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From PhD to Life

Taking stock and measuring well-being


Let me tell you about an exercise that coaches do with clients. The most used coaching text recommends that we use the Wheel of Life, and many coaches use this tool with clients to help them sort out how they’re doing in different areas of their lives. To do it for yourself, draw a big circle, and divide it into 8 or so segments. Name each segment after a different part of your life. For example, you may have physical environment, career, money, health, friends and family, intimacy, personal growth, and recreation. Then shade in as much of each segment of the circle as you rate your life in that area. A bumpy ride, as it were, signifies an unbalanced life, and taking stock can help suggest an agenda for coaching. My own training program offers up the Pillars of a Balanced Life exercise, which is a similar tool that breaks down a life into ten parts, from finances to family to fun.

When I do such exercises on myself, the results are . . . ok. There are certainly areas that need my attention, and others that may need it in future but that aren’t pressing at the moment.

I’ve used the pillars exercise on clients in individual and group coaching sessions, and it’s been helpful as a clarifying tool. The perspective it provides has helped clients see where they might want to focus, be it in one particular area/pillar, or a theme that emerged from the exercise as a whole.

A different way to measure how one is doing comes from Martin E. P. Seligman’s latest book, Flourish. In it, Seligman, the founder of positive psychology and a professor at Penn, describes his theory of well-being. Well-being has five elements, he posits, including positive emotions, engagement, meaning, positive relationships, and accomplishment (acronym: PERMA). The higher you rank yourself in these areas, the closer you get to flourishing.

Reading Flourish led me to reflect on my own well-being. I rank myself fairly high on most of the five elements. Realizing this made me feel better about my life as it is now.

There’s value in doing both exercises. Because it’s natural to focus on the negative, I appreciate the positivity of PERMA. I feel great about what I’m accomplishing these days, how engaged I am in my work, and how connected I am to my on- and offline community of ABDs and PhDs. To “broaden and build” on these feelings, I make it a regular practice to remind myself of what’s good. Savouring is psychologically healthy, fosters creativity and intellectual output, and builds resilience against future stress. Gratitude and savouring counters feelings of frustration and failure. With uplifted spirits, I’m better able to make the changes I need to in my life to improve my pillar scores, like spending more time with friends, renting a better apartment, and earning more money. (If you’d like to read more about gratitude practice, download “Gratitude and What Went Well” from my website.)

So here’s what I suggest to my clients, as appropriate: take stock, make ameliorative plans, and remember to keep the positive in mind.

Jennifer Polk
Jennifer Polk is a career coach and entrepreneur. She earned her PhD in history from the University of Toronto in 2012. For more information and resources, check out her website:
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  1. deb / December 20, 2013 at 09:05

    interesting stuff, Jennifer. and happy bloggy anniversary! congrats on what sounds like a productive year where you’ve really reshaped your career path!