Greek philosopher Heraclitus once aptly said, “change is the only constant in life.” Yet oddly enough change is the one thing most people find themselves ill prepared to navigate. Fear of the unknown is ubiquitous, making transitions unsettling and scary. They typically fall into one of four categories:
- Unanticipated and involuntary. Perhaps the most unsettling transitions fall into this category because they are completely unexpected and tend to be negative. External events like shifts in the economy, natural disasters, terrorist attacks or an unexpected termination can have an enormous impact on your life and psyche. There are no warning signs; the transition is thrust upon you and you are forced to cope, whether you are ready or not.
- Anticipated, but involuntary. Slightly less jarring than the former, these types of transitions are also unsettling. While there may be warning signs that a transition is imminent, many people decline to take action, but rather, allow others to control their fate. These types of transitions may come in the form of a divorce, a child leaving home, a predictable layoff or mandatory retirement. Yet, rather than take preemptive action, you allow yourself to be victimized by the situation.
- Unanticipated and voluntary. Sometimes, through no direct action on your part, the perfect opportunity lands in your lap. These types of transitions can still throw your life into a tailspin, but you have the luxury of accepting or declining the opportunity based on your needs and interests at that moment.
- Anticipated and voluntary. In a perfect world, all career-life transitions would be the result of self-directed, strategic decisions. Sadly, none of us live in a perfect world; however, intentionality can move you closer to perfection by helping you develop strategies to take as much control as you can whenever possible to navigate change on your terms.
The key to surviving any type of change is to learn how to control the things you can and develop strategies to cope with the unforeseeable. Many people experience career transitions as something that happens TO them rather than as something that can be planned for and controlled. If you are one of them, it is time to take action. One of the greatest impediments to change in any undertaking is that people withdraw from a situation rather than explore what the alternatives might be. Successful alternative arrangements are possible—if you are willing to diverge from the norm. Whether you find yourself in a career transition voluntarily or involuntarily, you will no doubt ask yourself questions like:
- Is there some way to combine my work with my other, equally important interests?
- Are there jobs available at my level and salary expectations or will I have to settle for less?
- Do I give up on my chosen field and do something else and if so, what else can I do?
These questions can be overwhelming because there are no immediate answers. Don’t get stymied and opt to stay stuck in an unhappy situation or simply avoid the questions altogether. Playing it safe and staying in a position you have outgrown will damage your career. Remember, choosing to do nothing is still a choice you are making.
Most people end up happier after a transition. The hard part is living through the unavoidable discomfort and uncertainties. Understand that the way you think about a transition can make it easy to handle or impossible to manage. It is not the event that is determinative; rather, it is the way you choose to experience the event. Believe you have choices. Believe that you can create your own possibilities. Don’t allow “shoulds” to force you down a path you do not want to go. Your frame of mind affects your actions. Trust yourself, others and the process to lead you to a better way. Once you have evidence of the possibilities, it will be easier to take action.
As you work on accepting change more readily, remember the important thing is that you take charge of your own career progression. Identify the changes you need/want to make and then be proactive about making those changes happen. ASSUME RESPONSIBILITY. No one cares about your career development more than you do. Don’t wait for others to lead you through the quagmire. Remember, planning your career is like solving a business problem. Define objectives, develop strategies, monitor progress and take corrective action when needed. The beauty of the career planning process is that YOU get to define the objectives based on your personal definition of success. Whatever option you choose, know that as long as you are able to demonstrate to employers that there is a well thought out, coherent plan aimed at building a portfolio of skills, the choice will be well received. It is scary to head into the unknown. But remember that basic principle you learned in high school physics: Bodies in motion stay in motion; bodies at rest stay at rest. Take action.
Think about the direction you’d like your life to take. Determine what type of experience you need in order to progress along your chosen career path. Stretch yourself to acquire new skills/knowledge to remain in constant demand and at the same time invest in developing an expertise. Such a strategy will enable you to have a competitive advantage in times of transition. Specializing in one area alone can be risky, market pressures may render you obsolete. But make sure you are not so much of a generalist that you have not developed proficiency in any particular skill. A balance of the two is a better strategy.
Think beyond the development of technical expertise and also focus on developing “soft” skills—things like leadership, working in teams, time management, negotiating, communicating, understanding diversity, delegating and adapting to change. Such intangibles are often “silent discriminators,” indicating who is on the fast track and who is not. Soft skills enable you to apply your hard skills in a variety of situations, thereby making it easier to adapt to any unpredictable events.
Each year, ask yourself:
- Am I satisfied with my current career/life situation?
- Has any new exposure sought been gained?
- Has my level of responsibility increased? Is that what I want?
- Does the current work environment continue to be receptive to my career objectives?
If the answer to these questions is no, you may determine that a voluntary transition in employment, a redirection of your career path or an industry shift is in order. Think about the choices you have made. Can you make a different choice to realign your career with your goals?
To avoid experiencing involuntary transitions at work, pay close attention and constantly assess and reassess your current situation. Look for clues like:
- having difficulty with a supervisor
- being assigned less important tasks/duties
- not receiving a bonus
- being avoided by supervisors, colleagues, subordinates
- receiving negative feedback/performance review
- not being personally productive or engaged in your job
- changes in the economy or business cycle that might impact your industry
If you see these signs, take action. Either fix the problem (if possible) or recognize you can’t change the situation (and sometimes you can’t through no fault of your own) and strategize your next move.
Career success is a continuous process that requires you to constantly assess and articulate the value you add to the marketplace based on your abilities and interests. It involves a dedication to continuous learning and regularly benchmarking your abilities and skills, nurturing your professional relationships and monitoring changes in the workplace. Attention to these details will enable you to actively anticipate and construct self-directed voluntary transition plans and avoid the unpleasantness of unanticipated and involuntary situations.
Kathleen Brady, PCC is a career/life management coach. She is a Senior Advisor at Preferred Transition Resources and Executive Director of Career Services and on the adjunct faculty at Georgian Court University.