How To Approach Careers In A Time of Uncertainty and Change™

mm Russ Finkelstein

I don’t know if you got the word, but there was an election in the United States not too long ago.

No matter where you sit on the political spectrum, you probably believe that life is about to change in massive and unpredictable ways. In other words, this is Time of Uncertainty and Change.

I divide uncertainty into two kinds that tend to affect our professional lives the most: the personal and the societal.

Sources of personal uncertainty include the death or illness of a loved one, divorce or separation, or even a new relationship that may require us to make substantial changes like a move, to give it the priority we believe it deserves. These are challenging uncertainties and still unsettling even if we know they are coming. In part, this is because even though we often face these challenges with a small group of those closest to us, the world continues unabated by our pain or struggle.

Societal uncertainty, however, is the trademarked kind, and it’s where I’m focused, here. It happens when things we collectively take for granted suddenly drop away. Perhaps a war happens, or a major terrorist attack. Or perhaps there’s an extreme weather event, or an unexpected election result, for example. Even though the uncertainty is communal we frequently carry the weight of what’s happening ourselves, and can feel the full pressure of its impact. I heard someone say the other day, for example, that they felt like the election had “happened at me.”

Every successful career will require you to navigate periods of uncertainty like these, and it’s important that you do so with great care. I want to share what I’ve learned as a career coach about how to make the best of uncertain times so that your life doesn’t suffer too much as a result.

In an earlier period of my adulthood I worked in the Empire State Building in New York City. I was on my way to work on the morning of September 11th, 2001, when I was plunged into a period of societal uncertainty and grieving. I had some friends who moved away rather quickly, while others disappeared from social connections for months. People’s view of our country, and the future, were changed with ramifications that we feel, even now. In the city, the economy was depressed, and posters of “missing” people surrounded us.

At that time of great upheaval I noticed a trend that has proven consistent in how I see people reacting to societal uncertainty now: They use a pendulum swing to leap far away from their current circumstance, or they burrow in even more deeply to what has been familiar. The real trick to managing your career in such moments, however, is to be both sensible enough not to entirely blow up your life (avoiding what I call big “pendulum swings”), and bold enough to keep your eyes open and stay satisfied, energized and engaged by your career.

Whether you are a leaper or a burrower, I would recommend that you follow my three steps to walk this particular tightrope, most effectively: Get Clarity, Get Connected & Get Accountable.

Here goes.

Beware pendulum swings or burrowing too deeply

The real trick to managing your career in A Time of Uncertainty and Changeis to walk the tightrope between boldness and sensibility. You need to get comfortable walking that tightrope, and being aware of both sets of impulses as you navigate your next steps.

Let’s talk about the career “pendulum swing.” While people tend to move this way during much of their professional life it is particularly acute when we feel uncertain. When we first start out in our careers we might be inclined to take very large pendulum swings arcing in stark contrast from one job to the next. For example, we work in fundraising for a charity and then take a job in a spice shop. We swing from over here to over there, trying out new opportunities because each one offers something markedly different to the one before. Perhaps we can’t stand the work culture at a bank so we take a job as a photographer’s assistant. Then we realize we missed earning better money, so we try sales.

Ironically it’s hardest to avoid the desire to take these big swings during periods of uncertainty. The uncertainty itself, in fact, is what generates the desire to move away from it. But trust me when I tell you that the caution with which you plot your next move, now, is more important than anything else.

On the other hand, it is also important not to give in to the temptation to simply burrow too deeply into comfort as a way of averting the new reality.

When life is hard, we gravitate to the comfortable in food, television and/or music. When we have a similar uncertainty about work, we can stay too long in a job that doesn’t satisfy us, because we gravitate towards the familiar.

How do you know where you’re at, on this spectrum?

1. Get Clarity

75 percent of Americans are unhappy in their jobs and before you make your next pendulum swing, the only way to ensure that you join the other 25 percent is to do some intentional work about what you really value in your next opportunity, and what you really cannot tolerate. Otherwise you’ll be back here, psychologically, in another 6, 12 or 18 months. And that gets exhausting.

You need to honestly assess how fulfilled you are, now. Then figure out what you really want. Then craft a new story, a way to introduce yourself to new people and talk about where you’re headed. You need to write it all down in some form of written document you can easily refer to when you’re feeling uncertain, next time. Optimize your LinkedIn profile and your resume. And check yourself for signs of what I technically call “bullshit.”  

By that, I mean, don’t tell me you want to be a Hollywood film director if you’ve spent the last 15 years as a CPA. I’m not saying you shouldn’t dream but ask people around you, folks you trust, to engage with you in this kind of work and check you for too many signs of unrealistic mania. We want you to be successful in charting your next move, here, not use this work as an outlet for feelings of dissatisfaction that don’t then take you anywhere.

2. Get Connected

Once you’re clearer on what you want, it’s important to broaden the conversation to include a network of people who might be able to offer you support as you look to make the next step. I’ve written lots about how best to network, elsewhere. But be intentional and generous. These are the most important things.

3. Get Accountable

Many folks find the prospect of career change to be unnerving. They get anxious about taking the necessary steps so they distract themselves and procrastinate until they find themselves back in the same place in a few months, and they have to start the work over again. During these uncertain moments we have an even greater need to get support from others and an all too frequent tendency to push them away. Be intentional about ensuring that your support system is in place during these times.

Having a coach or a buddy or simply some way of holding yourself accountable is often the biggest single factor in success, when it comes to this stuff. Different tactics work better for different people and while you only have yourself to rely on, in the end, it’s important to take the first steps with somebody supportive.

Now what?

Uncertainty is, by its nature, mostly unpredictable. But one of our defining challenges as individuals and professionals is how we react to it. I’m not saying it’s easy, but it does get easier to handle with experience. And I wish you luck with it.

Russ Finkelstein is Managing Director of ClearlyNext, a guided online career program that helps people of all backgrounds and incomes figure out what to do next. Read more >