THE BLOG
02/14/2014 03:13 pm ET | Updated Apr 16, 2014

Choose Your Work/Life Path Based on Fit, Not Fear

Tom Cockrem via Getty Images

Facebook and Twitter are cluttered with pithy quotes and "thoughts of the day." With so much to read, I often skip over these motivational mantras, but one attributed to Cathie Black made me stop and stare: "How Wide a Frame Can You Put Around Your Future?"

Black, a former president of Hearst Corporation, wrote a letter to her younger self in the great book by Ellyn Spragins: What I Know Now About Success: Letters from Extraordinary Women to Their Younger Selves. In the book, Black thinks back to her days as an advertising sales manager and how she rallied herself to reach for bigger career challenges.

Though I advocate for women leaders -- and my 9 Lives for Women blog encourages women to use talents for both personal fulfillment and long-term financial security -- I wholeheartedly support women who pursue work within frames that may seem to be 3×5 rather than 8×10.

My only caveat is to be honest and choose your work/life frame from an active position of "fit" rather than the passive stall of fear. To know the difference, ask yourself tough questions like:

  • Am I afraid to fully use my skills and talents because I think there is too much tough competition to distinguish myself and succeed?
  • Am I afraid to work toward a job promotion because I don't feel on par with others at that level?
  • Am I afraid to venture back to work because I think employers will consider me unimportant and irrelevant after a long hiatus?
  • Am I afraid to go down a completely different career path because it's not what I know well and I don't want to risk failure?
  • Am I afraid to continually pursue work opportunities in my 50s, 60s and beyond because I'm worried I'll face age discrimination?

If questions like these are holding you back, then your 3×5 frame is an enclosure of fear rather than boundaries you've set for your personal definition of life fit.

A smaller work/life frame you choose based on fit is a completely different story. It could be a less demanding part-time job if, for example, you want time to volunteer at your child's school or refinish furniture in your garage. It could be a job where you are perfectly happy only halfway up the career ladder or in a lower-paying but higher satisfaction position that doesn't necessarily capitalize on your MBA. It could be a home-based business selling jewelry that you keep intentionally small and away from the more life-consuming demands of a retail store. If you can afford it, it could be meaningful work that does not necessarily lead to a paycheck -- like a high-profile volunteer post or the creative pursuits of a writer, painter or poet. It could be just about anything that you feel fits well within your life plan.

Those who happily fit their work into a smaller life frame probably had some pain and missteps along the way. Just about every human experiences some level of fear and self-doubt. If that's what you're feeling, how do you get yourself out of a constrained life frame?

  • Admit that you're afraid to move out of your smaller life frame, acknowledge you're not powerless and resolve to take small steps toward a change that could fit your life.
  • Open up to other women about your fears. This honesty often opens a floodgate of conversation -- you'll find many others have experienced the same issues and that women are very often willing to expose their vulnerabilities and share trials and tribulations.
  • Consider a life or career coach. You don't have to sign on for a series of expensive sessions.Very often in the first one or two sessions a skilled coach can identify the root of your fear and get you moving in a positive direction. Sometimes you already know the cause and you just need the opportunity to air it, own it and get beyond it through the guidance of an objective listener.
  • Participate -- through an anonymous moniker if you wish-in online discussions. Just about every work/life issue is dissected six ways to Sunday in today's online forums -- and there is often very valuable food for thought. Look, for example, at the volume of conversation about Penelope Trunk's article, "Three Cheers for Women Who Say they Don't Want to Work". Join in Citi's plentiful Connect discussions on Linkedin. Visit big sites like ForbesWoman and this Huffington Post Women and rapidly growing influencers like InPowerWomen and Work Reimagined.
  • Read the plethora of inspirational books like What I Now Know About Success mentioned above, Dare Dream Do (to propel yourself out of a constricting 3×5 frame) or Tweak It (to see that it's indeed possible to fit work into your life in many flexible ways).
  • Take advantage of many low commitment, one-baby-toe-in-the-water resources to get moving in a new direction. Look for courses offered through local colleges, libraries and continuing education programs, lectures sponsored by women's professional and community groups and often inexpensive programs offered by career coaches, recruiters, financial planners and firms that specialize in entrepreneurship.

In keeping with the current trend for sharing pithy quotes, I'll offer one in closing, too. The philosopher Emil Cioran said: "We are afraid of the enormity of the possible". Indeed not everyone has the appetite, energy or bandwidth for a "lean in" work+life in a giant or ever-expanding frame. That's why Cathie Black's question, "How wide a frame can you put around your future?" can inadvertently paralyze rather than empower. You're in charge: no one and no fear gets to choose your frame. From a position of strength, self-knowledge and pragmatism, maximize the frame you have consciously chosen to fit and enrich your life.

This post was originally published on Kathryn Sollmann's blog, 9 Lives for Women, where she helps women navigate 9 stages of work and life from college through retirement years. Follow her practical advice on "Finding the Work that Fits Your Life".