March 16, 2021
Dr. Janet Long is executive director of career design and development at Widener University. This is the first of two parts.
“I shall stay until the wind changes.” -- Mary Poppins
Most people agree that change is not easy. In job market speak, career transition often implies change without choice. The phrase “in transition” itself has an ominous ring, transparent code for I’m between jobs and need to land now. Yet if you are willing to listen for and even embrace the changing winds, career transition can be both self-propelled and empowering.
This first of a two-part article will look at how to recognize the signs and stages of shifting career winds. The truth is that for most of us, there is not the workplace equivalent of a tornado but rather a process of gradual awakening. As a later-in-life career changer, I will share parts of my own process, turbulence and all.
Early signs: Breezes
- You’re not as mentally present. You’re still showing up and achieving results, but you have this odd sensation of floating above it all.
- You’re bored. There are no new challenges, and every day feels like a rerun.
- You’re busy, yet uninspired.
Mid-signs: Occasional Gusts
- You have trouble concentrating on tasks that once held strong interest.
- You barely remember the organizational mission or how your work connects with it.
- You find yourself withdrawing from or minimizing social interactions with colleagues.
- Your once-occasional-job-site browsing has become a daily habit.
Later signs: Winds Are Whipping
- You dread workdays no matter what is on the calendar.
- You are starting to miss deadlines and barely engage during meetings.
- You can’t imagine still being there a year from now, maybe even a month from now!
Shifting Winds or Burnout?
While these escalating signs sound ominous, there may also be glimpses of alternative work ideas and scenarios. These glimpses might suggest new skills to acquire or credentials to earn. In fact, it is the ability to envision a different future that often distinguishes career velocity from plain old burnout. You can see possibility even if the exact form is not yet perfectly clear.
With burnout, there is more likely a general flattening. Your current position is unappealing, and the idea of work itself equally so. The flat feeling may extend to other parts of your life as well. You’re just feeling “done” and craving a break from everything and everyone.
Stage 1: Breezes
Remember the signs: You’re not as mentally present, but you have this odd sensation of floating above it all. You’re bore: Every day feels like a rerun. You’re busy, but uninspired.
One of my earliest mentors taught me to distinguish between gaining five years of experience and one year of experience five times. The latter can become a seductive trap, especially if you are a strong performer in your current role and receive lots of positive affirmation from supervisors, clients, and colleagues.
For many, staying in place may be enough…until it isn’t. This is not about judgment, but rather about being present enough to sense when internal winds are shifting. Sometimes a dramatic life event may serve as a destabilizing force, and sometimes it is just an accumulation of everyday discomforts or resentments.
In my case, the earth moved beneath me when my parents experienced health crises within six months of each other. At the time, I was running my own executive search firm and had recently signed a long-term lease for expanded office space as business was booming. My head was definitely in the business, and I could not have envisioned that the next decade would not only upend my day-to-day priorities but also permanently shift my values and life outlook. While my brave mother would ultimately succumb to multiple myeloma, my equally courageous father would navigate through multiple strokes and progressive vascular dementia until he became unrecognizable. As an adult only child who had led a relatively charmed life to this point, I was plunged into a medical bureaucracy that required daily “executive decision-making” that dwarfed any decision process in which I had engaged in a work context.
You’re not as mentally present. You’re still showing up and achieving results, but you have this odd sensation of floating above it all.
During the acute stages of my mother’s illness, my new responsibilities ranged from coordinating 24/7 home care to interpreting for my father who had lost considerable ability to communicate. Perhaps a low point was too loudly closing a deal with an employer and a job candidate while in a hospital corridor—on a payphone!—while my mother idled in a wheelchair nearby. But business couldn’t stop. There were positions to fill and a payroll to meet. There is no family leave when you are a small business owner.
Somehow, we all got through that time. Human beings are good at compartmentalizing, and work can be a diversion during a time of personal crisis. Maybe we assume that things will go back to business-as-usual when the crisis passes. For some, it does. But for me, living on auto-pilot for a sustained period had altered my thinking about the purpose of work.
You’re bored. There are no new challenges and every day feels like a rerun.
You’re busy, yet uninspired.
Maybe it was a post-traumatic response, but after the death of my second parent, recruiting no longer provided the same shot of adrenaline. Every job search felt the same. Thankfully, we were busy, yet I had stopped learning anything new. Later, when completing the StrengthsFinder assessment, I would discover that as a Learner, this was one of my major drivers.
More troubling, I realized that as an executive recruiter I was typically “helping” people who least needed help. As a consultant retained by organizations, my job was to identify and woo away established, successful individuals from my clients’ direct competitors to perform similar roles at greater compensation or at the next rung of the ladder.
With some exceptions, this was more about managing risk than uncovering potential. I wanted to work with “out-of-the-box” individuals or those in transition to help them identify and leverage their strengths.
I began to devour the career literature, from Barbara Sher’s I Could Do Anything if Only I Knew What it Was, to Herminia Ibarra’s Working Identity. Without yet knowing it, breezes were blowing. I was about to become a student again at age 49.
To be continued. Part 2 will appear on Tuesday, March 23.