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Timelines - how to understand what yours is telling you

Last week, I was hiking with a good friend. We were catching up on our families and our jobs, dreaming aloud about the lives we’re trying to create for ourselves, and others, now and in the future — and the transitions we’ve already made or will make on our journeys to get there. We’ve all experienced transitions of some kind: from school to the workforce; job to job; adjusting to life and work with a new baby; becoming an empty nester; retirement. There are so many crossroads in life that we navigate; it becomes easy to just let them happen without paying much attention to the process. But if we really want to purposefully and deliberately create our lives, how do we actively participate in the process of these continual life transitions?

As my friend and I were hiking and asking these questions, I recalled a quiet morning about five years ago when I found myself in a hotel lobby reading about 'timelining', an exercise that helps you gain insight into what you truly want in your life by capturing insights from past experiences to shape future actions. That morning, I had the urge to dive into this exercise, and I asked the concierge for a scrap of paper and got to work. The timeline I created that morning on my little piece of paper in a hotel lobby was so helpful and meaningful to me that I actually still have it. Now I want to share the exercise with you.

You can create your timeline from the beginning of your career, or you can expedite the process, and just think about the past five years. It works like this. Take a piece of paper, and draw a horizontal line across it. Moving left to right, begin writing events or endeavors in your career, drawing a line upward for positive developments, down for lowlights. Place events you view positively — accomplishments, moments where your talents and gifts stood out or were acknowledged — at the top of the time line. Take the moments where you failed (or perceived that you failed), ran into obstacles or even felt dissatisfied at the bottom.

If you’re like most people I know, you’re focusing on your failures right about now. That’s fine — get them out of the way, because once you acknowledge those curveballs, we can get to the good nugget of this exercise, which is to glean insight about the events that preceded the positive developments in your career and life. What events and personal circumstances precipitated these highlights? What was your frame of mind? What was the culture or environment like? What kind of people did you work with and surround yourself with, and how did they contribute to these events?

Here’s what my scrap-paper timeline helped me discover: what enabled my success in the past was not a guarantee for my future. I could also see that I had my greatest bursts of energy and launched my best projects after periods of reflection. In addition, I also realized that I became discontent when I failed to prioritize personal and family time.

What does your time line look like, and what is it telling you? Can you see themes or patterns? Can you gather clues about your success or setbacks and the circumstances that contributed? At this point, I bet you can see how much you’ve accomplished. Just knowing that should be a big pick-me-up right now.

Now, take a moment, flip over your timeline and draw a T-Chart. Write “Works Well” on the top of one side, “Avoid” on the other side. Now that you’ve reflected on your timeline, capture a running list of what has worked well for you over time. This will help you see what it is that you need more of in future endeavors — or what you should avoid.

My hope is that your timeline offered a big picture for you — one that revealed both the stumbling blocks and the successes along your journey, and a vision to purposefully and deliberately create the next steps to you want in your life and career.

If you create a timeline today, let me know how it goes. I’d love to hear about your experiences!

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