When it comes to your own dreams and ambitions – and the career story that you desire to unfold – I am here to say that you hold the pen as the writer, protagonist, star, director and producer. And to truly be the heroine or hero of that story – one who successfully navigates the challenges built into your work world – you need to have a protagonist mentality.
Writers ensure that their most triumphant lead characters possess a distinct mindset that influences how they approach and respond to situations. These essential characteristics ultimately help heroes and heroines to grow and win as they seize each day:
They have spirit. Enthusiastic and solution-oriented, protagonists act in memorable ways, even when they are fearful or facing adversity.
They have perspective. Victorious heroes and heroines have open minds (even about themselves), objectively consider all sides and focus on the greater good.
They are inquisitive, innately curious and willing to be lifelong learners.
They are sincere, true to their word, authentic and dedicated.
They are empathetic, sensitive to those around them and accepting of imperfections in themselves and others.
They are doers in forward motion as they make ideas real.
They excel through high standards and working smarter.
They act “as if” by looking, walking and talking the part of the character they aspire to be.
They evolve by making themselves better and deepening relationships at every turn.
This last characteristic is critical because every protagonist who is ultimately successful – and every single person in real life – continues to evolve. We all travel along a character arc in our own story, and we are all in a constant state of becoming our best selves. Building these traits throughout our work and personal experiences helps us to get to where we want to be.
As a reader or viewer, you’ve probably noticed that the protagonist often begins a story confused or clueless about what he or she actually needs to do to make changes and evolve. At the start, protagonists are not in full possession of these hero or heroine traits (if they were, the story would have nowhere to go). Most are uncertain and unaware of their full capabilities, talents and power which, truth be told, describes many of us. But if you think like a writer, you’ll learn to play the long game and become increasingly certain that your story will unfold and that you will progress.
Still, even if we adopt a protagonist’s mindset, it’s difficult to really believe that your character journey will be positive and transformative. Why? Because of how we see ourselves and our perceived shortcomings. These truths that all writers know will help:
- Accept that every character is a product of their own flawed history, which simply means that we’re all flawed just like the best of them.
- Accept that we all have varying degrees of doubt, fear of failure and feelings of unworthiness. But in many ways, it’s our contradictions and perceived “weaknesses” that make us interesting and compelling.
- Accept that characters are best received when they are sympathetic, vulnerable and relatable – the imperfections that we try so hard to hide are often, ironically, what makes us more compelling.
So as you adopt a protagonist’s mindset, embrace all that you are. The character journey lesson is that our imperfect places and wounds can ultimately turn out to be our strengths and a large part of what connects us to others.
And finally, as you move along in your career journey, know that you are in the thick of an unfolding story. That truth often makes it difficult for us to recognize our progress – in fact, we can feel as if we’re going absolutely nowhere. If that’s the case for you, use that feeling as a writer’s prompt. It’s a good time to pause and reflect on your actual forward motion and to see if you can better align with the essential characteristics of a protagonist mentality.
Do this one thing today:
Ask yourself the following three questions to shine a light on your progress:
- How have I evolved so far in my character arc (perhaps without even noticing)?
- What aspect of myself can I now leave behind because I’m done with it?
- What new aspect can I keep and make part of my career story going forward?
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Deborah Burns’ story has always been about invention and reinvention. She’s lived those two keywords throughout her career as a women’s media chief innovation officer (CIO), a leader of brands like ELLE Décor and Metropolitan Home, an industry consultant and throughout a creative pivot that led to the award-winning memoir, “Saturday’s Child.”
The experience of becoming an author illuminated the path to her second book, “Authorize It! Think Like a Writer to Win at Work & Life.” Now, Deborah combines her business and creative expertise in professional development workshops that improve outcomes and help everyone invent, reinvent and live up to their career potential.