Work has the potential to be a vehicle for your creative self-expression as well as cover your expenses. A key success strategy is to choose work that suits your talents and lifestyle and reflects your passion as well. In this topsy-turvy work culture, where reliance on others for job security is fast disappearing, building a work-life based on what you love has emerged as a quest. The question of meaningfulness is capturing the sentiment of the stressed-out baby boomers as well as the seniors who got the golden handshake and still have both the desire and the vitality to contribute to the workplace. You spend hours working. Are you happy with your results? Is your work in alignment with your values? If you won the lottery tomorrow, would you still want to do the work you're doing now? Is work a positive choice for you?

In my practice, I see many people who "fell into" their line of work. We do a terrible job in this country of guiding young people in making this key life choice. As a child, we are often only exposed to the work we see our parents doing and the jobs in a school system, where we spend all day. So when asked to choose a work field, we don't have the self-awareness or life experience often to say, "Aha, I want to be a landscape architect" and know for sure because we've done it.

I saw a lawyer recently who told me, " I became a lawyer because my sister told me to apply to law school and I didn't have a job. I had no vision of the day-to-day life of a lawyer. I was just smart enough to do well on the LSAT's. So now I'm a lawyer and it terrifies me. I don't know if I have any goals for myself as a lawyer." Another client with an outstanding thirty year sales career in office equipment says, "I've never really felt like a salesman. It's like I've been a superb actor all these years. Now I just want to be myself ."

A second phenomenon that impacts the wisdom of your choices is the natural flow of change. Even if you made a great career decision for yourself at age twenty-two, it's often unrealistic to expect that you'll be content with that choice for forty years or more. Stan, an emergency room nurse, says that if he'd known about managed care, he would have become an architect. Joan, a high tech public relations pro, showed up in my office saying that she never wanted to write about a piece of computer hardware again as long as she lives. " I need to learn something new and exciting," she moaned. Many mid-lifers express a similar sentiment. They want to express a different part of themselves. I see many clients who want to pick up on a theme they left behind--the writing they began in college, the interest in photography that they won awards for in high school, or their "sixties" wish to change the world. Picking up these lost threads and reweaving them into your life certainly qualifies as a positive choice. We continually change and grow and our work-life ought to reflect that. Bob felt rejuvenated when he left his big bureaucratic university to teach classes of twenty students in a small college. He loved the sense of community on his new campus and met his second wife, too. My gynecologist cut back his practice and parlayed his acting talents into a video series on menopause. Most of us will change careers several times in our work-life. While it can be unnerving, it's also healthy to scale fresh challenges and develop new talents.

The art of Positive Choices helps you to create the life you want. Poor life choices, whether it’s work you despise, an unsatisfying marriage, or living in the wrong climate, are Serenity Stealers. These negative choices rob you of your peace of mind and well-being. The first step in building a life of Positive Choices is identifying your Serenity Stealers.

Right now, make a list of your Top Ten Serenity Stealers--ten things that you'd like to subtract from your life. Look over your list. Next to each item, write down its opposite. The opposite is a Positive Choice for you.

For example, Tony wrote, "My overly critical boss" and then its opposite, "A supportive boss." I asked him to ponder the possibilities. Could he switch bosses? Could he negotiate with his boss for more positive recognition for his work? Was his boss always critical or is this a recent phenomenon? What about changing jobs? As his own father was overly critical, is Tony overreacting? Then I asked Tony to examine his belief system. Did he believe that he deserved to have a supportive boss and that one exists? He thought for a minute and said that his two brothers have great bosses. Sometimes your limiting beliefs keep you stuck in negative choices.

Ask yourself some key questions about what's possible. Starting with your number one Serenity Stealer, keep a log for two weeks of every episode of this stressor. A good log includes the following information to help you to tune into specifics:

Serenity Stealer Event Log:

* The Trigger Event
* Day, Time, Location
* Your Physical Reaction
* Your Emotional Reaction
* Your Coping Reaction
* Your Analysis of the "Real Problem"

Tony's log illustrated that his boss criticized two areas of his job performance:

* not writing up performance coaching meeting reports on his supervisees
* not speaking up at department meetings.

Armed with a better understanding of his Serenity Stealer, Tony can now make decisions about it.

Whenever you identify a specific Serenity Stealer, you then have three choices of action. You can avoid it, alleviate it, or adapt to it. Avoidance means subtraction. The power of subtraction clears the way for new experiences, free of the agony of battling a choice that doesn't work for you. Ideally you want to subtract anything that irritates you or undermines your creative energy. Serenity Stealers camouflage your thinking and eclipse the growth of new ideas. In short, they keep you stuck and unhappy. For example, it is scary to acknowledge that you're in the wrong career or job. You may try to deny it or cling to the unrealistic hope that you can recapture your initial enthusiasm for this choice. When you don't, it can be gut-wrenching to let go and begin again, but worth it. Sharon attended one of my workshops and called three weeks later to say that she quit her job. She realized that spent all day at work "stifling" herself, as Edith Bunker would say. Her co-workers were oblivious to the concept of quality and she wanted off the team. Their negativity sabotaged her motivation. She's now part of a workgroup that she respects and feels like her old self again--vocal and committed. Subtraction propelled her toward a more positive choice.

Now our friend Tony decided that he liked his job well enough to try and alleviate his unsatisfying relationship with his boss. Alleviation means you try to fix the problem or at least improve it. I asked Tony to honestly evaluate his own job performance in the two areas his boss keeps nagging him about. Tony admitted that he dreads both coaching his team and talking at group meetings. He confessed that he's not sure he's really qualified for his managerial position. "After all," he says, "I've never had any training. I'm just winging it." So, we developed an action plan to improve his communication skills and therefore improve his stature in his own eyes and hopefully his boss's.

The third option you have for dealing with a Serenity Stealer is adaptation. This means that you've tried to change it or it's not within your power to change it(like your company gets taken over) and therefore you must manage it. Let's say that Tony's boss still criticizes his performance even though Tony had grown into a great manager. Then, if Tony still wanted to stay in this job, he'd have to change his attitude and let go of his angst about it. Secondly, when you are dealing with a Serenity Stealer like being laid off, the best thing you can do is take exquisite care of yourself and get support, so you can survive it.

So, back to your list. Note down next to each of your Serenity Stealers if you can avoid, alleviate, or adapt to it. This becomes the foundation of your Positive Choices action plan. Successful people are proactive. They admit the truth about their quandaries and design solutions.

The Positive Choices technique helps you to relieve the stress in your life by changing the choices you make. By subtracting negative choices that deplete your energy and sidetrack you from your goals, you step into the land of potential. Positive life choices, carefully selected and added one at a time, act as powerful catalysts to bring you closer to a life that reflects your unique image of serenity. The philosophy of addition and subtraction may be simple, but the process of naming the underlying dilemma, taking responsibility for your part in it, and then forging ahead to change it, stretches you. Change requires faith and courage. Positive Choices help you to discover what truly makes you happy and realign your priorities. Life is a series of additions and subtractions. You control the calculator.

Action Planning Guidelines
Pick one Serenity Stealer to begin with and then repeat this exercise for the additional ones on your list. Make sure you have written down its opposite and thought about avoiding it, alleviating it, or adapting to it. If you have chosen to keep your Serenity Stealer and adapt to it, then focus your action plan on improving your attitude about it and protecting your health so you can cope. So, if you've been laid off, adaptation is your path. For more ideas about how to adapt to a Serenity Stealer, check out the "Watch Out for Burnout" section in this collection. Be certain that you are not limiting your choices. Joanne, a partner in her husband's business, told me she couldn't possibly leave her job. Yet, she longed to be an interior designer and loved redesigning offices. I encouraged her to leverage her sales experience and see if she could land a job in an office furniture store. Ten stores later, she had a job--straight commission, but an opportunity. When she confessed to her husband how unhappy she was and told him the news, they worked it out. Too often, we give up before we've tried.

If you are willing to wrestle with your Serenity Stealer, it's time for some creative problem-solving. Ask yourself the following questions:

What actions have you already tried to manage this Serenity Stealer and why did they fail?

What personal barriers to success must you overcome? Tony needed to build his confidence and expertise as a manager.

Typical personal barriers include the following:
a. Trying to solve the wrong problem
b. Procrastination
c. Not taking responsibility for creating/contributing to this Serenity Stealer
d. Giving up too easily
e. Putting everyone else's needs before your own

What kinds of new skills would help you? Where can you get them? What kinds of support people or groups would increase your chances for success?

Condense the above information and write a draft of an Action Plan for your Serenity Stealer by listing specific actions with completion dates. Remember, an Action Plan is not permanent. It is meant to be a flexible work-in-progress. This first one is an experiment. Evaluate it as such and make the necessary adjustments as needed. Even a failed Action Plan clarifies your next step; be grateful for the lessons. All successful people have failed but they got back into the game armed with the advantage of increased self-awareness and savvy.

Building a life of Positive Choices is a lifetime challenge, but you can do it! Own your dreams, acknowledge your strengths and weaknesses, stay the course, and your Serenity Stealers will be history.

Author's Bio: 

Gail McMeekin, LICSW is a national executive, career, and creativity coach as well as a licensed psychotherapist and author located in Boston. She has over 30 years of experience helping people to vision and achieve their personal, professional, and creative goals. She coaches clients on how to leverage their creative ideas into heart-felt, prosperous businesses and fulfilled lives. She is the author of The 12 Secrets of Highly Creative Women: A Portable Mentor (Conari Press, 2000) which sold out its first printing in 8 weeks and The Power of Positive Choices (Conari Press, 2001) which won the Living in Balance magazine Award in 2001

Gail has coached and trained clients in executive and career development and outplacement, creativity, positive life choices, stress management, positive management strategies, time management, professional development, and women’s business development. She is a member of the Association of Career Professionals, Women in Business Connection, and the Creativity Coaching Association. She has helped thousands of people action-plan their way to success and balance. Her website is

Gail can be reached at 617-323-1442 or