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Supporters vs. Cheerleaders

NB: This is part of a series of entries regarding lessons learned in the years since I quit my job in search of a life more intentional. These are also being posted at LinkedIn. This particular entry can be found here.

The COVID-19 pandemic has unleashed pervasive uncertainty. Some of its victims are voluntarily using the opportunity to explore a new career path while others have had the journey thrust upon them. Whatever the case, such a change is best navigated with help from our support networks. But, our expectations of what that support looks like might not match with reality.

You probably have a lot more people in your corner than you think.

When I told my parents my decision to quit my job to find a higher and better use of my time and talents, their response was not what I expected. My mother, engulfed by an unnerving quiet, looked very anxious; a common response to many things I’ve said or done. My father looked at me soberly and said, “Well, I’ve taught you everything I know about cash flow.” I was expecting slightly more enthusiasm.

On a different occasion, I explored a promising job with a local non-profit. However, something about it did not feel quite right. “I feel more dynamic than this,” I told my then-girlfriend. She laughed. Not just a chuckle. A bursting, “Ha ha!” Again, that did not go the way I thought it would.

What was wrong with these people? Where was their unbridled enthusiasm? Why were my closest resources so milquetoast? And if they were not going to shout from the rooftops in support, who would? Meanwhile, friends more removed from my immediate center, and from whom I expected little, often provided the enthusiasm, reassurance, and challenges I sometimes needed in moments of doubt and incertitude.

Throughout my process of creating a more intention-filled life, I reflected on the discrepancy between my expectations and reality in this key area. I concluded two things on the subject. First, the ones on whom we rely often fall into one of two groups: supporters and cheerleaders. The words are used interchangeably but for my purposes, I had to make a distinction. And second, those we expect to be in one group are often found in the other, and vice versa. Therefore, it is important to understand the difference between the two, identify who is best suited for which role, and develop a plan to best utilize this important resource.


Supporters, as the name suggests, provide reliable, consistent backstopping. But they are so much more than that. Supporters are often our foundation, an indispensable resource during turbulent times. Think of parents, family members, and significant others. Thank God for these people. Their long-standing role in our lives means they are deeply invested and very likely to be preoccupied with something bad befalling us than they are to remind us we are making the right moves. They listen to everything; tell us we can do it. Supporters often take phone calls at all hours, in moments of doubt and weakness, and are ready to take us in if necessary when the entire experiment is in shambles. However, that’s all we should really expect from them because being that foundation is demanding enough. Our supporters are often just as close to the middle of our struggle as we are, which can color how they perceive – and react to – a dramatic shift in our lives.

Sometimes our best supporters know us a little too well. (Photo: 20th Century Fox)

From this perspective, how could my parents’ response above have been any different? Their front row seat to my life impeded the objectivity necessary to rally me to a wilder dream for myself. They had clawed their way from balancing on the poverty line to a place where their three children would likely never face such a struggle. Now their oldest was throwing away stability and a promising career to find … what exactly? But throughout the process – and lest you get the wrong impression about them – my parents’ support never wavered. They were there when things went well or disastrously bad. Their door was always open during my transience for as long as I needed. Their vocal enthusiasm may have been more muted than I had expected, but their words of encouragement were always strong.


Cheerleaders are often further removed from our “inner circle.” They are, to varying degrees, invested in the relationship, but they can carry a different flame. Their enthusiasm for our journey may even exceed our own. Cheerleaders are often sounding boards that reflect tough questions and deeper insights. Their reaction to our ideas, musings, and critical lessons learned is, “Yes! Tell me more about that. How can we take this further?” Because they are unburdened by paradigms and baggage so characteristic of a relationship with a loved one, cheerleaders have more latitude to challenge us to dream bigger.

A cheerleader's tough love can go a long way. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Cheerleaders are also at liberty to be tougher on us. The process of finding a vocation to match our authentic selves can require bravely embracing vulnerability. We have to face tough questions and be willing to abandon, or at least modify, that which helps us make sense of our experiences. That uncomfortable process can trigger a protective instinct in us – and in supporters – to run away. Because cheerleaders come from a different place, they hold our feet to the fire and demand accountability. They do not settle for anything less than our A-game. When our instinct is to shrink back into our comfort zones, they remind us, quite fervently at times, to not sell ourselves short. They call us out when we try to disguise an excuse as a reason. After my time volunteering in Jamaica I explored graduate school, but it was half-hearted due to my fear of failure. A cheerleader called me out. “Look,” he said. “I’m not going to cosign your BS. Either find your spine and apply or admit you’re too scared to do it.” I started the next day and never looked back.

So what?

Support from our networks of family and friends will manifest differently in each person due to the nature of the individual relationship. In a sense, where people stand depends on where they sit. Therefore, it helps to identify your supporters and cheerleaders and enlist them directly. Assuming they are on board (they likely will be), define what their assistance looks like, explain what you hope to draw from their input and set up a schedule to check in with them regularly. If they cannot meet your ask, try finding a different solution. And remember, individuals may only be able to help so much. They all have lives clamoring for their time and attention. So, if you go to that well, do so strategically. But be sure to follow through with them, even if your progress is only incremental. Failure to do so may give them the impression you’ve given up.

Whenever people ask me about my decision to quit my job and seek a more fulfilling vocation, the questions – and subsequent conversation – tend to sound like I did it all by myself. I did not. I had plenty of people walking with me. You will too. And these companions all have one thing in common: they are rooting for you! They want you to succeed! Amazing things can happen when we embrace vulnerability and ask them to go on the adventure with us. As the old adage goes: if you want to walk fast, walk alone, but if you want to walk far, walk together. Make no mistake, shaking up your life to find a more fulfilling career - whether self-imposed or due to circumstances beyond your control – can be a long road, and having people walk with you makes a big difference. Start by identifying them. Enlist them. Make their support and cheerleading an integral part of your experience.



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