What do women in prison and Republican political appointees, and maybe even you and me, all have in common?
We all ask the same question: “What’s next?”
This past week I spoke to a group of women inmates at a correctional facility in Maryland about how to discover and live into their strengths. The basic point: do more of what you’re good at and that inspires you, and you’ll be living a happier life.
The difficult part is that so many of these women, and so many of the rest of us, have gotten so far from those things we love to do that we can’t even recall what they are. And when you’re battling addiction it’s hard to say you love anything more than what you’re hooked on. Most of these women know that loving crack doesn’t get you anywhere. But jail. Or death.
To reconnect with their passions, I urged them to think back to their young girlhoods. “When you were ten or eleven or twelve, how did you spend your time? What did you love then?” It’s interesting what pops out when I ask these questions — almost everyone can answer with something, and it’s usually something that unlocks a hidden passion. And when you identify a passion and a strength, you can begin to form an idea of work that can flow from that. An avid babysitter can become a childcare worker. A former athlete can work in a fitness center. An artist can work with paint.
During the question and answer period a woman raised her hand and said, “I’m a professional journalist and I’m turning 50 next week. Who’s going to hire me after I’ve been in here?” To be honest with you, she looked like a Ralph Lauren model, and I wondered what life path had brought her to jail as I considered how to answer her question.
“Well, if writing is a strength for you,” I ventured, “maybe you can write about this experience. Show people that you can write, and my guess is that you can get hired.”
“What about fear?” she asked. Heads around the room nodded in agreement. “Fear’s a big barrier,” I acknowledged. “But there’s reasonable fear and unreasonable fear. Reasonable fear is facing a charging bear, or someone with a gun in their hand. It’s real. Unreasonable fear comes from a part of you called the social self — what will people think? — and the only antidote is to focus on what’s real. Your strengths? They’re real. Your passions? Real. Focus there, rather than on your fear, and you’ll be OK.”
Tomorrow I’m going to speak to about 150 Republican political appointees here in Washington, DC, who will lose their jobs as of Inauguration Day. I imagine there’s plenty of fear for them, too, as they look into a future where politics are dominated by Democrats, and jobs are scarce. I’ll talk with them about identifying and playing to their strengths, about facing their fears, about creating a reasonable action plan grounded in what’s possible rather than what should be.
I imagine I’ll take several questions very similar to those asked of me in the jail. Maybe it’s the human condition that causes each of us, regardless of our life’s path, to ask, “What’s next?” And, truly, what’s next is unknowable. What is knowable is who you are, what you’re good at and how to live your best possible life. What I know to my very marrow is that living into your strengths — into the gifts and talents you already have — is the key to living a happier life. And finding work that matters.