This Spotlight originally appeared as the We the People column in the July/August 2023 issue of Information Today.
People tend to get a lot of random emails that they send right to the trash. A few months ago, one such wayward email (or so I thought) arrived in my inbox promoting the book Your Career Advantage: Overcome Challenges to Achieve a Rewarding Work Life. However, I glanced over the press release and thought it would have potential as a We the People topic, so I read the book. I hope you find these takeaways as valuable as I did.
A VOCAL AUTHOR
In the preface, the book’s author, Caroline Dowd-Higgins, describes herself as “a speaker, author, executive coach, and host of the global podcast, Your Working Life,” who has “held executive leadership roles in several organizations.” Dowd-Higgins was formerly a professional opera singer who made the decision to switch to the fields of business and higher education because “consistent work was difficult to find, and the starving artist’s feast-or-famine existence was not enjoyable or sustainable.” After 2 decades, she decided to “end [her] codependency working as an employee” to go out on her own, turning her side hustle of coaching, speaking, and consulting into full-time work.
While that led to “a vibrant career and a fulfilling personal life,” it also turned Dowd-Higgins into a high-level workaholic. This book is her guide to help others “overcome challenges and honor [their] accomplishments to achieve a rewarding work life now.” Dowd-Higgins writes in an engaging way, and the book is easy to read. Because its 35 chapters are broken down into six sections, it can be read in snippets, which is always helpful. Equally beneficial are the Pro Tips at the end of each chapter that summarize what Dowd-Higgins identifies as her main points.
As I read the book, I saw there was more of an emphasis on leadership than I had anticipated: how those in upper-management roles can help define a healthy work culture. I’m going to share what I’ve pegged as being applicable to finding work-life balance no matter where an employee may be in the company food chain or where they find themselves personally.
There is one point Dowd-Higgins stresses throughout the book, perhaps most succinctly in Chapter 1, “Go Ahead, Be Ambitious,” part of the first section, Moving Up or Moving On: “You are your most valuable investment.” As each reader works through her book, Dowd-Higgins wants them to address and assess just exactly how much to invest in all aspects of their life for the most equitable outcome. As part of an “ambition action plan,” Dowd-Higgins encourages readers to set goals, take risks, eliminate negativity (which she notes “only holds you back … and keeps you from seeing the positive and the prospects on the horizon”), and surround themselves with healthy and ambitious people. She also warns, “Don’t wait. If you keep waiting, you’ll never accomplish your goals.”
Chapter 7, “Honoring Your Strengths,” begins the book’s second section, Thrive Where You Are. It starts with what I considered worthy of using my purple highlighter on: “It’s better to play to your strengths rather than try to fix your weaknesses.” That’s such a simple, practical thought, but how many of us spend too much time trying do the opposite? Another point a bit further into the chapter also got highlighted: “Just because you are good at something doesn’t mean it energizes you.” I am really good at organizing—events, tasks, people. But after so much of it, I resent having to be the one who is always “in charge.” It doesn’t give me a burst of energy, which Dowd-Higgins says is key to identifying your true strengths. She also believes that focusing on your strengths lets you “tap into your innate talents (what you naturally do well),” and that brings greater satisfaction to both your work and personal lives. “When you are in alignment with your strengths, you experience an expanding energy that excites you about your work,” Dowd-Higgins notes.
What if you find you are constantly being asked to improve or change? Dowd-Higgins suggests this may mean it’s time to “reframe your situation.” Doing so would enable you to find a role—in or outside your current company—that lets you showcase your natural talents and “sharpen and polish your natural strengths” rather than being in a position that requires “competencies you don’t have in abundance to begin with.”
TAKING ACTION CAN BE UNCOMFORTABLE
What if “reframing” means stepping out of your comfort zone and place of employment? Let’s skip to Chapter 9, “Recharge and Reignite Your Career,” which gets right to the point: “Instead of waiting for the perfect time to take charge of your life, choose to make a positive change now.” For Dowd-Higgins, it took months of self-reflection, pros and cons lists, and research into health insurance and retirement accounts for her to take the next step to turn her fulfilling side gig into her main source of income. But not everyone is going to need to make such a giant leap. “Where you begin is up to you. Your next move may be a tweak. … Or, you may have a full-on reinvention that involves a career change. …”
Dowd-Higgins provides action steps to help you “discover what you really want so you can gain momentum and work toward your goals.” Here are a few of them:
- Consider What You Value—“Rank the things that are most important for you in a career.”
- Embrace Your Personality—“Your personality preferences play a big role in the types of work you may like or dislike.”
- Scrutinize Your Skill Set—“The goal is to discover what your skills are and market them with humble confidence.”
MEETING CONFLICT HEAD-ON
The third section, Challenges That Suck, is subtitled Let’s Get Real; Shit Happens. Its first chapter is Chapter 12, “Approach Conflict With a Coaching Mindset.” Having just watched an MSNBC program about how peace was brokered in Northern Ireland 25 years ago, this statement from Chapter 12 rings true: “The goal of addressing conflict is to honor the input of both parties and work toward a resolution.” According to the leaders who were involved in the negotiations, the reason this peace attempt succeeded when past endeavors had failed was that every one of the political groups involved literally had a seat at the table. This approach ended the violence-filled Troubles that had plagued Northern Ireland since the 1960s.
Those who met to reach this accord provide a case in point for this next Dowd-Higgins maxim: “Identifying a common goal or resolution is the most desirable outcome for resolving a conflict.” While the difficulties you may face within a work environment will pale in comparison to the decades of strife in Northern Ireland, the peace negotiations can be an example of how resolutions can be drawn up that are acceptable to all involved.
Keeping with the concept of setting goals, in Chapter 13, “Brave, Not Perfect,” Dowd-Higgins wants to make something very clear: “Striving for perfection is different than striving for a goal.” She also notes, “Perfect does not equal happy,” nor does it equal excellence. It’s only “[b]y facing our fears, allowing imperfection, finding courage, and taking risks [that] we open ourselves up to new growth and success that wouldn’t otherwise have been possible.”
In this chapter, she also encourages readers to look for their ledge—i.e., some dream or challenge that they are too afraid to face head-on—and move toward, not away, from it. Getting rid of the mindset “I’ll be ready when …” is also a must. Instead, focus on what can be done now.
Chapter 15 has this always-helpful reminder as its title: “There Is No Mind Reading at Work.” Once you have determined what strengths energize you, you can pinpoint what makes you stand out and then go about illustrating your superpowers to those you work with. Then, own that power. Dowd-Higgins warns, “Too many people relinquish their power and let others make the most impactful career decisions about their future.” In any situation, as she advises, we need to “speak up” and “brave up” to ensure we advocate for ourselves.
WORKING IT OUT
If you love your job and/or the activities you do on the side that involve more than just showing up, you need to heed the title of Chapter 18, “Be a High Achiever, Not a Workaholic.” Dowd-Higgins had convinced herself that because she loved what she was doing so much, it was OK to put in long hours on a regular basis. It took time and effort for her to break out of that routine she’d fenced herself into. Helping her to do this was the lightbulb recognition that “[w]orkaholics feed on being busy and often fill time and space with tasks that are not valuable or necessary.”
Dowd-Higgins had to stop thinking that the busier you are, the more important you are. Instead of being a badge of honor, overachieving often leads to burnout and serious illness. And burnout can cause significant relationship problems because the focus is too often on work rather than on family and friends. However, she says, “High achievers value life outside of work as much as their careers.” They focus on one task at a time (what Dowd-Higgins calls “singletasking”), which is proven to be more efficient and productive than trying to do multiple things at once.
If you need to detox from being a workaholic, she suggests taking these steps: Get enough rest, set clear boundaries, take the time to enjoy your meals, make time for the people you care about, take walks to clear your mind and to get some fresh air, unplug from work when you are out of the office, and figure out what may be causing a life imbalance and work on ways to rectify it.
REST AND PLAY
These directives segue into the next section of the book, Well-Being at Work. The first sentences in its opening chapter, Chapter 19, “Don’t Be a Career Loser,” earned purple highlighting: “Depression, anxiety, stress, and overwhelm are at an all-time global high. That’s a message to every one of us. We need to get serious about taking care of ourselves and living a healthy life.” Dowd-Higgins continues comparing the high achievers to workaholics—the former work in healthy, life-sustaining ways, which makes them happy and inspired, and the latter do just the opposite and are consequently unhappy and burned out. Taking time to recharge, including using all of the vacation or PTO days accumulated over a year, will help workaholics reboot mentally and physically.
Chapter 20, “The Gift of Play and Sleep,” looks at how “the gifts of play and rest … honor what your immune system and body need to thrive.” While sleep recharges the brain, “prolonged lack of sleep is like alcohol or drug use—impairing motor skill functions and mental clarity.” Adults don’t really “play,” beyond competitive sports, but creativity and other types of pleasant activities can replace stress with joy and happiness—and even elation and delight.
“While sleep is important, rest is about more than how many hours you’re asleep.” This is one of the main concepts of Chapter 23, “Rest Is More Important Than Sleep.” If you’re not getting rest, you may still produce a lot of work, but how good is it? Probably not your best, Dowd-Higgins opines. She shares the seven types of rest that Saundra Dalton-Smith, a board-certified internal medicine physician, has categorized: mental, spiritual, emotional, social, sensory, creative, and physical. Each one ties into our body’s overall state of wellness.
BUST THE BUSYNESS MYTH
In Chapter 27, “Being Busy Is Nothing to Brag About,” Dowd-Higgins starts off with the results of what she calls “an informal social experiment,” in which she asked the same question—“How are you?”—to people of different ages and careers with diverse perspectives. All said virtually the same thing: They were busy. Additionally, their responses were stress-filled and frustrated. This proves Dowd-Higgins’ belief about busyness being “a dangerous trap.” That’s why she says, “It’s nearly impossible to find meaning and fulfillment in life when you are stuck in the quicksand of being busy.”
As she has learned in her quest to stop being a workaholic, being busy is not the same thing as being involved in activities that are “significant or value-adding.” She encourages readers to be more selective with how they spend time based on “what really matters” in their work and personal lives. Once we find our sweet spot—the time of day (or night) when we can get the most accomplished in the most efficient way—she advises us to “use the other time to recharge, tackle less intense tasks, and give your brain a chance to reboot.”
NEVER A DOUBT
The book’s final section, Future-Proof Your Career, may sound like it’s all about work, but as has been the case throughout, Dowd-Higgins’ commentary crosses the boundaries from office life to personal life. Whether you fall victim to self-doubt in your job or in other roles you take on, Chapter 31, “Kick Imposter Syndrome in the Ass,” is filled with ways to stop letting negativity hold you back. It begins with this definition: “Imposter syndrome is an internal psychological experience in which an individual doubts their abilities, talents, or accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud.” As Dowd-Higgins notes, it’s all about lack of “consistent self-confidence.”
She breaks down how to overcome self-doubt into different phases. First and foremost, she says, you must “own your situation,” taking personal responsibility for how you feel about yourself. Moving from negative thoughts to productive ones, Dowd-Higgins stresses, means adopting a growth mindset, which includes these methods: a desire to keep learning, believing in yourself, taking calculated risks, pursuing new challenges, and focusing on what’s positive. This mindset allows you to take chances because you recognize you have the potential to learn new skills. I like how she contrasts imposter syndrome mindset with a growth mindset: One says, “I don’t know what I’m doing.” The other says, “I don’t know what I’m doing yet.” As Dowd-Higgins recaps it, “The difference is that a growth mindset believes knowledge is possible.”
While embracing your self-worth, you must also embrace your flaws, “knowing that as a human being, you are not, nor will you ever be, perfect.” And when you fail, learn from what went wrong. Harkening back to her “build on your strengths” advice, Dowd-Higgins says to also acknowledge that some failures result when we don’t do this.
YOU’RE WORTH IT
Chapter 33, “Earning Respect vs. Being Liked,” notes that how we are treated is often a reflection of our self-worth. “If you accept when people are aggressive, bossy, or controlling and they get their way, you have rewarded them for unacceptable behavior,” Dowd-Higgins explains. I think many of us have witnessed (or been involved in) these kinds of situations both in and out of the workplace. As a youth who was bullied in school because of visible birth defects, I have long advocated that we are all responsible for making sure that everyone we come in contact with—schoolmates, co-workers, friends, family members, neighbors, the clerk in the grocery store, the server at the diner, the person standing in line ahead of us at the movie theater—is treated fairly and in a way that acknowledges their value and their right to “be.” And it all starts with how you let others treat you.
TWO THUMBS UP
As you can tell from the chapters I’ve summarized in this article, Dowd-Higgins has successfully synthesized information gleaned from her own experiences and from the opinions of others who are knowledgeable about self-care and career advancement to show how prioritizing both together can make you happy and successful whether you are at your desk or away from it. While I did not emphasize it, many chapters address the earmarks of a good leader and how those in leadership roles can either build up a department or company or bring it down. I think this book would not only be beneficial to read once, but it would also serve as a good reference guide when you might need a reminder or reinforcement of any of the topics Dowd-Higgins tackles so adeptly within it.