How To Achieve Your Career Goals Despite Health Setbacks

One piece of career advice parroted about all the time, in any field, is “work hard”. Sure, it’s solid advice for anyone pursuing a career. It’s less useful for those facing a chronic illness, who can suddenly find themselves unable to work like they used to. Both mental illnesses and physiological ones have the ability to make any work immensely more difficult, let alone the kind of hard work generally needed to achieve professional goals.

I’ve always considered myself someone who works hard. Whenever I came up against career challenges, I resolved to work even harder. But everything changed last year when I was diagnosed with chronic fatigue, a disease with symptoms such as extreme fatigue, pain and flu-like symptoms after exertion. For months I struggled to walk, to make sense of emails, to follow conversations. Some days even brushing my teeth was overwhelming.

When doctors told me the symptoms could last up to a decade, it was tempting to give up on my career altogether. My health had to be my priority anyway, and looking after myself was taking up most of my time.

But as other sufferers of chronic conditions have found, the coping and management skills needed to look after your health can dovetail with your career ambitions. As I learned to manage my condition, I was able to start thinking about the future again, and how I could incorporate illness management into a lifestyle that still lets me focus on professional goals.

Here are some strategies I’ve found beneficial.

Get past the cult of busy…

Our perpetual busyness has become a major health concern. If you’re already dealing with a chronic illness, the stress that comes with overfilling your days (and nights) is even more of a risk.

You need to “work within the constraints of your illness”. This is the advice of Irene Lemon, a business advisor with Creative + Business. Irene sees a lot of entrepreneurs and artists who have hit the point of burnout. Not having achieved the success they initially envisioned, their response is to try to do more.

A better option is to step back and take time for self-reflection, Lemon advises. “Be crystal clear about what you want to achieve, but be flexible with your plan and kind to yourself.” Recognising your capacity and prioritising your actions are two of the most important steps to success, whatever your situation.

… And give yourself time to rest

“We are in the midst of a sleep deprivation crisis,” as Arianna Huffington puts it. Be serious about getting a good night’s sleep. This is essential to your health, and should also help you be more productive when you are working.

Lemon also suggests making time for your lunch breaks, and your holidays. Give yourself permission to take the breaks you need, regardless of what others around you are doing.

Accept failure as part of the process

Understanding failure as part of the learning process is useful advice for everyone, but it becomes even more important when working through the challenges of chronic illness.

“If you fail and you have the energy to keep playing with that same idea, to come back to it,” Lemon says. “That’s how you know you’re on to something.”

Find new inspiration, and maybe a mentor

Chances are, someone else has faced the same challenges as you and managed to work through them. For me, inspiration comes from Laura Hillenbrand, bestselling author of the novel Seabiscuit. Her chronic fatigue is far worse than mine, but over many years, she found ways to achieve career success.

“When I was too tired to sit at my desk,” she writes, “I set the laptop up on my bed. When I was too dizzy to read, I lay down and wrote with my eyes closed.”

“Researching these people, observing how they do what they do can be hugely helpful,” Lemon advises. And if you think someone you’ve researched may be willing to mentor you, take the time to figure out exactly what you’d want from them, as well as what you can do for them.

Think longer term

Yes, whatever you’re dreaming of, it’s probably going to take longer than you previously thought. Maybe a lot longer. That doesn’t mean it will never happen. Take a deep breath. You can take some of the pressure off by allowing yourself to be flexible with your timeline and taking a longer-term approach with your goals.

Ashley Kalagian Blunt is a writer and stand-up comedian. She’s written for McSweeney’s, Kill Your Darlings and Griffith Review. Her current project is How To Be Australian, a memoir. She runs the comedy website Full of Donkey and tweets at @AKalagianBlunt.