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posted: 9/8/2013 7:18 AM

Career Coach: Don't let others paint for you

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By J. Gerald Suarez, Special to The Washington Post

If you could pick only one, would you consider yourself to be a critic or an artist? Your answer to this deceptively simple question could give you an interesting insight about your approach toward the opportunities and experiences that shape your career and influence your choices.

There are fundamental differences between a critic and an artist. A critic is someone who forms and expresses judgment on the merits or faults of something. Critics ponder and react to what is already there. They initiate their work in response to the creations they observe in the external world. Critics focus on translating their perceptions into commentary and articulating their reactions to an audience.

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The artist, on the other hand, is a creator. Artists initiate their work from a more introspective, intangible world. The artist's inspiration is internal, a process of translating emotion into a tangible reality. The output of their effort enables others to reflect and connect with the emotional world represented by the creation.

Being an artist is not easy. Creating something whole and fresh never is. The process itself requires courage and commitment to self-discovery. Picasso once noted that "every act of creation is first an act of destruction." To achieve uniqueness, one must destroy sameness. To achieve breakthrough, one must break with convention. Yet distancing one's self from sameness and convention makes one susceptible to fear, to the criticism of others and the disinclination to pursue a new path.

We all have the ability to perform in ways that will make us artists of our own future. We can either spend time blaming, critiquing and reacting to whatever is out there, or we can use our talents to paint our own canvas.

Our career is like a painter's canvas, a platform upon which we can express ourselves. It is our blank slate. We can either create beauty -- in the form of possibilities, hope, aspirations and positive impact -- or we can spend our time as a critic, while allowing others to paint the canvas for us.

Imagine you have a blank canvas stretched before you in which you can "paint" your future. Picture this image in your mind as you reflect on the following questions:

What would you like to create?

How would you like that future to look?

What would you like to achieve?

What would you like to express?

What would you like to become?

What impact would you like to have on others, in your field?

What will truly fulfill your aspirations?

What would you like your legacy to be?

Those who allow others to paint their canvas are forfeiting their hopes and dreams. They're surrendering their aspirations and becoming derailed by the tyranny of what seems right, not what is right for them. These same individuals go through their careers seeking validation through external rewards, while in their souls, they are dampening the fires of their dreams.

Managers and workers in all fields of endeavor struggle between what they really want to become and what they are currently doing. They put up with a job that doesn't satisfy and or dread about new opportunities and conditions they can't stand, and rationalize their circumstances. It becomes easy to assign accountability and place blame outside of themselves, but the real answer to the malaise lies within.

An executive director at a Fortune 500 company pulled me aside during the break of a strategy session. He shared with me the news that he had been targeted to become vice president of the business unit. I congratulated him, But his mood and reaction were not celebratory.

"Tell me more," I said.

"I've seen what it's like at that level," he said. "It is quite bad for me as it is, and I cannot imagine increasing the intensity up a notch."

As I listened attentively, he went on: "Expectations are surreal, the margin of error narrower, the pressures to deliver results are immitigable. There is no work-life balance. I want to enjoy my family. I'm content right now."

"Then turn it down," I said.

"I can't, it would send the wrong signal to the leadership that I do not have aspirations to move up. I'm trapped in my own success."

We met again during lunch, and I asked him to think about what would be his ideal scenario.

"It is too late for me," he replied. The paint had dried. He was too concerned about the blow back from turning down this offer and about the reaction of his boss. He reluctantly accepted the VP position, his canvas was painted for him by the leadership team and his imbalanced life is now a reality.

As the painter Vincent Van Gogh noted, "If you hear a voice within you say 'you cannot paint,' then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced."

The power to become the artist of your career's canvas lies within. Pick up the brush and paint the picture you wish to become.

Suarez is professor of the practice in systems thinking and design and a fellow of the Center for Leadership Innovation and Change at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. He is also an executive coach.

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