It’s no secret that for many, the job landscape is rapidly changing. As we enter into Season 3 of Covid, Life Interrupted, individuals are continuing to experience challenges in all aspects of livelihood, especially in the realm of work. Unemployment and the move from the office to home ushered in a reckoning for many and researchers have labeled the outcome as the ‘Great Resignation’.
In this social phenomenon, people aren’t just leaving their jobs; they’re transitioning to a completely new career. I personally know two friends, one a teacher, the other a nurse, who made big decisions to pivot to tech-related fields in the past year. It’s a process that entails resetting expectations, steadfast perseverance, and a great deal of uncertainty: how can I leave the career I’ve been building for myself for years and start again in something completely different? For many, uncertainty or instability may prevent them from embarking on this endeavour. By deconstructing the differences between the two, we can begin the process of navigating our fear of the unknown.
What does uncertainty look like?
Uncertainty occurs when we are confronted with a situation and lack clarity on its outcome. You can think about preparing for a licensure exam, wanting to ask for a promotion, or submitting applications. There is an ideal outcome that you are hoping for but you also understand that there are numerous variables threatening to interfere with it. Some of these variables could be accounted for eg., you can study rigorously or establish the right connections, but others, like lack of immediate work opportunity or difficulty adjusting back to school, might be outside your control.
When unknown or controllable variables surmount our confidence, confusion, doubt and even despair, can seep in and inhibit our efforts to move forward.
What you can do
To address paralysing uncertainty, we need to combat its concomitant thoughts and feelings. When you enter in a loop of fearful thoughts, stop the cycle by engaging in behaviours that create a complete shift in consciousness, like splashing cold water on your face or stimulating your body. Practising mindfulness or deep breathing can effectively disrupt feelings of fear by developing mental shifts that gradually relocate your mental state from focusing too much on doubt to simply being aware of them. Anchor yourself in what you are certain of: that a career change is in your best interest and the effort you’re willing to put into pursuing it is valuable and additive to your identity, even if your plans wont turn out the exact way you hope in the end. Being certain of the road you choose to embark on sets you on a solid foundation that stays constant amidst the periods of existential doubt that come and go.
What does instability look like?
While uncertainty is used to describe our internal state, instability refers to our external one. Transitioning to a new career requires tremendous time and allocation of resources. Individuals will often need to invest financially in trainings or classes while simultaneously preparing to lose the consistent earnings of a full time job. For those who lost their jobs, the anticipated financial strain is even more distressing. Displaced by the pandemic, many people have moved back to a more cost efficient or familiar living situation, whether it’s across states to where they have family or into a communal space with friends in similar situations. On top of everything, Covid itself has to be taken into consideration: their health, those of who they may be living with, and the different viral waves along with new institutional mandates. Even if you possess the resolve to change careers, you might be intimidated by real situational limitations.
What you can do
To address this, start by journaling out the ones most stressful to you. Extracting negative thoughts from our mind and getting them out into writing is like discovering the temperature of a climate: it creates a reference point to help us make sense of something that just feels nebulous and it reduces confusion. You can further sort this list out by how they directly relate to you: on the individual level, your health and ability; on the microsystem level, your home environment, your peers and family, or workplace; and ecosystem level, the industry of your prospective career, local politics, institutional services available to you.
The further out the nature of the doubt lies, the more inaccessible it is for you to control. Understanding this can further clarify the concerns that you can work to change and most directly impact you. Once this done, shift your focus from the things that stand in your way to only what you need in order to pivot successfully. Will it be okay to keep your temporary accommodation or will you require another private space to learn and work? How much money will you need to put aside for the necessary training and if you don’t have the capacity at this time, identify two to three realistic alternatives, whether it’s taking a part time job or applying for loans. Set a timeline that works for you; if you do not have the resources necessary to change careers right now, by when can you obtain them? When you complete both inventories, compare and contrast them. You may find that many of the obstacles you listed as causes for doubt may not be as relevant to what you need to succeed as initially thought.
Changing careers is a big life decision and understanding the nature of uncertainty and instability, and how they affect our ability to transition, will allow you to process and better manage fear and doubt.
Josiah Teng is an Asian American therapist based in NYC. He has worked on relational issues, substance and recovery, and life transitions.
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