We get to hear about career flashpoints almost daily these days. In search of anecdotes for career setbacks, or while in the middle of reflections that are leading to nowhere, we possibly look for these ourselves and stumble upon articles after articles on how life’s severe downturns – from divorce, to health diagnoses, to job loss – forced stepping out of comfort jones and ultimately more fulfilling career happily ever after. These accounts are quite accurate no doubt, for that is how life works. It’s a chaotic dynamic equilibrium in which persistent strategizing eventually works, as does random events.
Either small gains, or great achievements, always emerge out of most situations. And since finding fulfillment is a whole different matter from achieving absolute success and absolute success can’t be defined absolutely (unless we are talking Bill Gates), all really ends well at the end. The point however is that unless it’s a physical end of life, ‘the end’ is really never an end. It is just the current point in time. Those who are writing those articles, unfortunately will go through both beautiful highs and frustrating lows again.
Therefore, flashpoints, or turning points – no matter what we call them – never stop coming. Most work environments today are going through an interesting dichotomy of ‘take more time to reflect, foster human connections, introspect, go after fulfilment, keep your core values in mind’ but ‘work faster, cheaper, longer, constantly, keep upskilling, ensure continuous increase in productivity (aka increase value to shareholders) and be obsessed about the customer(read work).’ Flashpoints are bound to become more frequent. Less big bangs and more continuous clustered fireworks. And bounce back times are going to be shorter.
For me, given the high flux, high churn and mostly ambiguous environment I work in, it is more a continuous evolution. A point by point (often weekly if not daily) re-strategizing. Those ‘oh my god’ moments followed by months of reflection and nirvana that I thought would happen one, maybe two, times in a 20/30-year career have become the norm. Redeployments, job losses, change of bosses, personal crises will cause no shortage of forced reflections, but it’s almost given that for most of us (barring some who have fallen into a career sweet spot of promised decade long or longer tenure), there will be no luxury of years of introspection driven re-invention. Therefore, this needs to be continuous too.
Below are three guidelines, or verticals as I would call them, that I cluster my continuous career strategizing around. It took me a bit of time to put some guard rails in place instead of the chaotic, frantic, what do I do and what should my career (or life) thoughts be based on (which would often be tailored to nature of the immediate crises) modus operandi. I now find these immensely useful, for doing this frequently is not easy if not made into a structured habit.
- Priorities in life. Understanding that life’s priorities need to (and will) change with circumstances is not difficult. Accepting is. This is not a women’s issue anymore, neither are childcare and elder care the only acceptable reasons. It is imperative, whether we are on an accelerated career path or are of the ‘satisfied with wherever we are’ kind, we allow for changing of our minds. Successful career strategies need to be for the long haul, not sprints, are therefore, need to be formed with room for life. While looking at what experience to gain, or what role to move into next, a bigger picture view with what would allow for most flexibility is often a more successful strategy than what would give the fastest rise.
- Mental health. Just like priorities, for almost everyone, mind state changes. Burnouts happen as do sudden bouts of drive. Learning about the signs, knowing yourself, and practicing mindful, cognizant, work living is important. It is equally important (and it often happens as a side effect of the former without additional effort) to be cognizant of such in others around us. I got interested in mindfulness in desperation, for I was struggling for inner peace while doing fine externally – rising and rising only to fall soon. I now realize that even though events of significance made the struggle worse, it was always there. And it was there because I seldom took time for stock keeping of where I am. Mindful stock keeping of how we are feeling daily at work, looking out for signs of burnout, noticing sudden enthusiasm within us, mood changes, or increased conflict at workplace, doesn’t only help prevent downward spirals and take better advantage of opportunities, it also often predicts the otherwise impossible to predict: right time for a career change.
- Awareness. Upskilling, or continuous development as I like to call it, is non-negotiable for long career haul today. We need to be continually investing, in whatever way possible, in staying abreast on what is going on around us. What kind of jobs are becoming available for the likes of us? In which industries? For similar designations, what is a barrier for entrance into a new industry and which industries are fostering the designations we want next? In our own fields, what options of diversification exist? What kind of skills are sought after? This is beyond knowing that AI and data science are the next big things. This is looking up engineer, senior manager, or whatever applies positions from time to time on LinkedIn and Google Jobs across industries, reading job descriptions and then converting that to gap analysis against our resumes. This is reaching out a connecting with folks who have made career changes and setting up some time once a month to learn what they do. This is ensuring at least one new area of value gets added into our resume every year that can take us to where we want to go next.
Barrier to upskilling is mostly a mental stuck-ness: why should I have to do this? I have done this forever and I really don’t think I can change that? What do I need to change? Maybe I won’t ever need to…etc. The 1. above provides the ‘if’ and ‘why’, the 2. provides the ‘how’ (as in how prepared we are mentally and what to work on internally to be ready for what we need to do) and the 3. is the ‘what’. Having these three as constant north stars is not only better (for it’s lesser work when done constantly), but absolutely needed for most of us mortals in today’s career path.