May 28, 2023



How Do I Get Through My Mid-Career Crisis?

MURIEL WILKINS: I’m Muriel Wilkins, and this is Coaching Real Leaders. Part of the HBR Presents network. I’m a long-time executive coach who works with highly successful leaders who’ve had a bump in the road. My job is to help them get over that bump by clarifying their goals and figuring out a way to reach them, so that hopefully they can lead with a little more ease. I typically work with clients over the course of several months, but on this show, we have a one-time coaching meeting focusing on a specific leadership challenge they’re facing.

MURIEL WILKINS: Today’s guest is someone we’ll call, “Naomi,” to protect her confidentiality. She’s a lawyer and has followed a pretty traditional career trajectory from law school to a big firm to an in-house counsel job. But even though she acknowledges she’s done well for herself, she’s feeling unsettled.

NAOMI: At times I feel like I’m going through a very stereotypical midlife crisis, and I’m definitely wondering, it’s like, what’s left for me? What do I really want? Am I happy? I feel like I’m not that happy, but yet I’m not really unhappy. And you just kind of feel lost.

MURIEL WILKINS: Naomi got to where she is today by following a certain blueprint that always led to the next accomplishment. Now she’s unsure of what’s next and she’s seeking clarity.

NAOMI: Hopefully for me, it’s quieting some of the noise that’s buzzing in my head, that’s clouding my decision-making process. Sometimes when my thoughts are like lasers that are dispersed and, I hopefully, maybe could fine tune it to get a little bit more clarity, so that I can go through this process in my head and feel good about what my next steps are.

MURIEL WILKINS: And while Naomi has acted with certainty throughout her career, she now finds herself at a point in time when she’s really unsure of what to even ask herself to clarify what’s next. So she begins by reflecting on what has led her to where she is today.

NAOMI: I come from a family who value education. And I’m pretty proud of the fact that I feel, even though my family is an immigrant family, we’ve all really prioritized education and trying to do the best for ourselves in terms of personal development, career trajectory, whatnot. It was expected to me to go to graduate school because everyone in my family has gone to graduate school. My brother, just to one-up me, got an MD and a PhD. He’s the annoying one in the family.

MURIEL WILKINS: There’s always one of those. I’m trying to figure out if I was the annoying one.

NAOMI: Hey, nerds are cool now.


NAOMI: It’s okay.

MURIEL WILKINS: It’s all relative.

NAOMI: Right. So like a good daughter, you study hard in high school, you go to a college that you think will prepare you for a good career. And then I went to grad school and tried to go to a good grad school and then get a job. And then you just keep climbing that corporate ladder, and just up, up, up, up, up. So that’s where I am at now. Especially, and I’m sure the pandemic has caused a lot of people this self-Reflect to the point you ask yourself, “Where am I going? What am I doing? Is this really where I want to be?” And I feel like I maybe didn’t do a lot of that when I was ascending my career path because it was just one foot ahead of the other, one foot ahead of the other. And at some point, you get up to higher elevation, let me just stop and take a look and survey the land here and what’s going on.

MURIEL WILKINS: Right. Survey land and then you also realized the altitude—

NAOMI: Exactly—

MURIEL WILKINS: Requires a different level of breathing.

NAOMI: Yeah. And I’m not so much of an outdoor person.

MURIEL WILKINS: So let me ask you this, I know you said you ascended one step at a time, one step at a time, but at each of those inflection points or those transition points, what did that look like?

NAOMI: My career pivots have been – mostly it’s just changing companies and have been primarily driven through either boredom as in I’m not developing anymore, I’ve really plateaued. Or figuring out if I want to achieve this next step in life, what would be a better position to help posture me to get to something else? For example, if I look at my resume and I feel like I have a gap in a certain area, maybe I need to see if I could explore a different job, where it could fill in that gap and make me a more marketable person in general. And generally, that aligns with my wanting to learn, develop, and grow.

MURIEL WILKINS: Okay. When you think back to when you first started your career path, did you have a vision of what you wanted to become? Was general counsel, the vision, the goal?

NAOMI: God no. When I first started law school, I thought I was going to be a criminal defense lawyer, and that’s really gone by the wayside.

MURIEL WILKINS: Why? What happened?

NAOMI: Student debt and upon graduating from law school, I thought I would just go into the corporate private practice world for a few years, pay off debt, and then try to pivot. So I just kept going down this path that I’m currently on. And before you know it, you look in the rearview mirror and actually, I’ve actually been out of law school for a very long time and never – which is okay, because I’m still very happy with what I am. To answer your question, now I’m far off from where I anticipated I was going to be when I first started law school.

MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah. And is that something that’s still, not necessarily becoming a criminal defense lawyer, but the whole justice piece, is that something that motivated you back then? Is that still a motivation for you now?

NAOMI: No. Not anymore.

MURIEL WILKINS: What motivates you now?

NAOMI: I guess that’s a very broad and open-ended question. Part of my challenge in trying to calm the noise that’s in my head to try to figure out directionally where I think I want to go is because there are many competing interests and not all of them are professionally related. So personal motivation, like I said before, it’s still growth development. But what also motivates me are my kids. I’m a mom of two. I’ve uprooted my family a few different times and it gets harder as my kids get older. My kids are very vocal. Maybe they get that from me and they let me know when they’re not happy. And so last time was a little bit challenging and they were not very happy about that move. And so my kids motivate me, and their happiness is everything to me. So doing something that would be selfish to my own personal career could potentially be in conflict with their happiness. I know the motivator is, I’m a daughter, I’ve got my parents, my elderly parents are still around. And I guess I’m limited on my options because I want to make sure I’m still around for them, in case they need me. I’m a wife. Yeah. So I’ve got my personal motivations and then I’ve got my surrounding motivation, which are all huge factors in my life.

MURIEL WILKINS: All right. It’s interesting because you listed them as motivators, and I’m hearing them as guard rails.

NAOMI: Yeah.

MURIEL WILKINS: There’s these guard rails that you have to operate within.


MURIEL WILKINS: We’ll get to it, but I’m still not quite clear what motivates Naomi? What makes Naomi sing? Not what can Naomi do to make sure that everybody else is okay.

NAOMI: To me, I guess if I looked at my life as a pie and everything has a slice. And by the way, I really like pie. So if my life is a pie, work is a slice, kids – when my kids are happy and they’re growing, they’re learning, they’re experiencing life, that makes me really happy. While it is at times a guard rail, it’s also a huge source of happiness for me. What your point about, I hear is guardrails, I think that’s absolutely true. But the flip side of that is also, if my family isn’t happy, then I’m not going to be happy.

MURIEL WILKINS: Let’s take a moment here. Naomi, is not unlike many high achievers. She’s checked off all the boxes, the good grades, the schools, the job, the family, and now she’s arrived at what she thought was the destination. But along with that, has come a series of what she feels are competing interests. And she wonders if she can really have it all or what that even means. Naomi is feeling dissonance – a tension between different parts of her life. On the one hand, she’s happy with the decisions she’s made because they felt like the right things to do. On the other hand, she’s not happy because she feels they’ve limited her. And this tension is one that many people ignore for a long time. Sometimes their whole lives, until they just can’t anymore. And then the question becomes what to do with it. Or as Naomi puts it, “where do I go from here?”

NAOMI: I’m looking for the magic answer. I’m just looking to quiet the noise that’s in my head, all these competing interests. But then having that laser, which currently is very fragmented, be a little bit more focused, so I feel like I’m okay with the direction that I’m going in. Even if that direction is, I’m not going anywhere for a little bit and just stopping and smelling the roses.

MURIEL WILKINS: Got it. Right. Because right now, are you in a place where you are looking for something else or are you being offered other things? What is even motivating you right now to be in this place of this question?

NAOMI: I’m always open to new opportunities just to hear, even if it’s just a matter of confirming the fact that I’m happy with where I am. But nothing has really excited me. I feel the same malaise that I feel currently, even with new opportunities. There hasn’t been a single one that’s really gotten me excited, and that’s been different than in prior years, where I’ve been interviewing.

MURIEL WILKINS: How is that different?

NAOMI: For other years, I’ve been excited to try a different job because I’m going to learn something totally different, and I’m going to enter a new field or whatnot. These jobs, I’m not super excited. I’m going through the motions.

MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah. And so in prior years, your excitement came from the newness of it because it was something new?

NAOMI: New, more challenging, totally different industry. Sometimes the people I’ll be working with, they feel like they’re really smart and I can learn a lot from them or I can work well with them.

MURIEL WILKINS: And so now, because I feel like that was your formula back then for getting excited about something, what would excite you now?

NAOMI: I don’t know. Instead, I hear a lot of naysaying going on in my head. Like the guard rails I were talking about. Starting a new job will require a lot of time away from my family, more travel. I may have to move, uproot my family again. At least now, these are the people I work with are known commodities. I know who they are. I work well with them. I go to a new company. I’ve definitely been at companies before I were in senior management, very challenging to work for. I don’t want to go back to something like that. It’s just all these competing naysayer sounds going on in my head.

MURIEL WILKINS: So here’s the thing. I think that right now you’re operating in reactive mode. In the past, the way that you got your new career positions is you reacted to the opportunity that was in front of you. And it was like somebody put something in front of you and you were, “That looks good.” And imagine it was a meal. It was, “That looks good. That looks delicious. Let me try it. It’s new, never had it.” And then you’ve had a couple of those really, really good meals. And now the next one is being put in front of you. And you’re like, “It’s not that different. Not sure if it’s going to create excitement.” And so really, you’re at this place right now, instead of reacting to the opportunity that in front of you, you’re at a place of having to try to figure out what could it look like? What’s the possibility? If I could create it, what would be the components that would make it exciting, that would make it something that I would want? In order to do that, you’re absolutely right, you’ve got to dampen, as you put it, the naysayers in your mind because quite frankly, we’re just being imaginative. It’s not even real. So why let the naysayers even talk? I want to just be imaginative for a little bit. Imagine that there were no guard rails, or there were no conditions from anyone else. So it was limitless. You could do pretty much anything. I want you to think about what would be the components that would get you in a role that would get you remotely interested in pursuing it.

NAOMI: So top priority to me is it must be a role where I’m learning, developing, and growing. And there has to be a deep enough roadmap for that company where I feel like I’m still going to be challenged going forward in future – five years, seven years down the road, and I’m not going to get bored. It doesn’t necessarily mean that I have everything I do has to be brand new and challenging. It just means that I need to have some of that in my job, in order for me to continue to be interested and engaged. A really nice one on the wishlist would be a company whose product or services or something has something I really believed in. I want to work with people who inspire me, who I feel like are making a difference – whether that be with their employees, with their community, with the world. It doesn’t have to be everything, it could be on a small scale. But somebody who I felt like was really trying to effectuate some change. The impact would be for me, that what drives me to wake up every morning and be excited to do what I do. I know that either I’m going to be challenged with the work that I need to accomplish or challenged by my peers. And that they’re going to stretch my thinking, stretch my abilities, so that I feel like when I started the job, I was at a certain level. And as I progressed through the job, I’m just getting better and better.

MURIEL WILKINS: All right. And so when those things are not in place, because when they’re in place, you say you’re excited, you’re happy, when those things are not in place, what are you?

NAOMI: I’m where I am now, whereas, I feel like I’m in a rut.

MURIEL WILKINS: Okay. And so where did this definition of happiness come from for you?

NAOMI: Probably just from feeling that in the past, in jobs where I felt like those things were aligned and I really loved my job. I think it’s from past experience and knowing what that does feel like and knowing how that makes me feel and how I get excited to work every day.

MURIEL WILKINS: I think it’s important to, as you just said, to understand, where that source of joy comes from. What I want you to think about and reflect on is just as you’ve grown as a person and you have advanced in your career, has that recipe for happiness as it relates to work changed at all?

NAOMI: Yes. I think it has. Earlier in my career when I’ve had a lot of great job satisfaction, I maybe had fewer competing interests in my own personal life. So yeah, I agree. How I personally define happiness at work for myself has evolved over years and maybe it’s gotten a little bit more cynical.

MURIEL WILKINS: All right. So we looked at the wishlist on the work-front. And if you had to prioritize those things around something you believe in, in terms of a product or service, learning to growing and being challenged, and then working with people who inspire you, how would you prioritize those three buckets?

NAOMI: The learning, developing, growing is top. Number two would be a company that whose product services I believe in, in the brand champion. And three would be, working with people who inspire me.

MURIEL WILKINS: And it’s interesting to me because I feel like the learning, developing, growing, when I asked you about your timeline, what brought you here, and you shared with me your experience going through school and education was number one. And I mean, education is all about learning and growing. And as you went from job to job, it was, which ones are going to help you get to the next level? What gaps do you need to fill? So this has been a very consistent theme for you.

NAOMI: Absolutely.

MURIEL WILKINS: If we had to write your theme song, it would be something about learning and growing.

NAOMI: Oh my gosh!


NAOMI: Like play to all the kindergartners out there in the world. Such a lame theme song, but okay.

MURIEL WILKINS: But here’s the thing, I’m intrigued by what you said around feeling, I love the word malaise, right, because you can feel it. And so, I don’t know, I’m curious to what extent does that theme song still pump you up and energize you?

NAOMI: None. It’s very quiet right now. Yeah. My theme song isn’t being played anymore.

MURIEL WILKINS: And so I do think that you’re at a place of having to make some choices, and people hate when I say this, but choices are the same things as making trade-offs. I think that that’s the place where you need to anchor yourself. What does having it all mean for you? And not what we are, dare I say, conditioned to believe having it all means. What does it mean for Naomi to have it all? And I’ll put that in a more concrete, you’re probably not going to think it’s concrete, but I think it’s more concrete. The question I have for you is how do you define success?

NAOMI: In the grand scheme of things, I think I’ve achieved success. I have a very successful career that a lot of young women that I try to help – they look at me as somebody who they want to learn from me about how I got to where I am. So, by all accounts, I do consider my life a success. I could reflect upon that. What I’m looking for now is just trying to make myself personally a little bit more happy. But, at least from success standpoint, I’m happy overall. I feel like if I quit my job tomorrow, I could look back at my career and what I’ve done and how I’ve also tried to give back, and I’d be happy.

MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah. So what’s missing for you internally?

NAOMI: In part, I think it’s what we talked about – how do I define happiness professionally, which is a huge part of who I define as myself, and that being unsatisfied. And probably just having always put one foot ahead of the other and not really stopping to think what is it that I really want to do as opposed to, like, this will help catapult me to the next point in my career or this will catapult me to break that glass ceiling of general counsel job, whatnot. It’s not really stopping and say, “is this something that I really want?” As opposed to just focusing on that price of the end.

MURIEL WILKINS: Naomi acknowledged that she’s been so focused on achieving that she’s never stopped to ask herself what she really wants. In a sense, she’s been so busy checking off the external milestones, she’s never checked on the internal ones. At this point of the conversation, I could dive into career strategy mode to help her visualize what her next leadership gig is. That would certainly be more comfortable. But I’d be doing Naomi a disservice because she would have never explored what it means for her to have a sense of happiness inside, no matter what is happening on the outside. And without that, I’m pretty sure she’d ended up right back where she is. So we pick up the conversation where I invite Naomi to explore who she is and what makes her tick beyond her external accomplishments.

MURIEL WILKINS: You said something really interesting there, which is you said that where your professional life is right now, the reason why it’s impacting you is that it is a large part of what creates who you identify as. And so who are you without that?

NAOMI: And I guess that goes back to the other pieces of my pie – that I am, I’m a wife, I’m a mother, I’m a friend, I’m a daughter. I’m all of those things that really dissociate me from my professional persona.

MURIEL WILKINS: And so I’m going to push you because it’s very important that leaders understand who they are, not just what they do. And everything that you’ve described for me is what you do, not who you are.

NAOMI: I think that is so astute. Yeah.

MURIEL WILKINS: And as a result, when what you do feels a certain way, you identify as being that thing. So for example, the job is boring. Therefore, I feel bored. So I’m going to push you beyond the attorney, the mom, the wife, the good daughter, the good friend, the community volunteer. Who are you?

NAOMI: I have no idea. I don’t know. I know generally, but I agree with you – I don’t think I’ve ever really thought long and hard about what are the adjectives that I think describe me best. What do I want to stand for? I don’t think I’ve ever really done that because I’m just programmed to keep going, to keep going, to keep going. And like I said, I haven’t really ever stopped to think about myself and what I really want.

MURIEL WILKINS: And who you really are.

NAOMI: Who I really am. I kind of feel lame. I’m mid-forties, and I don’t even know who I am.

MURIEL WILKINS: Come on. You know what? There are so many people who go over yonder and never figure it out.

NAOMI: Can I tell you one story?


NAOMI: Because I think it’s a very analogous. I remember I was on a job interview, and at the end, the interviewer asked me, “So Naomi, what do you like to do for fun?” And I was completely stumped. I didn’t have an answer.

MURIEL WILKINS: [laughter]

NAOMI: That person asked me that question, which really is a personal, like what brings me joy on my free time? And I couldn’t answer that question.

MURIEL WILKINS: And look, no shame in it. If anything, it’s exciting. It’s an opportunity. You live part of your life doing to get deliverables. And at a certain point, when you feel that type of malaise, it usually is because who you are is not being expressed through your work. And as long as you don’t define what those things are, other people will define it for you, based on what they need from you. I think a big part of this is for you to take this journey to really ask yourself, “what the heck is important to me as a being, as a person?”

NAOMI: Just reflecting upon my own personal career, my professional development, I think in the beginning, in my more junior years, it was okay to not really have a strong personal voice. But as I’ve gotten now to a much higher trajectory, I don’t think I’m done yet. But I’m definitely higher up on the mountain peak that we talked about. That’s either, not maybe it’s not necessary enough, but I’ve done a lot more of that, and I think there’s something else that’s missing that you’ve identified just now, which is, “who am I? And does that align with what I’m doing or what I want to do?”

MURIEL WILKINS: Quite frankly, it’s there, but it’s been piled up on for many, many, many, many years. So now it’s going into this excavation to figure out who it is, which is why I asked you, back when you had this vision about being a criminal defense attorney, what was driving that? Why was that important? When there were no barriers of possibility – before the student loan debt came, before the family came, before all these other responsibilities came, why did that resonate with you?

NAOMI: If you look at my law school courses, it was always criminal defense work, capital punishment defense work, all that type of stuff. And I felt like I was going to do some positive change in the world, help be part of that positive change in the world, to do some good.

MURIEL WILKINS: And why was that important to you to do some good in the way?

NAOMI: Because that gave me – one, I think the world needs it, but two, it made me feel good.

MURIEL WILKINS: And I’m going to just keep asking, why did it make you feel good?

NAOMI: Because I felt like I was helping the world, and that was my motivator in going to law school and taking all these classes. It was giving some purpose behind what I was doing.

MURIEL WILKINS: Okay. So a sense of purpose around helping others starts creating some clarity around something that resonates with you.

NAOMI: Yeah.

MURIEL WILKINS: Okay. So what is the difference that you think you can make, Naomi, in helping others – whether it be through work or outside of work?

NAOMI: Well, I think I’m a compassionate person and I care. I care about people.

MURIEL WILKINS: This is the first time I actually heard you use an adjective to describe yourself. You said, I’m just going to repeat it. I don’t know if you heard yourself. You said, “I am compassionate.” Okay. So there you are, check number one in terms of who is Naomi? She’s compassionate. I’m saying it glibly, but a part of that is then asking yourself, “in what ways can I express this compassion that I have for people?” And “is this, wherever I am, a vehicle through which I can express this because it’s a part of who I am?” It’s no different than being an artist. I’m not an artist, but I’m always in awe because they literally have this insatiable appetite to express themselves. Now, we actually all are artists. We just haven’t realized it because we think it’s all about drawing, but it’s more around, what is your vehicle? And if it’s going to be through your profession, great, let’s make sure that, that’s fair. So we need to continue down this list of this, “I am, fill in the blank.” “I am compassionate.” And the way that you can try to figure out what those are is think back to those experiences that did create positivity for you, that resonated with you – where you felt like this is where I’m supposed to be, or it feels like it’s an extension of me. It doesn’t feel like a struggle. In those moments, who were you?

NAOMI: I guess I’m just not used to using adjectives to [describe] myself. I’m used to describing myself with titles.

MURIEL WILKINS: And I could sit here and encourage you, which is an exercise that a lot of people get, “Go ask a bunch of people, who do they think you are.” But I actually think for you, I’d rather you don’t because it’s just going to add to the noise.

NAOMI: Yeah.

MURIEL WILKINS: And I think the real work is for you to figure it out, rather than take what other people think you are, and then try to fit that. The question that I have for you, another way of framing it, besides who you are is, what are the parts of you that have been quieted down, that are now not being fully expressed through your work?

NAOMI: Yes, I agree. And clearly it’s happening because I’m not happy at work. I’ve got that malaise. Nothing really excites me. And so it’s happening, I just haven’t figured out what that is.

MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah. And look, if it’s not happening at work, because work can’t be the answer for everything, then it’s very important that it’s, in what other areas of my life can it be supported? I think, Naomi, you’re actually on the right path. I just would suggest that you inverse it – in that the path you’re on right now is you’re grasping and reacting and hoping that the next job, the next opportunity, the next event, the next conversation is going to satiate you, rather than asking yourself, “what satiates me?” And let me go find that. I use much food analogy. It’s like when my son opens the fridge and I’m, “what are you doing?” And he’s like, “Well, I don’t know. I’m just looking for someone to eat.” And I’m, “Well, what do you want to eat?” “I don’t know.” I’m just staring. I’m like, “that fridge can’t stay open for hours and hours and hours.” And what does he eventually end up doing? He just shuts the door, and he doesn’t eat anything.

NAOMI: I wish I was doing that, by the way.

MURIEL WILKINS: I know, me too. I always find something. It’s usually the kids’ chicken nuggets.

NAOMI: Yes, exactly.

MURIEL WILKINS: The leftover ones.

NAOMI: It’s more like I need to edit what I’m eating. Yes.

MURIEL WILKINS: Right. But you yet my drift here, right?

NAOMI: I do. That’s a great analogy.

MURIEL WILKINS: Have a sense of what you want, and have that one what it is that you desire. Don’t have it based on what you think you should be doing because of what you’ve learned all these years of your life. Have it truly based on this is what I want because it’s a reflection of who I believe I am right now. And I’m saying right now because our sense of who we are changes over time, as it should. We deepen with it. We understand it more. It doesn’t change, we just understand it.

NAOMI: It evolves. Yeah.

MURIEL WILKINS: It evolves. And so for you, it’s very important that you don’t put so much pressure on yourself around, “I’ve got to figure it out as this answer forever.” It’s for this point in time.

NAOMI: I totally agree with you. And I probably was looking for, frankly, an easier answer than to actually do some self-reflection, deep self-reflection to figure out who I am because that’s not an exercise I’ve done my entire life and so that’s harder.

MURIEL WILKINS: It is harder. It is harder, I wish I could just say, “it’s easy!” So how do you think you could use your current role to help you articulate “who am I right now?”

NAOMI: I am, as an adjective for myself, in addition to being compassionate, I like to help people. And so I feel like one possibility at my current company would be to design a program or to suggest a program that can help some of our younger women leaders, giving them a voice. I sort of informally do that on the side, but I could think of a way to design something that would not only help the company and help our employees, but also do something that has always innately been with me and would bring me happiness or some fulfillment.

MURIEL WILKINS: Yeah. And because I’m going to take the opportunity that I have with you during this coaching session to try to retrain you with some new language that if you did that, that isn’t what brought you happiness, isn’t what would bring you happiness. The program isn’t what would bring you happiness. What would bring you happiness is the feeling that what you’re doing is in sync with who you are.

NAOMI: Right.

MURIEL WILKINS: And so what I’m suggesting to you is try to find as many opportunities where your actions are in sync with who it is you believe you are. That’s it. In reality, what that means is we wait for the big moments to do that – our jobs, whatever, a bunch of stuff, the big self. But in reality, you have that opportunity every single minute. You go to the grocery store – is the way I’m dealing with the cashier aligned with who I am and want to be in this world? This is what we call integration. Okay. When you’re integrated, there’s not a lot of space between the way that you act and what you do and who you are. The colloquial way, as I like to say, is when you’re keeping it real.

NAOMI: I think that’s really astute.

MURIEL WILKINS: And so something’s got to change, either the external or the internal. And guess what? You have spent your whole life changing the external and it’s landed right back in the same spot. So what do you think has to change?

NAOMI: Yeah. The internal, I need to figure out the internal and make it harmonize with what I’m doing in the environment.

MURIEL WILKINS: Exactly. And let the internal drive the external, let the external be a reflection of the internal rather than the internal be a reflection of the external.

NAOMI: Yeah. I’ve never [inaudible].

MURIEL WILKINS: Okay? And right now, your internal is a reflection of the external. If the job is good, if the kids are happy, if the husband’s happy, if the parents are healthy, if the house is nice, if the friends are acting right, then I’m happy. And I’m saying, okay. “Now, what does happy Naomi look like?” How does the rest of the world fall in formation with that?

NAOMI: Yeah. Definitely, it resonates with me because I think it explains, in my last few years, why I felt certain ways or been not satisfied or just confused. Not necessarily because I have the answer, but because now I figured out what the problem is, what I need to think through. And you could even see this in how you ask your questions with me. I was not able to answer them with precision. I was dancing around the answers because I’ve never gone deep into, “who am I? What am I? What drives me?” You started this whole interview with what motivates me, and I gave you answers. But it probably, whether all true, it wasn’t really me at my core because I’ve never looked into that. I feel like I’m viewing my situation through a new lens. And that different perspective has caused me to realize there’s different pathways to eventually get myself to a point of greater clarification. And that means I’m moving and not stuck. And I think that’s amazing. I feel like I had a haze over my eyes, and it’s starting to get clearer.

MURIEL WILKINS: What are your key takeaways and what are you going to do [after] leaving this session?

NAOMI: I need to stop and really self-reflect, which is something I’ve not done ever – whether it be what motivates me or what makes me happy, brings me joy. But also who I am defines me, and figure out what those things are. And through that, does it mesh with what I’m doing – whether that be professionally, personally, whatever? And see in those areas, where I feel like there is incongruity, how can I either pivot what I’m doing, so that it can have some harmony with who I am. Or can I change what’s in my control to be able to have better harmony? Because I think through that, I’m going to, once again, find some excitement. I’m going to be motivated again. I’m just going to feel more at peace. It’s not finished yet, but at least I have a way of proceeding so that I can get some clarity and change some things. At the end of the day, it may not mean necessarily changing jobs. It may not mean doing things differently. But I just think, even at its core function, you’ve changed my mindset about how I view this. I think you’ve given me greater perspective and understanding. And I think that has caused that haze in my vision to kind of get cleared up.

MURIEL WILKINS: So many times coaching clients want the answer, the to-do action item that will magically solve their problem. And while I love nice actionable items at the end of the coaching session, sometimes the real work is not so tangible. It’s about the stuff we can’t see and touch. It’s about mindset. And so, Naomi, leaves with homework that is way more about internal reflection than an action plan. But what is clear is that once she does the internal work, the actions will come. It’s a reminder to us all that leadership is as much about who we are, as it is about what we do.

MURIEL WILKINS: That’s it for this episode of Coaching Real Leaders. Next time:

DENISE: And so I’m navigating through the growing pains and the change at the same time. I don’t want to come off defensive to my peers, you know, I don’t want to be – and I always joke about this at the office – I’m like I feel like I’m that mouse on “Who moved my cheese?”

MURIEL WILKINS: Thanks to my producer, Mary Dooe, music composer Brian Campbell, and the entire team at HBR. Much gratitude to the leaders who join me in these coaching conversations, and to you, our listeners, for sharing their journeys. If you’re dealing with a leadership challenge, I’d love to hear from you and possibly have you on the show. Apply at And you can find me on LinkedIn, on Twitter, @MurielMWilkins, or on Instagram, @coachmurielwilkins. If you love the show and learn from it, pay it forward. Share it with your friends, subscribe, leave a review. From HBR Presents, this is Muriel Wilkins.