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5 things to consider if you want to reimagine your career for an uncertain future

While you may not be able to change your government, your boss, or the economy, you can always do something to improve yourself and your career. Here are the right questions to ask to get started.

5 things to consider if you want to reimagine your career for an uncertain future
[Photo: Zbynek Burival/Unsplash; ZaharovEvgeniy/iStock]

Nobody knows if the world will ever return to normal, let alone when. It’s likely that the post-pandemic era will be quite different, with a wide range of changes to the world of work and careers. Predictions tend to rationalize the present crisis in a way that helps us prepare for tomorrow.

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When we predict that after the crisis people will travel less, work from home more, or have more flexible working hours, we are really trying to persuade ourselves that the new normal is okay, or at least sustainable. Those who are unable to continue with their previous jobs right now, because of quarantine restrictions or economic fallout, are being forced to rethink their careers, even though it’s very hard to plan for an uncertain future.

That said, humans are a resilient, flexible, and adaptable species. We have faced crises before and will continue to do so in the future. Every crisis is a test for our own mental toughness, stability, and ability to bounce back stronger and better. As Manoj Arora put it, “In life and in a boxing ring, the defeat is not declared when you fall down. It is declared only when you refuse to get up.”

It is also clear that while you may not be able to change your government, your boss, or the economy, you can always do something to improve yourself. As the Austrian psychotherapist Viktor Frankl observed in the autobiographical accounts of his survival of a Nazi concentration camp: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” In fact, it is much harder to find a reason to change when things are going well. Success often incubates our vulnerabilities, breeding complacency, and a false sense of security, while failure is a powerful coach.

With this in mind, here are a few questions for helping you rethink your career, including the development of your talent and potential, during these difficult times. Even if you don’t quite know what tomorrow will bring–nobody does–you could benefit from thinking about these key issues of work and your career.

Do you need to pivot?

Regardless of where you are, it makes sense to start by asking yourself how much you may need or want to change. Like most things, change comes in different degrees, and career changes may range from small role changes, such as switching tasks or focus within your existing job, to substantial career transitions, like reinventing yourself, pivoting to a new industry, or embarking on a new profession.

As my colleague Becky Frankiewicz noted, we are currently witnessing one of the major workforce shifts in modern history because of unprecedented disruptions to major industries, such as retail, tourism, and airlines. But while everyone is affected, not everyone is affected in the same way, so a good starting point is to consider the depth and level of change that applies to you.

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Do you know what you need?

Even before the crisis, people struggled with their own career choices, but denial was a common coping mechanism for dealing with this. One of the main problems is that people tend to have a very rudimentary understanding of their own talent and potential, so they end up in careers that are a poor fit for their interests, abilities, and skills. The current reset may represent a big opportunity to address this issue, so long as you can work out what you really need.

Psychological science has identified a range of fairly universal career needs that may help you assess where your talents may be best deployed. There is always a tension or a trade-off between different values, so a good starting point is to ask yourself what you value most. For instance, would you rather have more freedom and independence, or more stability and job security? Would you rather have a more prestigious and enviable job, or do something you truly enjoy? Would you rather do something prosocial that helps others, or do something that nurtures your learning and curiosity? These seem like simple questions, but most people didn’t ask them when they made their first career choices, and in many instances that was the last choice they made. If you are forced to make a fresh start now, make sure that you answer these questions first.

What should you try to avoid?

Sometimes it is easier to know what you don’t want than what you want. There’s a lot you can learn from your past career pain points, like the fact that you may hate routine and repetition, working on stuff that seems meaningless, or spend most of your time trying to implement other people’s ideas. Even simple things, like whether you like working with others, commuting to work, working from home, or having a fixed schedule, should teach you something about what to avoid in the future.

Just like unwanted, traumatic relationship breakups can still lead to improved new relationships in the future, you can be “forced” into career upgrades when choices are made for you and your current job disappears. This is just another facet of human adaptability. We can adjust to meaningless and pointless jobs, to the point that we see them as normal. Needless to say, life is much better when you have a choice.

How can you best invest in yourself?

Even if you are psyched about the prospect of a new future career, you will still need to work to make it happen. Your decision is the starting point, for you have to at least be open to new opportunities and more receptive to unusual or unfamiliar options than you were in the past.

But a more important part of the process is to invest in yourself. Spend all the time you can evaluating your new career alternatives, understanding the skills (both soft and hard) that those careers demand, learning and training, and rebranding yourself as needed. Just because you think you have the potential to do something you have not done in the past, doesn’t mean you’ll be able to persuade others that you can (even if you are right).

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The good news is that we’ve never had more free, online resources to reskill, upskill, and nurture our curiosity than we have right now. The bad news is that it is very tempting to watch Tiger King, but unless you choose a career pimping exotic animals (which can obviously be quite lucrative), there are probably more productive ways to spend your free time.

How will you measure success?

Now try to fast forward one year and use your imagination to project how your life may be different after your new career changes. Even if you can’t imagine what those are, how will you decide whether you made the right move? Would you want to find yourself happier, richer, healthier, wiser? Since all of the above are probably not possible, which of those would you pick first? An important yet often forgotten aspect of goal setting is to understand very clearly exactly what you want to achieve through those changes, so you can aim for the right goals.

Many people are finding themselves with more time to think, reassess their priorities, and reset some of the foundations of their careers right now. Change itself should not be overly glamorized. The main thing is that you look for improvements to your current situation, and sometimes that’s achieved through minimal tweaks to the status quo.

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