The Power and Freedom of Doing the Next Right Thing
When I started to despise going to work on Monday mornings, I knew I needed to make a change. As a teacher, I didn’t hate the interactions with students or even the planning lessons for them. I hated the bureaucratic system I’d become complicit in upholding.
This system promised to welcome all students in, treat them fairly, and teach them all they needed to become productive adults. Then, students walked in, and adults rained shaming words on their little heads, opted out of the hard work, and then blamed the children for their lack of progress.
I wanted to be able to make some changes to the system. I thought working as an instructional coach would give me that opportunity.
Certainly, if I were creating a curriculum, training teachers, and running professional development, I’d be able to enact some change — or at least more than I could if I stayed in the same four classroom walls.
By the time I found out that the bureaucratic change needed to affect lives and put a cork in the school-to-prison pipeline was beyond my position's scope, I had two master’s degrees under my belt and a third in progress. I also had all of the associated student loan debt. I’d worked for over 13 years in education. It was all I was qualified to do.
Lying to ourselves is easy
In some ways, developing a severe illness removed my ability to make any decision except leaving that career. In other ways, getting sick gave me the freedom to finally look inside myself and forge my own path.
Once we realized I might never be able to go back to teaching, I started discussing my next steps with my husband, Jim. The first thing out of my mouth was a giant lie, and then other ones tumbled out.
“I can’t do anything else.”
“I’m not qualified to do anything else.”
“I’m not good at anything else.”
“If I quit my Master’s program, I’ll have wasted money and time.”
“If I quit, I’ll have failed.”
Lies about our professional abilities grow and fester until we can’t even see around them to find our truth. We get so busy living through those lies that we don’t stop to consider that there’s a different way.
When going back to teaching seemed an impossibility, and these lies stood in front of me, a pile of should dos and could nots, I lost my ability to believe in my own power.
We benefit from the lies
When we hold onto these limiting beliefs about ourselves and our professional abilities, we get to stay safe. Humans are naturally risk-averse, and staying where we are — even in a career we don’t like — is safer than branching out.
Branching out means admitting that, somewhere along the way, you made a decision that didn’t serve you. FOr me, it was the decision to change my major from journalism and political science to education. I made that choice because I spent too much time listening to what other people thought I should be doing to make my own choices. I lost myself in the noise.
Making a decision to change careers means accepting that you’ll be reverting to the bottom rung of the professional ladder for a while. Does anyone else cringe when they read that? I’ve done it, I’m still doing it, and I cringe. Starting over is scary, like a rollercoaster. You feel like the world is dropping out from under you, and your stomach is all jumbled, but you also love the exhilaration and can’t wait for more.
The truth isn’t always easy, but it is always better
Developing a growth mindset is the first step toward making any change, and by reframing the lies you tell yourself you can start to build yours. Imagine if, instead of these lies about our abilities and our education, we believed these truths?
If I quit, it just means I’m making a different decision. Quitting is not a failure.
My education was not wasted — skills are transferable.
Being sick gave me plenty of time to sit in silence and contemplate my new reality. Sometimes The thoughts were too much, and I numbed them with a Netflix binge. Other times, though, I listened, I asked myself questions, I listened some more, and then something incredible happened. Right after I thought the weight of my indecision might suffocate me, just before I got to the point of paralyzing fear, I found a clearing.
When you get really quiet and listen to what’s inside, instead of all the noise from others, you’ll figure out that taking the next right step isn’t such a big deal after all. I’m a big fan of using meditation to find that center of certainty. Insight timer provides free, guided meditations by topic. The right type of meditation can actually rewire your brain which is exactly what you need to get past limiting beliefs.
Was I qualified to be a writer? No, not really. I gave up that dream too early in my educational career to call myself a professional.
Was I good at writing? Eh, that’s subjective. Sometimes I string magical words together, and other times I think I write gibberish that might actually make a reader dumber should they dare to pick it up.
Did I love writing? Hell fucking yes.
What should I do next? Write words on a page.
That’s it—the next right thing.
Then, once you’ve done that, you get quiet again and do the next right thing, and the next until you look back and realize you’ve built a portfolio that now qualifies you for a new career.
Find your next right thing
If you go to work every day and have to drag yourself through the doors of the building or down a bottle of wine after work just to forget about the day, maybe you could do the next right thing for yourself.
What do you wish you were doing for work?
Is that what you’re actually doing?
What qualifications might you need to do that thing you want?
What is the next right thing you can do to move in that direction?
For the women I’ve worked with on this question, the answers are always different. One woman wanted to set up an online custom clothing business, so she started creating designs to upload to an Etsy shop. Another woman wanted to open a coffee shop, so she started a side hustle to increase her income so she’d have the capital to move in that direction. A third client decided to get her resume together and start sending it out.
None of those women blew up their current careers, but once they started taking steps toward their goals, their jobs no longer seemed like drudgery. For some, their jobs were temporary stops along their goal-crushing journey. For others, they found creative fulfillment outside of their day job.
If you no longer see yourself as stuck and without options, it’s easier to be thankful for the money you make waiting tables or writing lesson plans if you see how it helps you access your dreams. Then, you can just keep doing the next right thing.
Maria Chapman is a parent of five, a personal coach, and a chronic illness warrior. Follow her newsletter, Lies We Tell Ourselves here.
A previous version of this story appeared on the author’s blog.