One day at work, the computer system Kylie (not her real name) depends on to get her job done collapsed in a total meltdown. The tech support people, five states away in Virginia, wouldn't pick up the phone. Kylie's colleagues wouldn't get off her back—they were literally hanging over her shoulders, demanding to receive what she had no way to give them until the system started up again. In the end, she was glued to her chair for six unbroken, miserable hours. For Kylie, who grew up in Midwestern farm country, who loves to hike and ride horses and work with her hands, this six-hour imprisonment in her chair was the worst thing of all. At home that night, she felt as if she'd been beaten up. "I looked ahead at the next 20 years and thought, 'If it's more of this, I'll slit my wrists.'"
More alarming was that lots of days felt like this. There hadn't been a single last straw, Kylie realized; there were haystacks of them. At some point in the past two or three years, the job Kylie had worked at for more than a decade had become not just unsatisfying but intolerable. Something had to change. But what? Kylie was well into an online master's degree in psychology because she'd always loved helping others through transitions in their lives. Yet the course wasn't helping her transition at all. It was "geared toward research and academia," she says, and that wasn't her style.
On the surface, Kylie's life looked pretty great, even glamorous. She owned her own apartment in Manhattan. She had a job at a newspaper, working in design, an activity she'd loved ever since she was a teenager making her own jewelry. She wasn't one of those women who are afraid of change: She'd had success singing jazz and the blues before switching to news. She'd been married and divorced. She'd moved from her native Midwest to California, then to New York City, then to California again, then to New York City again. "I guess that might sound kind of flaky," she worried.
Marcus Buckingham could not have disagreed more. "She's so specific, so focused, it's great," he confided to me, not long after O magazine brought him and Kylie together to try to figure out what she should do. A former Gallup Organization researcher, Marcus is a management consultant and the best-selling author of Go Put Your Strengths to Work (a handbook for improving performance to achieve maximum success in the workplace); most important, he's devoted his life to helping other people decide what to devote their lives to. He recently completed a 26-city tour, where he spoke with hundreds of executives and human resource professionals about what he's learned from years of researching people who've excelled at their careers.
"I was so afraid," Marcus added, "that I was going to be working with one of those people who, when you ask them what they like, say 'Ooooh, I don't knooow.' What do you wish you were doing? 'Ooooh, I don't knooow.' What interests you? 'Ooooh, I don't knooow!'" Marcus was making me laugh, but he was also making a point. Kylie did know what she wanted and needed.