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Whether you’re a veteran who just started a new civilian job or a military spouse trying to maintain a career despite yet another PCS, sometimes it feels like all of your challenges boil down to one: Keep all the plates spinning (and in the air).

It seems like it should be enough, this focus on sustaining what you already have. There’s a cyclical quality to it that’s almost hypnotic (or maybe you’re just really that tired).

Find a job. Keep the job. Get to work on time. Negotiate for what you want. Pick up groceries (eat less take-out). Find a work/life balance. Maintain relationships. Get more sleep.

Some days the plates manage to keep themselves going, but more often than not, it’s a real challenge to keep them in orbit.

Over the past few years, I’ve started to notice something about those plates and all of the spinning that I do. The more I focus on keeping them moving at a heady pace—no matter the cost—the more I stop remembering why some of those blasted plates are in the air at all.

When you are working hard to sustain your life professionally and personally, it can be difficult to remember what you really want and what it might take to get there. While there’s nothing wrong with focusing on the essentials that make up your daily life, sometimes those so-called essentials aren’t enough. You can find yourself feeling tired, burned out, uninspired, and unmotivated.

If you are checking the boxes on your essentials (have the job, do the job), but find yourself wondering why you still feel like something is missing in your professional life, you are not alone. You may be wondering if you’re in the wrong profession altogether. Maybe that’s true—I can’t answer that particular question for you.

However, I can tell you that even when you’re in the right profession, if you’re operating from a place of survival, you can wake up to find that your fire’s gone out.

Somewhere between answering your emails and chasing items on your to-do list, you’ve moved from a state of thriving to surviving.

Instead of operating from a place of curiosity, passion, and growth, you’ve shifted to accomplishing that which is absolutely necessary.

You can shift your focus and get that fire back—but it’s going to require you to re-examine those plates and the energy it takes to keep them all going. Finding your professional fire and passion is all about where you place your energy. What are you feeding? Where is your attention going?

If you stop honing skills, they tend to fade. If you stop pushing yourself to explore new ideas and new practices, you can become insulated in your routine. Before you know it, skills that used to feel exciting and challenging feel unreachable, and the career goals you worked so hard for seem in peril.

These talents and your goals aren’t escaping your grasp because you’re not good enough or because it’s just not meant to be; they are drifting away because you’ve redirected your focus and have lost sight of your next stepping stone.

The good news is that stepping stone is still there—it’s just a matter of doing the work to find it and starting your path again. If you’re looking for a way to take that first step, my suggestion is simple: Attend the things.

“The things” look different for everyone depending on their profession. You know “the things”—those things you get emails about, the invitations you’ve deleted or tossed in the recycling bin. “The things” that you see on your colleagues’ Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn accounts… the things they attended (that you did not).

There are a million reasons to skip “the things.” I’ve used plenty of them myself. Finances, scheduling, childcare, distance, anxiety, and doubt are all powerful forces. But ask yourself: How do they compare with that sinking feeling you have inside? How do they compare with your desire to be doing something to work toward your goals?

You don’t have to attend every conference in your field, every job fair in your city, or every networking event in your area. If you know several people who can’t afford such options, you could schedule an alternate, more cost-effective meet-up instead, as long as you promise to spend at least half the time truly focused on work-based discussions.

You also don’t have to take every skills workshop or renew every certification you possess.

Attending the things is not an act of desperation; it’s a carefully calculated plan of action.

Look at your calendar and your budget, and work out what it would take for you to attend two events per year to help you meet your professional goals. As you do so, think about the events, meetings, and workshops that could expose you to new ideas and skills, while enabling you to build your professional network (and then book at least one of them). If you work as an independent contractor, you may find that some of these events can count as a tax deduction, depending on your profession.

It can be easy to think of “the things” as luxuries, events and meet-ups that you should attend after you’ve gotten your career together.

But I’m here to tell you, conferences, networking functions, and workshops are not luxuries. They are vital tools to help you keep on track with your larger career goals as you continue the daily work that pays your bills. You deserve to have a fire, to have dreams—you just have to make a space for them to grow into reality.



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