Nina Ham, LCSW, CPCC

It’s fall in the mid-west, and the crisp chill in the air means it’s time for a taffy-pulling party. For the uninitiated, here’s what happens. Groups of kids wait impatiently while a parent stirs a pan of sugar, butter and water on the stove. When the ingredients have melted and cooled just enough, the kids grab a wad and start pulling. As they pull, they can see the taffy change from a dull, dark brown conglomeration to chewy amber-colored confection. It always seems miraculous to a child’s mind, and even to the adults’: just by pulling, and pulling some more, the ingredients are transformed, a simple result of aeration.

What has taffy-pulling to do with work? It offers a fitting metaphor for the ways in which work can contribute to our emotional health. Though we generally regard work as one of life’s necessities, and it may even appear an irrelevant indulgence to question whether or how work is good for our health, there is payoff for thinking about it. Changes in the way work is conducted in this culture has shattered many traditional assumptions and is requiring us to manage our careers or businesses more actively and astutely than ever before. Knowing what promotes a healthy engagement with your work will help you make good choices and decisions.

What’s the analogy? As with taffy, being firmly anchored at two points, in work that’s right for us and in a commitment to self-discovery, permits stretching that can be transformative. As women we intuitively know this. But what can we say about how the growth, or transformation, actually occurs? The more informed we are, even across this uncharted terrain, the more intentional we can be.

Satisfaction at work often boils down to having opportunities to express one’s unique skills, values and perspective. When our fingerprints are on the finished product, and when our contribution is valued, self-esteem is enriched and belonging - knowing our place in the larger community - is strengthened.

But the potential for growth isn’t limited to getting validation for those contributions we knowingly make. We also take growth leaps when we’re unwittingly pulled to embrace challenges beyond our familiar limits. Often these challenges arise in situations where for whatever reason we can’t make a simple either/or choice but must work within greater complexity and find a both/and solution. A more resilient maturity is our reward.

The list of both/and stretches confronting us in our work is long. We’re pulled to be true to both poles even when they seem mutually exclusive. How often have you stretched to span both internal standards of performance, and external expectations; both personal ambition, and commitments to others; both being liked, and being respected; both personal values, and values of the workplace; both self assertion, and inclusiveness; both personal and societal definitions of success; both appropriate self-assurance, and appropriate self-questioning?

You may be adding additional pulls and tugs to the list, and feeling an excess of “stretch-ouch”. The question arises: How much stretch is optimal, serving personal growth but avoiding chronic exhaustion? Clarity on this is hard to come by, partly because one’s tolerance changes from day to day, but here are some guidelines that may help you pace yourself.

Draw your line in the sand. Most of us have some non-negotiable positions that can’t be breached without harm. What is non-negotiable for you at work? It may be that having financial security, for instance, is crucial, to allow you to embrace some of these stretches. Respect that.

Growth is often paradoxical. If you relax a goal you’ve set yourself, for instance to use time more effectively, you may find yourself naturally being more efficient as a result of making an unrelated shift elsewhere. Growth isn’t linear. The most gratifying results are often those that are achieved with some combination of intention and magic.

Take charge of who you want to become, alongside knowing what you want to do. Identify for yourself the personal characteristics you want to grow into, as well as the skills you want to develop. Once you embrace the notion that your work shapes not only what you do but who you become, you will be more intentional about your expenditures of time and energy.

In closing, here’s a virtual salute to all of us who continue to look for ways to embrace the multiple stretches that our lives as women present. As Po Bronson promises, (in What Should I Do with My Life?) when you have created work you can give your heart to, your talents will explode, your character will blossom, and the world will benefit from your gifts.

Author's Bio: 

Nina Ham is a certified business and career coach and a licensed psychotherapist. Her company, Success from the Inside Out, offers individual coaching and teleclasses for developing the skills, attitudes and habits for sustainable business and career success. Visit her website at and subscribe to her free monthly Ezine,