March 23, 2021
Dr. Janet Long is executive director of career design and development at Widener University. This is the second of two parts. Read Part 1.
“I shall stay until the wind changes.” -- Mary Poppins
Last week, I wrote about how to recognize the three progressive stages of shifting career winds. To recap, Part 1 focused on the earliest signs—breezes—where you are no longer as mentally present in your work, are often bored, and may remain busy while feeling uninspired.
In this second of two parts, I’ll explore the mid-signs—occasional gusts—and the later signs, when winds are whipping, again drawing on parts of my own transition to illustrate these forces at work. For many of us who enter career services as a second act, parts of my story may sound familiar, and I was lucky to be able to make a deliberate choice.
Stage 2: Occasional Gusts
The hallmark of the occasional gusts stage is an unshakable sense of having lost a sense of purpose at work—or, as we might tell our students, understanding your why.
Whereas in the breezes stage you may start to feel differently about your work, the occasional gusts stage often brings changes in your actual behaviors:
- You have trouble concentrating on tasks that once held strong interest.
- You find yourself withdrawing from or minimizing social interactions with colleagues.
- Your occasional job site browsing has become a daily habit.
As the ability to focus and to connect to a broader sense of purpose diminish, you may start to separate from colleagues whose work identities remain intact. This is often a self-protective mechanism that creates space to imagine a different future. Although we may define work by our job title or functional area of expertise, there is a larger ecosystem around work that anchors us.
At this stage, it is often better to pause between gusts before unmooring. For example, going straight to surfing job sites may artificially constrain your options. Mid-career is the ideal time to explore before committing. We know ourselves better, including what we don’t like or won’t tolerate, and we often have a wider network that can help.
In Working Identity, author Herminia Ibarra helpfully distinguishes between active exploration and passive rumination. She encourages career changers to conduct small experiments while keeping keep their day jobs to the greatest extent possible.
For me, active experimentation was a process triggered by personal loss, and it took place in two stages, several years apart.
Before making the transition from recruiter and small business owner to career counselor, I had a brief but intense flirtation with opening a tearoom! I coaxed my search firm office manager to scout sites that could accommodate both businesses, interviewed scone bakers (I knew my limitations), and visited lots of tearooms to get a sense of how they operated and the vibe I envisioned. That was the fun part. Then I drafted a business plan down to the last teacup and enrolled in a six-week business class at The Restaurant School here in Philadelphia. It was there I realized that, while in love with the idea of creating a beautiful, soothing space, I had no real interest in staffing or running it.
Yet my fierce desire around creating something was an important signal that something was stirring—the idea of invention and reinvention would become a central theme. I talked to trusted friends and advisers, asking what else they could see me doing. It was hard to admit I felt adrift, especially as the supposed career expert. My good friend Kate Nelson, who had made her own successful transition from corporate communications to teaching management and business ethics at Temple University, was the first to suggest higher education career services. As a recruiter, I had spoken on career-themed panels at many colleges and loved the interaction with students. However, this path would require returning to school to earn a master’s degree to qualify for an entry-level position. At age 49, was I willing to do this?
Beyond the financial calculation, there was an ego calculation. In one of my go-to resources on career transitions, I Could Do Anything if Only I Knew What It Was, author and career counselor Barbara Sher argues that “you can learn new things at any time in your life if you are willing to be a beginner. If you actually learn to like being a beginner, the whole world opens up for you.” After finding out that one of my top five strengths was “learner,” I understood even better why her words resonated. So, I embraced the learner and enrolled in an evening master’s program at Widener University, started to volunteer as a career counselor for a community mentoring organization that assisted women in transition, and sought internship experiences at different types of universities to make sure I was sure.
It is often easier not to change everything at once. Although I moved to a different sector, from private industry consulting to higher education, I would be practicing many of the same functions in helping future job candidates to articulate their strengths. Trading on existing skills or industry-specific—even organization-specific—knowledge can smooth the way when reinventing a career that feels stagnant. The change you seek may be as close as a different department within your own organization where you have established contacts and credibility.
Two final words about embracing occasional wind gusts: planned happenstance. I was introduced to John Krumboltz’s social learning-inspired career theory in Dr. Susan Schaming’s “Career Development Across the Lifespan” course at Widener. It offers the helpful perspective that even chance events can reveal patterns and learning opportunities. The three-stage framework of career velocity rarely presents itself in a perfectly stepwise fashion. It is the ability to allow the unexpected to inform rather than determine career decision-making that is most empowering.
Stage 3: Winds Are Whipping
This is the more tumultuous stage in which internal rumblings may conspire with external events to make change inevitable.
Unlike the earlier stages of career velocity, whipping winds are not invisible. There is a pervasive sense of dread no matter what the work day holds, and even high achievers may start to miss deadlines or meetings, or be clearly absent while present. While the easiest advice about the third stage is not to let things get there, we know that is not always possible.
Even when warning signs are present, job loss can be shattering both financially and psychologically. Exploration “in transition” may look different, as step one is to build a foundation for survival while pursuing next steps. As career counselors, our role may morph into research advising as we help others to construct and reflect on manageable experiments while staying open for moments of happenstance.
The key message: that we have the power to change our own direction. While there is no magic bullet, employing strategies ranging from co-creating an action plan to organizing or referring to supportive career communities can go a long way. Especially in the pandemic environment, I have related parts of my own story—fears, warts, and all—to re-entering students and alumni who have felt the mid-career sting of wind gusts not always of their own making. Perhaps sharing my own doubts and perseverance will encourage others to stay the course. At the end of the day, our impact is as much about connection as expertise. My bottomless purse aside, I’m no Mary Poppins, but hope to inspire others to keep an eye on the skies.
In this spirit, what are your own stories? Where have you met the wind?