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Cash in on pivotal turning points in your career

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Years ago, while working on a multi-phase project, I developed a good relationship with the owners, a well-established, self-employed, professional couple in their early 70s. Because I was around so often, we all agreed it only made sense to adopt them as surrogate parents.

One day, while the woman was watching me work, she pulled me aside and told me, “David, life is a marathon, not a sprint. You must learn to pace yourself.” Although I knew exactly what she was saying (doing two days worth of work in one), it wasn’t until many years later (after having more real-life experiences) that I came to understand what she was saying. These simple words spoken were a turning point for me because they changed the way I approached my work.

Turning points are like destinations on a map; as you journey along the path of life, certain events happen that have a profound effect on you — and not always how you would expect. According to Aristotle, when telling a story, these “changes of fortune” (turning points) should be an event that occurs contrary to the audience’s expectations. This event is known as peripeteia, which could simply be defined as “a reversal of circumstances” (in reference to literature).

There are countless ways that directional change or turning points can occur. And the common characteristic among them all is that they are unique to the individual. What causes change in one person might not even be on the radar for another. The key is taking advantage of when they occur because if we don’t, it could be a lost opportunity that never finds its way back. So how do we recognize and take advantage of these turning points? It begins with awareness.

The subtle nudge

I would venture a guess that most turning-point experiences start with the subtle nudge. We all want to have a trumpet announce the coming of change, but it rarely happens. Getting the most out of life is primarily centered on being aware of your surroundings so that you can recognize when opportunity is in front of you. When my “surrogate mother” told me to pace myself, she didn’t beat me over the head and tell me what I had to do, she simply used a metaphor to describe her observations. That’s why it took me many years to really understand what it was she was saying. Because I had not yet learned the value of being aware of how I approached my work (I was only thinking in terms of going fast to finish the race), I was blinded to the fact that this was only one of many hundreds of races of which I would partake in my career. Although her subtle nudge did not bring about instant change to my life, the kind words spoken simmered like a pot of stew in my psyche, slowly bringing out the flavors of change.

The red flag

There is a reason red is used for stoplights; it’s an aggressive color that demands attention. There are two ways of looking at a red-flag turning point. One is like the stoplight. Danger or caution is sensed and you bring all forward motion to a halt until you figure out what caused the spike of change. The second is one that accentuates the hostility of the red color. This would be like a bull charging at a matador’s taunting cape. Just as arguments, coins and magnets have two sides to them, the red flag will either cause you to stop or charge. The common thread is the color red. In other words, some turning points come at you like a speeding bullet. These instances are abrupt, obvious and demand immediate attention. Unlike the subtle nudge, you are positive that change is on the horizon and that a turning point is imminent.

How you respond (stopping or charging) is dependent on a multitude of factors such as personality and circumstance. Therefore, it’s important to prepare yourself beforehand by recognizing what the red flag symbolizes, so that you can take the appropriate action when it is raised. A great example of the red flag was when the U.S. economy went into a deep recession a few years ago. If you didn’t recognize how obvious it was (fewer customers, higher prices, closing businesses, etc.), then you were not in the race. For those that were, turning-point survival meant either stopping to evaluate, charging like a bull at new opportunity or a combination of both.

Numbers don’t lie

One of the greatest things about math is that numbers do not lie. Now you can manipulate numbers to skew the facts, but through careful analysis, mathematics always brings you back to ground zero. Math is logical and factual-based. There is really no room for emotion. The nudge and the flag appear as an individually interpreted point on the path, which means you can choose to make them a turning point or not. Numbers (or logic), on the other hand, provide you with facts that force a turning point against your choosing. Hence, the importance of a good accounting system.

To remain sustainable in business, you must know what the health of your company is at any given time. And the best way to do this is by keeping track of everything that has a number: materials, money and time. Monitoring these numbers on a regular basis will give you a good sense of direction and upcoming change. Now, with all that being said, how you interpret and direct the logical turning point that the numbers reveal is still subjective. After all, you do have a choice how to respond. The only thing that is certain is the turning-point marker itself. Which direction you choose to go is entirely up to you.

A turning point in life probably comes more frequently through subjective circumstances such as the subtle nudge or red flag. This is primarily because these emotional or spiritual encounters come in endless forms on multiple fronts daily. The key to understanding and taking advantage of turning points lies in the preparation. When telling a story as Aristotle suggests, the peripeteia (surprise outcome) of a turning point is desirable to keep an audience engaged. However, in business, peripeteia can be a killer. Although you can never predict the outcome of a turning point, you must do your best to prepare for it.

Much like building a set of kitchen cabinets requires careful planning around what type of appliances are being used, having a successful turning point starts with being able to recognize how upcoming change will affect the health of your business. If you do not learn to read the signs of change, you’ll miss the opportunities they bring. You must know your business like you know your friends.

In addition, a very important ingredient in the recipe of change is understanding yourself. As mentioned before, one man’s opportunity is another man’s misfortune. Understanding what makes you tick is the only way you’ll be able to take advantage of the turning points that appear along the journey.

This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue.

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