In my work with men and women in career transition I have come to recognize a pattern of thinking, choosing, and believing that can be best described as "opportunity tunnel vision." Every day I see talented, experienced, good people simply choose a well-worn career path and not even recognize that they have alternatives. I do not think this is inevitable. I believe we can explore alternatives, make better and more creative choices, and enjoy longer-term well-being by taking the time and opening our eyes, mind, and heart to alternative career futures.
People find themselves in the midst of a job or career search for countless reasons which typically fall somewhere along these three continuum:
- Planned versus unplanned
- Welcome versus unwelcome
- Exciting versus devastating
Let me describe what these three continuum look like in human terms:
Brittany. Graduating from college with a degree in marketing. Ready to take the first steps into the adult world of work where she will probably spend the next 40-50 years. This career move is planned, generally welcome, and exciting but also nerve wracking. Will she find a professional job when many of last year's graduates and her friends are still waiting tables?
Alex. The mid-career computer security specialist. Alex has quietly been looking for a better job, one with more responsibility, better pay and benefits, and more meaning. He is biding his time. Alex is professional and will leave on good terms. For the most part, the career move is planned, welcome, and exciting.
Matt. Three months ago, Matt was a soldier in the U.S. Army. He had served five years in the Infantry and had been to Afghanistan three times. On his last deployment he was injured and his injuries severe enough to keep him from continuing in the military even though he had expected to "do 20" years. Now he is facing the challenges of finding a job - unplanned, unwelcome, and depressing.
Dale. On Friday afternoon at 4:00 Dale's boss walked into his office where he has worked for the last five years with a grim expression and a cardboard box in his hand. The boss explained that the defense contract on which Dale has been laboring has ended and he is being let go. Dale is 51 and now for the first time in his life, unemployed. He has professional experience, an advanced but dated degree, and a life-style to match a six-figure income. He has kids in college and a mortgage. That two-week severance pay he is getting, because he worked for a good company, won't go far. He is in shell shock.
Each of these four people are in a career transition. Each will traverse the challenging path from being forced to let go and set aside their past, tolerate a time of uncertainty and ambiguity, and eventually find new work. William Bridges, one of the nation's foremost experts on the process of transition, illustrates the challenges with this graphic:
Each of these four people at very different points in their lives but each are faced with working their way through the process of closure and letting go. For Jennifer, she must let go of the role of child and student. She is now becoming an adult in the adult world. Alex, the computer specialist must let go of the security and familiarity of his current job. What if he makes a bad choice in a new position? Matt must let go his aspirations for being a life-long soldier with its benefits and established career progression. He must give up his sense of belonging and camaraderie that comes with a soldier's life. He also must also give up or adjust his expectations of physical strength and health as being his normal state. Finally, Dale must give up his long-held sense of job and financial security. He must come to grips being in his 50s and now in competition with younger professionals with new degrees and more modest salary expectations.
To varying degrees each of these four people are faced with the emotional roller coaster associated with the first, "letting go" phase of transition. Each will likely experience some degree of anger, depression, bargaining, denial, and hopefully end with acceptance. It can be a hard road, especially for those such as Matt the soldier and Dale the "downsized" defense worker. Their career transitions are unexpected, unwelcome, and devastating. They are at risk for getting trapped in the "letting go" phase, captured in a black hole of emotional turmoil, depression, anger, bitterness, perhaps even thoughts of suicide. However, without letting go, there is no moving forward. I have a sign in my office that reads: You can't start the next chapter of your life if you keep reading the last one. This is a difficult truth.
The second phase of transition is what Bridges calls the Neutral Zone, but which I typically call the Wilderness because I think there is nothing neural about this time in the transition process. This is also the undervalued part of the job hunting experience. Typically, job seekers want to move from pain to gain - from the emotional pain of letting go to the gain of a "bright and shiny" new job. Human nature? Oh yes. This urgency to move from unsettled and unhappy to a new normal leads to "opportunity tunnel vision."
Bridges describes the Neutral Zone/Wilderness as a time when the old structures of previous lives have or are being swept away, but the new future is still unclear. The structures of the past have loosened their hold, yet the future structures are as yet not in place. Yes, it is a time of uncertainty, but it is also a potential time for creativity and growth. We are free to open our lens, consider our options, step outside the expected and mundane. However, in my experience, few people take a deep breath and set aside a few hours or a few days to privately reflect on three key questions:
- Dream Job. What would be my dream job for this time in my life? (described with real depth of detail)
- Current Reality. What is my current reality? (skills, finances, relations, location, physical, emotions, socially - described with brutal honesty and with as much objectivity as possible)
- Plan. Given this dream job and my current reality, what are steps I can take in the direction of my dream?
However, rare is the person who does this soul-searching. The reality is that many people who seek new work, especially when that job hunt is unexpected and unwelcome, simply just need a job, a job that at least pays the bills. If you need a job, take a job.
Another group of job seekers such as those leaving military service simply seek to move from their old familiar job and context into a new and equally familiar job and context. They don't even consider that this is a world full of options, most of which go unconsidered. There is no thoughtful consideration of a dream job that would enable them to make a living while feeding their soul. This is how people like Dale, described earlier, often find themselves at a career dead end they didn't even see coming. As any soldier will tell you, not every path that looks safe is safe.
However, wherever you job search falls from expected and welcome to unexpected and devasting, I encourage you to really consider your dream job, analyze your current reality and then develop a plan for moving from where you are to where your heart is leading you.
It is not a time consuming process, but neither is it an easy process. It takes courage to step outside the familiar and safe, to name and claim your dream. Keeping the dream alive, making progress by taking steps, even if small and tentative steps, helps give life direction and meaning. Yes, you may be working a job you don't love, but you know that you have not abandoned your dreams. You have not settled. You do get a vote in your future. It is up to you. Do you choose a sterile narrow road from what was to what can be or do you take the road less traveled?