illustration of woman on mountain peak

Beware the false career peak

My Dad is a fell walker. On childhood holidays in the Lake District he used to make me join him. We would slog up steep mountain crags, him revelling in the view, me trailing behind, looking at my feet and moaning. I was a reader. I wanted to be at the bottom in a deckchair with a good book. 

To encourage me he would always point out the place we were headed to. I would lift my gaze to the sky and high above me there would be a barren bump with a stone cairn. Make it to that, he would tell me, and you’ll see the view of the tarn. Keep going to there and we can stop for a rest. If the promise of a sense of achievement didn’t work, an extra incentive would be added on. Get there and you can have a Penguin biscuit and a drink from the flask. 

At first these promises worked. I’d plod on, the plastic toggles on my humiliatingly orange waterproof banging on my knees, and arrive expectantly at the promised land. But the more walks we did, the more information I had and the more my skills at pattern recognition were honed. I learned that Dad kept his word, but only in relation to what he actually told me. You might get the chocolate biscuit but odds on, when you got to the rest stop and were on a higher plain, you could see that actually there was another, higher point of the mountain ahead. You might well get to stop walking, but only for ten minutes, because there was still the true peak to conquer. Get your tired sulky self all the way up the next narrow, scary, ridge path, and you would see the whole Lake District spread out in front of you and get a full picnic lunch. 

I am still a reader. I went on to read law books and to build a career where the only climbing involved was walking two flights of stairs to the Circuit Judge’s court room. Eventually I got to be a Judge myself. The last job for life. I thought the climb was over. I even had a leadership Judge who kept a store of Kitkats in her Chambers to give to Judges who were feeling a bit weary. I had reached the peak of the profession. Now I could sit on my bench, enjoying the view of my secure wage and occupational pension for many years, before gleefully scrambling down the scree at aged sixty-seven so I could go and sit on a chair and read novels all day long.

Except, it was a false peak. 

If I dared look in the right direction – the direction of coaching, of wellbeing training, of working with conflict in relationships in business, of becoming a professional writer – I could see more challenges, more interesting views. I could see that if I transferred all my existing skills to a new position, new vistas would open up that I could not even imagine from my current resting point. I could imagine the exhilaration of getting there, the sense of achievement and the rewards. Instead of looking at a comfortable life for myself I could be looking at a career that met the needs of the professionals around me, that had an effect that spread like a wind ripple across a tarn, far beyond my own feet. 

It was just going to take a lot of effort. I would have to deal with the fear of possible failure, of walking a path that very few, if any Judges had walked before. I would be taking risks with my income, my status, my pension provision. I’d be pushing myself, starting again just when I’d got comfortable. I really, really wanted to go there – I wanted the career equivalent of the full picnic lunch – but I wasn’t sure I could make it.

I admit, that at first I channelled my inner seven year old and hunkered down in the lee of the stone cairn. I could just look at the true peak from here, I told myself, get my accreditation and go to the conferences just for interest. I’d coach some pro bono clients after work.  I did all those things and all they did was make me want more. I had conversation after conversation, Kitkat after Kitkat, with my leadership Judge as we tried every measure to keep me happy where I was.  But it didn’t work. I was, goddamn it, my Father’s daughter. I had seen the peak and I had to get up and go.

It did take an effort. And it did take the kind of nerves you need on the top of Helvellyn in a stiff breeze. And the kind of sense you need to not tackle Helvellyn unprepared in a winters’ gale. I planned the departure, making sure I had the right equipment. I saved a rainy day fund to tide me over the months of building a client base and made sure I left work on the best terms. I set aside money to get the top quality post-grad training my clients deserved me to have. I had my own coaching and did my own internal work so that when the time was right I was ready to bound up that path and see what lay ahead of me.

And here I am with my own business, coaching wonderful, inspiring professionals who are tackling their own peaks and finding better life views for themselves. And it was well worth the effort.

Of course, as my clients know, not every true peak involves leaving a job and moving on. Sometimes the new challenge is right there in the old paths. My father is still a fell walker. Now in his seventies, he has two false knees, blindness in one eye, hearing loss, spondylosis of the spine and a very dodgy hip. And he still wants to get outside every day. His challenge now is to find new ways of doing the old peaks, to do the mental work needed to see there is no shame in taking easier paths. His journey now is to learn to slow down and appreciate the beauty where he, is rather than hankering after where he had once been. His new peak is do those walks differently, with new insight and wisdom, somedays even doing them internally in his mind with a Wainwright book on his lap. There are many ways to enjoy the same terrain.

That’s the wonder of coaching. It’s not a prescriptive road map for life. Fifteen steps to guaranteed career success! No. It’s about assessing what is the right path for you, about you deciding the view that is right for you at the time of life you find yourself. About defining success according to your own definition, moulding it to your own skills and personality. It is about you finding what brings you joy and fulfilment, about you taking the action steps needed to get to your well chosen destination. Coaching is about equipping you to have what it takes to climb your own true peak.

And in my book, it’s also, most definitely, about celebrating the small successes along the path. Chocolate biscuit anyone?