4 Paths to Professional Freedom

The vibrant energy of July has a way of reminding us that we are in some way, shape, or form not “free” inside our everyday life. We reminisce about the long summers of our childhood when we were released from the pressure of homework and tests and returned to the pleasure of an unrestricted schedule. There, we reconnected to play, adventure, and the creativity that sometimes springs out of sheer boredom. There is an inner child in all of us that yearns to be returned to this specific flavor of freedom. We seek it out most often in a vacation, or sometimes orchestrate it through a breakup or affair. For us career-centric types, this could mean deciding that it is time to shut down the business, go on sabbatical, move on to a new company, or switch careers completely.  

What we all tend to forget is that freedom is largely an internal experience* — not a perfect arrangement of external variables. Who we are being comes with us from project to project, desk to desk, company to company, entrepreneurial venture to entrepreneurial venture. It can manifest as ‘the doorway to’ or ‘the wall around’ the experience of personal freedom.

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The childish freedom-seeker in me is alive and well and has conjured up many sweet escapes throughout my career — from premature rotations and company hopping to my own version of Eat, Pray, Love and a radical career switch. This pattern facilitated many adventures I don’t regret, but there was one inescapable truth that surfaced as I kept trying to shift the world around me to find my freedom: “Wherever you go, there you are,” said Jon Kabat-Zinn, the Executive Director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society.

The reality though, was that who I was being through all the expressions of my career, was someone who:

  • Was overly concerned with other people’s opinions
  • Was terrified of being seen as a failure
  • Had a serious case of imposter syndrome
  • Was impatient in their own growth and development
  • Was unrealistic about what they could achieve in the short-term and unclear about what they wanted to create in the long-term
  • Unconsciously valued safety and security over growth and contribution
  • Was committed to playing the role of the tough, smart, capable professional even when they may have been feeling totally unsure or completely burnt out
  • Had their sense of personal worth completely tied up in their professional identity

With this constricted and rigid state of being, of course I was craving freedom! No one would blame me for scrambling to the closest emotional exit door. Unfortunately, the only real path to something new is through, so I forced myself to pause and slowly began to break down the walls that were keeping me separated from my freest self.

Here are just a few of my favorite power strategies to get you started on expanding your sense of professional freedom:  

Transform your inner dialogue —

Seeing and accurately labeling our internal dialogue is an absolute prerequisite to experiencing mental and emotional freedom. Tara Mohr, the author of Playing Big, invites us to notice that we all have an internal voice — our inner critic — who convinces us that we are not smart enough, not prepared enough, and not good enough to take on a new assignment or speak up in a meeting or put ourselves up for a promotion. It tells us our work isn’t up to par and that we don’t deserve it.

The volume and intensity of our inner critic escalates when we are about to do something that pulls us out of our comfort zone and into a fuller expression of leadership. It minimizes our successes and slows us down as we try to rise up.

Our inner critic actually has good intentions, though. It wants to keep us safe, which unfortunately means motivating us by any means necessary to stick to what is familiar. Tara encourages us to acknowledge our inner critic, but rather call on our inner mentor: the quiet — but steady — voice inside that has an unshakeable belief in what we are capable of, as well as a more complete vantage point of where we are in any given moment. Connecting with our inner mentor pulls us forward in spite of the persuasive messages our inner critic crafts. This takes practice and patience but will free you up to live the bold life you are capable of.

Update your rules for success —

Here is the deal: Humans are judgement machines. When we judge ourselves we are attempting to establish if we are safe, accepted by our community, and determine how well we stack up against others. At its most basic level, it is all for the sake of survival. Again… good intentions with unintended consequences.

Judgements are made possible by the standards we hold, and these standards are likely adopted from our family of origin, our immediate communities, or our society at large.

We must get clear on these standards, especially when it comes to what it means to be successful in our professional lives.

Most of us are holding up a bar that is impossibly high, and based on metrics like title, salary, and rate of promotion versus genuine interest, continuous growth, and a positive enduring impact. If we wisely edit our standards so that they require us to stretch — but not break — and remain reflective of our deepest values, we will release ourselves from the trappings of perfectionism.

Create clear boundaries —

We can start to feel overwhelmed and trapped by our work if we don’t establish clear boundaries. I could write an entire book on boundaries, but to get us started, let’s use a helpful framework laid out by University of Pennsylvania Behavioral Health Services to explore what current boundaries we have in place. Jot down your current boundaries as they relate to your job scope, your interpersonal relationships, and your relationship with yourself. Do these boundaries feel complete? How often do you allow yourself or others to violate your boundaries? How might setting boundaries actually improve the quality of your work and the level of freedom you experience?  

Embrace “failing” forward —

There is an inventor in all of us who wants the freedom to bring big ideas to life. We often point to limitations within our organizational culture that keep us from leaning into uncharted territory — but what we don’t always keep an eye on is the part of ourselves that is unwilling to “get it wrong.”

The scale of a risk we are willing to take can never exceed our subconscious capacity for failure.

In order to build your tolerance for failure, create a small, low-risk experiment where the likelihood of failure is high. This becomes living proof to the part of you that doesn’t want to “get it wrong” — the part that knows that failure is actually a form of learning. Do this often and witness how it expands your capacity for creative freedom.  

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The desire to feel free in our life and in our work is not selfish and is not a luxury. It is, in fact, essential because freedom is an access point to related states like imagination, pleasure, spontaneity, and spaciousness which often hold innovative solutions to our greatest personal and business-minded challenges. Play with these practices and see how they might create a renewed sense of freedom — not quite like the freedom found in the endless summers of your childhood, but something altogether new.   

*This is perspective, and does not apply to anyone experiencing emotional or physical harassment or assault, unfair or unsafe working conditions, or any other form of harm or discrimination.

Sarah Anassori is a Holistic Executive Coach on a mission to guide the next generation of heart-centered leaders to step into the work [and way of working] they were made for. Sarah seamlessly unites her years of traditional business experience with her passion for mindful living, personal innovation, and authentic leadership to bring a strategic and spiritual approach to career transformation. You can find her on Instagram, Facebook, and at sarahanassori.com.

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