decide that I was done with being late.  Accepting that I was engaging in certain behaviors, not that I was a flaky or lazy person, moved lateness from a personal trait to a set of actions I could stop doing.   Being late made me look unprofessional and like I didn't care about my friends.  I am a professional, and I care about my friends.  I'm not a flake, and I'm not lazy.  I can choose to manage my time better (no, I don't have to get up at 4 am, but fifteen minutes earlier makes a difference).  So, I've stopped being habitually late.  And I feel so much better!  Whew!

When you habitually act in ways that hold you back, you engage in self-sabotage.  Self-sabotage keeps you from taking action that moves your life forward in positive ways.  Once you recognize and accept the ways you act out of fear to keep yourself in place, you can make changes to your actions and behavior to get to where you want to go.


How have you engaged in self-sabotage and what are you doing to overcome it?  Leave me a comment with your experience! 

The Escalator Myth

Photo Courtesy of Adam Snood via Flickr

Photo Courtesy of Adam Snood via Flickr


If you’re going on the market this year, you’re facing some tough news.  The humanities numbers are dismal.  The number of jobs available in STEM fields aren’t much better.  As they do, every year, people ask why PhDs continue to apply to academic jobs when they face such long odds.  There are many answers to this question, but an issue that I see over and over again as a career counselor and coach is what I call the Escalator Myth.  The Escalator Myth keeps people in place, pursuing careers and jobs that might not be the best fit or lack significant opportunities.

The Escalator Myth is the belief that once we pick a career, it will, or should, move forward and upward in a consistent and predictable way. Much like stepping on an escalator, we "step into" a certain career.  And the escalator has only direction:  up or down.  Since we equate "down" with failure or lack of success, we try to move upward, taking promotions as they're offered to us.  If we make changes, which might mean a step sideways or even downward for a time, it's seen as proof of our failure.  In real life, we don't step off moving escalators until we get to the top or bottom; jumping from one moving escalator to the next is scary and dangerous.  The Escalator Myth encourages us to see our careers as a process of finding the one "right" career, and then, once we're on that escalator, doing our best to ride it to the top.

I have a friend who works in IT.  He's very good at what he does:  leading small teams of programmers on the ground, making sure projects get done.   Because he's good at what he does, he was offered a larger management role in one of the organizations where he worked.  But this job turned out to be much more administrative and strategic, taking him away from the work he actually enjoys doing and is good at.  His days were spent in meetings not writing code.  His confidence shrank and his performance suffered while his motivation dropped.  But the Escalator Myth kept him in place:  after all, wasn't management the next step up for his career to grow? He'd be stupid to go back being a programmer, right?  Fortunately, my friend recognized that success isn't just about taking a promotion, and he found the courage to ask his manager to return to his previous role.  He's been happy and successful in the programming roles he's had ever since.

PhDs are vulnerable to the Escalator Myth: we spend years training to become scholars and then, if we’re lucky enough to earn a tenure-track position, we’ll spend another 4-6 years earning tenure.  The investment of time and economic resources are huge, and we expect to spend a long time on that escalator. Plus, our career role models and mentors are not likely to have made many career changes because of the process of earning tenure.  When I took my first non-academic job, I got pushback from well-meaning friends and family.  They wondered why I would “give up” if I had already invested so much time in this career.  Combine this outlook with the sunk-cost fallacy, and it’s no wonder so many PhDs spend time on the market even if the odds are against landing a tenure-track job.

Change over the course of a career lifetime is actually pretty common.  This longitudinal study, which followed young baby boomers for thirty-five years, found that the participants held an average of 11.9 jobs over the study’s lifetime.   So we should expect that we’ll change jobs and, even careers, over the course of our working lives multiple times.  But job change is hard.  It forces us to reexamine our priorities and goals, to confront scary questions.  We wonder if we’ll be able to find #altac work that’s fulfilling or even be able to find work at all. Starting over in a new field can feel frustrating and humiliating.  But we shouldn’t let fear keep us from trying something new if the old thing isn’t working anymore.

Before I became a recruiter for a non-profit, I spent a month there working as an HR Assistant. As an HR Assistant, I was paid less and had fewer responsibilities than my previous role. It was a tough transition. But being the HR Assistant allowed me to learn a lot about the field quickly.  And I was a much more competitive candidate for the recruiter role than I would have been without that experience.

In that transition, I struggled with the Escalator Myth.  I was supposed to move up in my career not down.  And up should have meant a job title with more money and more responsibility.  But the reality is that change both closes doors and opens up new opportunities. Transitioning into HR and recruiting gave me a new skillset and probably opened new doors for me.  Time will tell.

Our jobs and careers will not always unfold in predictable ways.  Over the course of a lifetime, our careers may look more like rivers, wandering though wetlands, than an escalator.  Our interests, values, and skills evolve and change over the course of our lives, why shouldn't we expect our careers to evolve too? 



When We Stick With Failure




Recently on the #withaphd chat, we talked about rejection.  Consensus?  Rejection sucks.  It's hard to put yourself out there, get rejected, pick yourself up, and try again.

As hard as it is, though, rejection isn't failure.  Even if being rejected feels like failure.  Rejection is something that happens to us:  "My article was rejected," or "They rejected me for that job." Rejection is an external process; one involving many factors that we often have little control over. Even if rejection feels personal it often really isn't.  And because rejection is someone else's action, it's easier to not internalize it. 

But failure is something more pernicious.  Failure is something that we do or  happens because of things we don't do.  How often have you heard or said: "I failed the exam," or "I failed to meet the deadline?"   It's a lot easier to internalize failure as intrinsic to us:  "I'm a failure."  We don't like to talk about failure.  Failure is too personal.  Failure is about us.  And that makes it incredibly scary.

Our fear of failure often stems from what we believe failure tells other people about us.  Conference presentation was a disaster?  "Those other people must think I'm stupid," we think to ourselves, personalizing and internalizing our actions.  Once we hang the label stupid around our necks, we're much less likely to act to improve our conference presentations.  Rather than taking practical steps to make the next presentation successful, such as making more time to prepare, practicing the presentation, or seeking out coaching and mentoring to develop public speaking skills, we flail in a sea of self-doubt and shame.  

The reality is that failure is a part of life; it is inevitable that we'll fail.  Failure is a verb not a noun.  We might not like practicing failure, but it's a good skill set to develop.  

For a long time, I was afraid to fail.  I stuck with things like my PhD program that weren't a great fit for me, or that were no longer helpful, or necessary, to do.  I worried that stopping meant that I was a failure, that everyone would see I had failed.  And the less successful I was, the more frustrated and unhappy I became, the harder I worked at those things to prove that I wasn't a failure.  Who was I trying to prove this to?  What a huge amount of time and energy I wasted worried about what others thought of me.

My life improved tremendously once I got more comfortable with making mistakes and not making failure personal.  It's not always easy, and it doesn't mean that rejection doesn't sting or I don't feel frustrated when I make mistakes or things don't turn out the way I want them to.  But I'll trade mistakes and increased self-confidence and clarity for frozen self-doubt any day.