Vocational Discernment for Women in their Twenties and Forties

I talk to lots of women about their work. And I’ve found that many women in their late 20s and late 40s are going through an intense process of questioning what they want to do with their careers and their lives.

Women in their late 20s – I have a daughter in this category – are trying to hone in on what specifically they want to do. Generally, they have an idea, a category. But they aren’t sure where they fit. And they are starting to ask questions about how their work will impact their personal life, particularly if they are looking to marry and have children. Some recognize that what they thought they wanted to do when they were in college isn’t what they want to do now. Give yourself permission to change your mind or change your course.

Many women in their late 40s have a career, or possibly they’ve had more than one. Those fortunate enough to have achieved some financial goals often look around and wonder how long they want to keep this up – how long do they want to work this hard, travel this much, carry this stress? Can they keep doing this until retirement? Is it time to shift now while they are still young enough to establish a second career or path that can carry them more comfortably into retirement and the lifestyle changes that come with that; children going to college, grandchildren, aging parents?  

I don’t tell them what to do, I tell them how to decide using ancient tools that come from a spiritual practice but are very practical for anyone, regardless of whether you have any spiritual beliefs or not. These can be useful for anyone making a decision at any time.

St. Ignatius of Loyola started the Jesuit order and established a practice called discernment using a process called the Spiritual Exercises. I’ve gone through this process and adapted it for people who want to make life decisions about work in a mindful way. Here is my version.

1.     Be clear about why you do what you do. At the end of your life, what will matter? For me, it’s not about career or money, it’s about my family and my art. What brings you joy? What is most important to you? Your children, your spouse, your art, travel, spiritual practice, health and wellness, social justice, political action? Do you want fame, fortune, security, impact, or social change? If money were no object, what would you do with your time? Once you know what you want, you can decide how much time and energy you need to put towards achieving the financial foundation to do these things. Remember, no one says on their deathbed that they wish they had spent more time at their job.

2.     Understand what holds you back. Write down any stories in your head that limit you. It could be cultural values or something you were told by your family. Some common themes for women are you don’t deserve something, you are only as important as your job/salary/position, you can’t veer off the beaten track, you must have a certain kind of house or lifestyle, you have to use the college degree you paid so much money for in a specific way, you’ll be a good or bad mother/spouse if you do or don’t do something. You don’t have to agree or disagree, just get them all on paper and decide which are real, and which you can let go because they aren’t true for you anymore.  We all have voices in our head. When those voices are unhelpful I say “thanks for sharing” and move onto a voice that is more helpful.

3.     Get out of your head. Most of us make decisions using our intellect. Which is valid. But a true discernment process uses other elements. Intentionally cultivate an openness to your body and soul. Listen to your spirit. What do you dream about? Are there songs or pieces of art or writers that particularly resonate for you? One of the Ignatian techniques is to use your imagination. Let’s say you are choosing between two paths. Imagine yourself in each path. If you are considering leaving your job to start consulting, imagine deeply what it will be like in each scenario to wake up, get ready for work, and go through your day. As you imagine, pay attention to what you feel in your body. Joy? Dread? Anxiety? Then what? Do you initially feel a leap of energy at the thought of running your own business, but then over time feel enervated at all the details you will have to take care of, do you have concerns about working by yourself? Notice these. Without judgment or expectations, listen to your heart, your gut. If you imagine a scenario that brings you a sense of calm connection and purpose that lasts over time, you are in the right place. If you journal or meditate or create art, use these as part of your process.

4.     Wait. This process takes time, it can take months. Allow yourself time to explore and wait. Keep paying attention. Be open to surprises.

5.     Talk. Find a trusted person who knows you to help you through this process. Ideally this person is someone you respect who can tell you the truth. It’s best if they will not be impacted by your decision. A spouse or partner may have concerns about you considering a path that makes less money, or takes up more time. It’s best to have a neutral party who shares your values. They should be a good listener. Often I can clearly hear what someone wants even though they themselves feel confused. By stating back to them what they have said I can bring clarity they didn’t know they had already found for themselves.

6.     Trust. Trust that you know what is best for you and that you can discover that, over time.

You may go through this process multiple times. There is no wrong choice, everything can be revised later, and each turn can give you more information about where you will end up eventually. Discernment can be challenging, but the results can change your life.

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