Is Your Career Stuck in Airplane Mode?

mm Russ Finkelstein

It’s an occupational hazard of spending my mornings, afternoons and evenings discussing the work of others that I tend to view everything that happens through career-tinted glasses.

Living in Portland, Oregon, I tend to spend about 40 percent of my professional time traveling to cities to meet with individuals facing transition challenges, or organizations that are trying to support their staff or membership. I had a career-tinted glasses moment recently when a flight attendant asked the passengers to “put our phones on airplane mode.” This may have been the five thousandth time I had heard such a request, but for some reason I was hearing that request in a new way.

Wait, I thought. Do our careers have an airplane mode?

After the tiniest of internal debates I came to a conclusion. Yes, they do. And the chances are, if you’re one of the 75% of Americans who is unhappy at work, that your career could very well be stuck in airplane mode, and you leave it there at your peril. As you read on you will see that even if you are in the happy 25% leaving you career in airplane mode comes with great risk.

I do love to test the boundaries of a metaphor. So yes, in this instance, you’re an iPhone, but that doesn’t mean Steve Jobs conceived you, or that many precise hands have already touched your insides already.

No. The weight in the airplane mode metaphor is that you still seem capable of performing certain functions, chiefly the duties of your current position, but that in your current state, nothing new can really come in or go out, career-wise. You’re on autopilot or cruise control. And in direct contrast to my many flights there wasn’t a blaring announcement interrupting last-second calls or texting to prompt airplane mode, but rather you ‘fell into’ airplane mode on your own.

There is a passivity to airplane mode that says “OK, someone else is driving, and I put my full faith in them to get us there, and as result, I am a passive participant in this flight.” But the thing that shakes most of us out of being in airplane mode is something unexpected, perhaps turbulence or a rough landing or worse that we need to wake us. Because you know that neither the current working world nor your present employer guarantee you anything.

What’s important is: If you don’t pay more attention to the planning, developing and tending to your career intentionally, you’re setting yourself up for a shock. Recognize now how you got here, and let’s focus on making more productive use of the time available before you decide to land or a landing is imposed upon you. Let’s get you out of airplane mode.

  1. How did you switch to airplane mode?

What caused you to disengage? Were you bored, miserable, or have you become complacent? When did things shift? Did you actively decide to switch modes because you started something new, or did it just happen over time?

Looking at the reasons you’ve decided to coast or disengage can be helpful in unlocking the next step. Did your boss fail to recognize your contributions? Did you simply decide it wasn’t worth stressing so much about what you do between nine and five? Did you fail to realize a long-held ambition? Did the other guy win the Oscar you were hoping for?

Nevertheless, what’s good about where you are, now? What could be improved?

  1. How do you begin to switch airplane mode off?

First, you need to focus on getting clarity about your next move. What’s your primary motivator? What exploration can you do to find out what’s out there? This is the kind of work that can be accomplished with some intentional thinking, conversations with a supportive partner or coach, or perhaps, by going through a series of online exercises to think about your career. Gee. I wonder where you might find a set of such exercises.

  1. Who do you call first once your phone is back on? next? next?

You need people to hold you accountable in your search, and to be emotionally available to bounce questions and concerns off. They’ll be able to question your goals, offer connections, and connect you with other opportunities in your field.

Start with those in your inner circle of closest friends and colleagues to check-in with about your self-assessment. This is also the first group that you will look to, to help you in the intentional process of meeting the right people and locating opportunities.

Next, depends a bit upon what you decide is your next direction. If you are staying in the same field, it’s particularly important to reach out to other professionals in your field to ask about opportunities, and also, get feedback on the culture of the various workplaces around. You want to tap into the leading thinking and trends to understand what you might be doing better where you are before you make a jump.

You might also look to get involved in professional associations in your field, attend conferences, or do some writing or creating videos to share your perspective. All of this is about building up your brand and your network.

I’ve also known many interesting and engaged professionals who’ve made big switches fairly late in their careers. If you do want to re-route the plane to an entirely different country, it’s obviously a bit of a risk. You’ll want to do a lot of reconnaissance and have a set of questions to ask people as you consider possibilities, first. You may also have connections in your current field that can help you make the leap outside it.

Whether you decide to seek a new employer or a whole new field I would suggest going outside the limits of your current role or industry. Some of my greatest lessons have been when life has put me in the position to learn how reference librarians, professional wrestlers and nurses solve problems in their universe. (They were not all at one conference!) Meeting people who exist in another professional universe means not only allows for that, but also discovering new possible careers and building new networks.

  1. Are you tempted to turn off the phone completely or to smash it to bits?

How desperate are you, exactly, right now? I ask, because air travel affects us all differently, and many of us only seek career help when we are really struggling. Sometimes, it’s very important to someone to move on straight away, perhaps because they’re stuck in a toxic professional culture, for example. Other folks know they can take their time to survey their options.

Whatever you do, practice patience with yourself as you make this change. There will be frustrating moments, but I was raised to believe that all good things come with inherent challenges (Thanks, mom and dad!). Being in airplane mode is easy short-term, but carries big potential costs over time, whether it is not being ready for changes beyond your control, or opportunities that you may miss out on.

Wherever you land, I hope you’ll try to take some pleasure in the journey, and remember that you are the primary player in your being happy. Once you get your feet on the ground and switch your signal back on, you’ll be surprised at how many opportunities come your way and how many people are happy that you decided to reconnect.

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 >