Moving On: 4 Essential Strategies for Making Career Transitions

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“The best way to appreciate your job is to imagine yourself without one.” – Oscar Wilde

Working is one of the major pillars that support a satisfying and meaningful life. At its best, working helps define our identity, connects us to community, rewards us financially and materially, provides a vehicle for creativity and passionate expression, and gives us a sense of purpose.

But life’s movement is not always smooth and direct; at times we’re caught up in the unpredictability of its twists and turns. This seems to describe the current climate; individuals thrown into economic uncertainty must now navigate the murky waters of job insecurity and the threat of unemployment. For many, working to make a living just to survive may quickly become a necessity rather than a choice.

When we’re cruising along on auto-pilot, we might talk about what we would want to do if we actually had the opportunity. It’s only when a dramatic event such as losing a job actually happens that we’re forced to confront the situation, and along with that, our doubts and fears. But whether you’ve lost a job or are trying to move to another, all career transitions necessitate shifting focus, taking action, and stepping into the unknown with courage. And, as is often the case, what initially feels like a disaster may actually turn out to be a blessing in disguise. As with most things in life, time brings new perspectives — and opportunities.

So what steps can you take to help you transition into a new job or career?

1.) Evaluate the “bigger picture.”

  • First, it’s imperative to get a clear picture of what’s actually happening. Assess the main issues. What are you up against? It’s a good idea to write all of these down and keep them available so you can review them frequently.
  • Then, you have to address how you’ll survive within the context of what’s happening. Do you have some savings to keep you going? Can your spouse or significant other support you while you’re making the transition? Do you have the luxury of time to search for a new job or retrain for a new career?
  • Next, you need to find a meaning for what’s happened as well as a meaning or purpose for your future. If you can reframe the issue in this way it no longer feels like a “random” event. It also gives you the power to take action around an established purpose, perhaps something you had never thought of until now.
  • Finally, you need to find and utilize an effective way to determine how well you’re meeting your goals.
  • Breaking down the process in this simple way may greatly help by providing a structure you can wrap your brain around; a way to just begin taking action.

2.) What to do if you lose your job.

Whether it’s being fired or having your job phased out, losing a job is a nightmare for most of us. At the very least, your routine is turned upside down. Worse than that, issues of survival, financial responsibility, and self-esteem are called into question. Finding your way through the transition may take its own time. Learning to develop patience with the process while taking an active role to explore your options will help stabilize the situation and will ultimately allow you to find the needed answers that will ensure your success moving forward.

To a great degree, working serves an organizing function in our lives. For most of us, the required regularly scheduled hours form a framework around which much of the rest of our days are structured. So what happens when a major organizing principle of our life ceases to be? Certainly, normal responses would be anxiety, fear, even panic. When these very important connections are suddenly severed we may feel temporarily lost — “like a fish out of water”, as a friend put it. If the way we define our self is intimately tied to the work we do, or to a particular job we’ve had, the loss of that may generate an identity crisis.

  • Take your time. Explore different options, if at all possible, before you jump back into the work force. You may want to take some time off, if you can swing that financially.
  • Revisit your objectives and goals. Take the opportunity to get back in touch with what you’ve always wanted to do, or perhaps the kind of work that would suit your personality far better than what you’ve been doing. Dust off old dreams.
  • Brush up on interviewing and skill testing. Many years on the same job may have you totally out of practice so it’s important to get these skills up to speed.
  • Get involved in social networking.
  • Be adaptable. Be open and flexible to every possibility. Take a temporary job if necessary. This may help ease you back into the working world and help boost your confidence.

3.) What to do if you initiate the career change.

Probably the most powerful transitions we go through are those that we set in motion ourselves. But making change, even when we initiate it, can be an overwhelming and daunting experience. As much as we try to know what will happen beforehand, it may be that only while we’re in the middle of it, actually in the process of going through it, that insight and understanding will begin to show themselves to us.

Assess your options. You may be bored or just craving something new on the work front. If you can change things enough to be able to stay where you are, then do so. If this is not an option, remain on the job while exploring employment opportunities elsewhere.

  • Network with colleagues and friends. This broadens your information base and increases your contacts. Of course, developing social networking skills is essential these days, especially the likes of LinkedIn and Twitter. Professional organizations increase your networking and may indicate to employers your sincere interest in a field or career.
  • Connect with people who support you. Being mentored by people you admire and trust, people who believe in your capabilities and strengths, goes a long way in creating an emotional environment that supports and nurtures your decisions, and ultimately your transition.
  • Create an action plan. Actually, write a plan for what you want to happen. This plan is kept, periodically reviewed, and refined to include as much detail and as many specifics as possible. Choose to find within the process of change the raw material for something new to happen. Choose to think of the unknown as something to look forward to, to be excited about, and expect something good to come from it.

4.) Consider doing more than one job.

I know, you’re probably saying, “Are you Crazy?” “How will I ever find the time to do this?” In this strange and unstable job market you may actually need to consider many possibilities. Maybe you need to have a job tied to an employer for a paycheck and another job where you’re your own boss. This job could be an avocation, turned into a profession. That way if all else fails you have something of your own you can rely upon.

I remember a colleague from years ago, a psychiatrist who was also a master baker. While he was a consummate professional, his playful business card read, “Couch or Cake”. A woman I knew put all of her skills together to create her business, “I Can Do That” — from baking, to dog sitting, to doing errands for people too busy to do these themselves. The possibilities are endless. And the reward of being your own boss may make all the difference in the world.

Working affords an identity that’s relied upon for years; it provides a place to go and a mission to accomplish. As it is with any major transition, a shift must happen; something must end before something else can begin. Before moving into the next phase of life, it’s essential to deal with unfinished business, to complete the process of separating from an old identity before a new one can be undertaken. It’s learning to let go and move on to what’s waiting for you.

About the Author

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Abigail Brenner, MD attended New York Medical College and completed her internship and residency in psychiatry at New York University-Bellevue Medical Center. She spent many years as an attending physician at the NYU-Bellevue Adult Mental Hygiene Clinic and as an assistant clinical professor at New York University School of Medicine. A board certified psychiatrist in practice for more than 30 years, Dr. Brenner is a Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association. She is the author of Transitions: How Women Embrace Change and Celebrate Life, SHIFT: How to Deal When Life Changes, co-author of The Essential Guide to Baby’s First Year, and an ordained Interfaith Minister. Dr. Brenner lives and works in San Francisco and New York City, is married, the mother of two, and a grandmother of four.

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