Based in Singapore, Jane Horan, Ph.D. is an executive coach, member of the AIIR Global Coaching Alliance, and the author of several books, including Now It’s Clear (2018). Now It’s Clear is a guide that leads its readers down a path to find meaning and purpose in their careers. It uses exercises for self-discovery and mindfulness to uncover personal drivers and conquer the mid-career slump. In this interview, conducted by Alex Schanne, Dr. Horan shares some of the personal experiences that inspired her to write the book.
Alex Schanne: First off, thank you for writing Now It’s Clear. While we were emailing, you mentioned that this was one of the hardest books for you to write. So my first question is what made this book so challenging in particular? And what kept you motivated?
Dr. Jane Horan: It was a book that I felt had to be written, that I felt everybody was searching for. I was speaking to a lot of people saying, “I like my job, but I’m searching for meaning.” There are many written by philosophers – Aristotle, Thoreau, Emerson on this topic. After being made redundant, I had to answer that question: What has purpose and meaning for me?
The interesting thing about the book is some business leaders have asked: “Oh, you help people who lose their jobs?” While I can offer support in this area, this book is written for people searching for purpose at work every day. I found mid-career professionals searching for meaning, but fascinatingly enough, these questions start even earlier. For some, it might be the first day on the job.
I found technical professionals—that is, finance, legal, and some facets of the banking industry—wondering, “Is this all there is? Is this what I should be doing?” This was really startling for me.
I wrote a story in the book about somebody who was very successful. Someone I would look at and say, this person has it all. During our first coaching session, she said she felt like a robot with no soul. She was on this trajectory and made it to the very senior levels of the organization and just went, “Really? What’s the meaning of what I’m doing?” I used the contents of this book in my coaching process. And I’m delighted to say, she stayed and is still there. This happened about five years ago.
AS: Do you find people start searching for meaning more when there’s turbulence in their lives?
JH: Yes, and this is the reason I wrote this book. For my doctoral dissertation, I interviewed women in leadership positions across the Asia-Pacific Region and every single one mentioned pivotal life-career events. When we take time to reflect on these events, that’s when real learning happens.
When I say “pivotal events,” it could be positive or negative. A promotion, moving to a new country, moving into a leadership position, being passed over for a promotion, or falling off the talent path. But if you don’t stop and reflect at those points, if you just keep going, at one point it just catches up with you.
AS: You talk about your own pivotal moment in the book and you talk about the events that led you living in China after graduate school. You said you couldn’t get the job you wanted in Spain, so you applied to teach English in China, but you actually got rejected the first couple of times. That sounds pretty scary to go to a place where you don’t know the language. Yet you were so determined to go abroad. How or even why were you so persistent in your application despite those rejections?
JH: It was one of those funny things. I grew up on the beaches of Southern California, and then I went to graduate school in Northern California in Monterey. I felt there was more out there. Walking past the admissions department, I noticed a small sign looking for volunteers in China. I thought, ‘Well, let me try.’ After the first meeting, I was rejected, which made sense because I studied Spanish and Business and they were looking for public policy students. Persistence paid off, I went back and pitched my idea to be part of the project. Reflecting back on it, even talking to you now, it’s persistence or an “I’ll show you” kind of attitude that paid off. This China experience provided much learning and changed my life completely. That was my pivotal moment. And you never know, but one thing I do know is hindsight offers significant insight.
AS: So you said everybody has that drive in them, and so is that the search for meaning, trying to find that thing that drives you?
JH: Finding your motivational drivers is critical, and the way to do this is going back to pivotal life events. We have many events in our lives – for me it was China, being made redundant, getting my first job at Disney, and having twins. As you look back on your life and these events, you will find patterns, themes, strengths and motivational drivers. When searching for meaning, these are the things you can hold onto. This is why I love doing this work- everybody’s different. In the beginning, I looked at values and values are critically important, but strengths make us unique. I researched Martin Seligman and Chris Peterson’s character strengths and that’s when I landed on purpose. I connected the dots back to pivotal life events.
AS: So you’re looking for your own differentiators and what makes you tick rather what makes everybody tick. And would you say, reading the book and doing those exercises, you might do that once, but you should keep those themes in mind as you go along and reevaluate them as your roles and life change?
JH: Yes, if you get stuck at any time in your career and think, ‘This doesn’t feel right,’ go back and go through your pivotal events again, and again. Each time you go back you find something new. There’s a beautiful writer, Julian Barnes, who talks about this in his book, Flaubert’s Parrot. He writes about rowing a boat across the water looking back on the receding coastline and reimagining the past. And you get a different perspective each time you look back on your life. In my career workshops sharing your pivotal event story can be very powerful because everyone sees the event from a different perspective That same story illustrates different strengths, which you often don’t realize you have. That’s why I love these workshops because it’s really not me. It’s the process and the people in that setting that almost becomes magical.
AS: Beyond those workshops, how can leaders take this energy and encourage their teams to find meaning and purpose in their own work? How can you create a culture with a deeper drive?
JH: There’s one chapter in the book called, ‘10 Conversations to Find Purpose.’ I believe work has changed so much, but organizations might not have kept up with this change. We need to have different types of conversations. I put these 10 questions in the book to uncover more about yourself or your teams. Pick one question and ask someone on your team every couple of months. It could be, what have you learned last month or what are you looking forward to next month? Simple, reflective questions that begin to uncover purpose and meaning. You will find out that person, and they’re going to find out more about themselves. My goal is to get people to start asking different questions at work. And that’s what every leader should do.
AS: Just to switch gears a little bit to talk about some of the stuff in the book. When I purchased it, I didn’t really expect to hear about meditation and poetry. You have so many resources that you mention in the book. So, my first question is: What kind of materials did you use and really lean on while you were working on the book?
JH: I want to put a little bit of context on it. I do think that meditation and mindfulness are really important. But everybody’s writing about both topics, which is great to see in the mainstream. However, it’s not an easy thing to do. So what I try to do is offer simple, practical steps. Poetry offers a way to look at the world from a different perspective. You can read one line from a poem and be moved on many levels. Poetry has the potential to simplify the complexities of life. I suggested poems throughout the book and honestly, I was concerned that this might be rejected by some readers. Fascinatingly enough, I found this data that says in the United States, people are reading more poetry than ever before, particularly millennials. And I see the connections across all the exercises in my book whether it be sketching, or writing, or doodling, or reading a poem, or going for a walk. There are many resources in my book. If I were to pick a couple, I’d recommend Imperative’s purpose assessment and Seligman’s and Peterson’s character strength assessment. These are two great resources to uncover meaning and purpose. I’ve suggested several books, it’s hard to pick one but The Artist’s Way is probably one of the best books I’ve ever read on reviving your creative spirit. I don’t know if I could pick just one.
AS: And you do talk about meditation, and I am curious about your own meditative practices. Do you have a particular type that you practice, or that you recommend for people to start with if they’re a little anxious about it?
JH: I like Jon Kabat-Zinn, his book on mindfulness and meditation, Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life. As I wrote this book many people told me they were thinking of going to an ashram to figure out life. That’s great if you want to do that, but not all of us can do that. We have day jobs and other responsibilities. What can you do as a single mom or a single dad who doesn’t have the time or the inclination to pack up and go on a retreat? What I recommend is just spending three minutes in the morning to reflect. Don’t pick up your phone. Don’t read the news. You can listen to music, soothing chants or other sounds. I have to discipline myself too. I can listen for an hour or for five minutes, but honestly, that five minutes, or that three minutes, is really clearing for your mind. You start to look at the day differently. I used to take a couple of minutes every hour at work to pause. That’s really a great way to re-energize particularly if you’re having a stressful day. But I think you should use whatever makes you stop and pause. Just don’t look at your phone. Don’t look at Instagram. Don’t look at Twitter. God, don’t look at Twitter. You just have so much stuff coming at you. No wonder why you can’t find meaning or purpose. There’s just not enough time to focus on what matters most.
AS: You touched on this a little bit that you grew up in Southern California in a spiritual space, and that you were against meditation at age 13, but now you’ve gotten back into it. What was sort of the catalyst of that change?
JH: Reflecting back on writing this book, that’s actually the crux of the book and why that story felt right to put there. Anything that’s happened to you in the past brings meaning and revisiting the past offers a different view. My resistance to spiritual practice and all of that started in Southern California, at that spiritual retreat. And many years later it hit me how important that experience was. I was really thankful that that happened. And the catalysts were my pivotal moments, where I found myself doing some a reflective practice, prayer, poetry, walking, or asking reflective questions. Now oddly enough I’m doing the exact same thing that I originally resisted. That’s why the story is at the end of the book; because it comes full circle.
AS: Definitely. And switching again to poetry. That struck me as very unusual just because I don’t think poetry is consumed all that often. I feel like sometimes people think of it as more of an acquired taste. How did you sort of discover your fondness for poetry and how has that sort of played out in your own life?
JH: That’s so funny. I completely agree with what you just said. When I put poetry in the book I started to think, when I hand this book out to organizations will these poems resonate or will they think, ‘What is this?’ Of course, we all learn poetry in school. I re-discovered poetry when my children participated in Poetry Out Loud in high school in Singapore. And I was blown away by the students reading of these poems. I started following poetry and signed up for a poem a day at www.poets.org. And then, I discovered Sarah Kay’s Ted Talk reciting her amazing poem If I Should Have a Daughter. That poem had such an impact on me. It was the combination of that experience- Poetry Out Loud and listening to Poetry Slam either Sarah Kay or others that led me to put poetry in my book. Writing my book, I uncovered William Sieghart, and his book, The Poetry Pharmacy, and he prescribes poetry for people to ease pain and help learn how to live.
AS: I just have a couple more questions for you before I let you go. At the beginning of your book, you talk about the gender differences in looking for meaning in their career. And I know that the literature on gender differences is certainly evolving a lot as we go along and I don’t know how much of this is true in Singapore, but definitely, in America, there’s been a lot of pushback against these gender definitions. And I’m just wondering, do you see sort of that changing in career mentality? What are your thoughts on that?
JH: So I’m a qualitative researcher and I do not have quantitative data on this but I found from every interview, women were more purpose-oriented. That is, almost everyone said, ‘’it’s not about flexibility, it’s all about having a job with impact and meaning.” As a coach, I’ve heard different stories from men and women. Men usually focused on a specific role and the path to get there, whereas women focused on a role with meaning and impact. Women have the same ambitions as men, but the emphasis is different. And those conversations are what led me to write this book.
As I started researching for this book, I found quantitative data by Imperative and NYU linking women and millennials to purpose. Most of the millennial men in my workshops resonate with the notion of purpose and meaning. There’s nothing wrong with being money-driven, both are okay, but understanding your drivers helps with career choices. There’s no quantitative or qualitative data suggesting that women are different than men in leadership. As a matter of fact, Alice Eagly, a gender researcher at Northwestern, found links to transformational leadership in both men and women.
AS: It feels like a lot of your practices are much more of a right-brained approach. And how do you appeal to more left-brained people and sort of get them engaged in this dialogue? Should they even be considering this? Do you ever find pushback from them as clients?
JH: Yes. I do. And so I try to balance both in my meetings, coaching, or workshops. For the people who have a preference for analytics, I’ll bring in the data, but data is only one side of the equation. I make myself very aware of the people in the room and how I need to address their skepticism or concerns. Not everybody is going to go along with this process, outlined in my book – which is okay. It might not be for you. This book is very reflective, creative, but it has a practical side too.
AS: Chapter six is about doubt. And that is something that we all encounter in our lives, and you say in one of the highlighted quotes in italics that, “Doubt is not necessarily insecurity.” You talk about it being our internal compass. I’d love to get a little bit of elaboration from you and how you’ve reframed that in your own mind.
JH: I think it’s healthy to have doubt. I think we have to step back from it and ask, “Is this a wake-up call for me?” Don’t let doubt cripple you. Listen to that voice and ask, “So what’s that all about?” And then it’s what do you do with it. Does it hold you back or can you work through it? And what can you do to work through it? How can you get over it? That’s what the exercises help the reader work through.
AS: I think I’m equating it a little bit to general fear and anxiety. And I think we all have that, and it’s one of the number most common reasons that we either don’t try or that we fail. We give into that mentality. So I think it’s certainly the chapter that interested me the most because I struggle with having that doubt.
JH: Yeah. I mean it’s a good thing to have fear and doubt. My motto is: face your fear and you will find freedom. You can do this by journaling, or sketching or whatever, or writing down because if you write down all of your fears and your doubts, you might see, “oh well, that’s what I need to work on.” For me, I’m not the numbers person, the analytical person, but you can learn it, right? I learned accounting. I learned finance. I learned statistics. Some people have a fear of public speaking, but this can be learned. And for some people I talk to; it’s” “I really want to do this job, but I’m not a good public speaker.” Okay, so that’s their fear. That’s their doubt. Well, guess what? They can learn that. That’s why I say don’t let fear and doubt stop you – face it and see what happens.
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