3 Ways To Stay Centred In The Chaos Of Career Change

balancing pebbles

Change can send you into a tailspin if you don't manage it properly. Coach and psychologist Rosie Walford explains how to turn down the 'stress-ometer' and make a period of transition work to your advantage.

Even when we’ve worked hard and done well before, life will throw us curveballs. In the face of bombshells – redundancy, our sector contracting, our organisation’s funding withdrawn – will we lose sleep, cook up desperate survival strategies and undermine our former friends? Or will we turn out to be one of those people who triumphs in adversity, flexing admirably with the winds of change?

How come some people take turmoil as a time for reinvention, taking unimagined career turns or gaining new heights of effectiveness. Why do others clench up, trying to control everything in panicky overwhelm? Nobody taught us this useful stuff at school, but it turns out that certain mental habits associated with resilience can help us act for our own good in testing times. Plus, the good news is that we can learn them.

Our capacity to adapt – for example, to an uncertain job situation – ultimately depends on how we filter and interpret experiences. When chaos reigns, resilient people focus their attention where it matters, and move with the changing circumstances. Crumblier people batten down the hatches, resisting change.

If we want to stand our best chance when a career meteorite hits, we need to replace neurotic mental chatter with three functional patterns of thought:

  1. trust in our strengths
  2. surrender to changing circumstance
  3. openness to different goals 

Then we’ll be thinking resiliently.

1. Understand your fears, then focus on your strengths

Richard Logan, who carried out research into people who survived physical ordeals like avalanches and concentration camps, found that survivors don’t doubt their own resources or their ability to determine their fate. The less hardy of us, by contrast, get lost in a sea of personal doubts.

Once, when a client cancelled my biggest consulting project, the Voice of Doom invaded my mind. “I’ll never get a project that good again” it boomed. “My work is no longer relevant”, it whispered. “I’ll end up on the street”.

External triggers may be challenging but, in fact, it’s these internal fears that cause us to spiral into panic. By listening to them, we make poor decisions and communicate with desperation. The conversations, networking and application efforts we make from this fearful place seldom work well.

In such times, I help clients to stop identifying with the Voice of Doom and connect, like survivors do, with their strengths. Sometimes that’s a gradual process, but sometimes, just recalling a moment when you were confident and knew what to do can rapidly remind you of personal powers and a sense of centredness upon which you can draw.

We also need to verify those noxious fears. With my coaching clients, I’ve repeatedly witnessed that the awful scenarios predicted by the Voice of Doom are, 80% of the time, generalizations or lies. When we verify those silent fears, the truth is often much more specific and points towards new solutions.

When my big project folded, for example, it wasn’t absolutely true that my work was irrelevant. What was true was that certain industries really needed my work (even though, for that particular company, it was expendable). The new truth encouraged me to name those promising sectors… which set me on a fruitful path.

2. Focus on what you can do, rather than the problem you're in

The second factor in Logan’s survivor research is blindingly simple: people who transform stress into enjoyable challenges spend very little time thinking about themselves. Of course, when our psychic energy is absorbed by inward concerns, we can’t focus attention on the outside world. When attention is alert, processing information from the surroundings, we may spot openings and opportunities. The more we participate in the system, the more we’re likely to understand its properties and find ways to adapt.

At a petty level, if your car won’t start and your attention is on missing your meeting or bashing the dashboard, you’re less likely to notice what the car is telling you – that its starter is flooded – or that a taxi’s passing nearby.

Resilience is defined as ‘the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize itself while undergoing change’. But theory flies out the window in catastrophe, and we erect walls around remaining priorities, defending ourselves from further onslaughts of fate.

3. Accept and adapt, rather than control

Paradoxically, accepting that a lateral change might be timely, that our goals may have to be subordinated to greater forces, is the hallmark of a strong, resilient person. People who ride the waves of change surrender, releasing old agendas and plans so they can meet new impulses with spontaneous intelligence. They let go of holding everything together in secure, predictable ways, and in my experience, this often opens them to amazing changes of life which were almost waiting to happen.

Recently, Simon, a senior leader in a shrinking public service, agreed to suspend for a couple of coaching hours his dogged struggle to pin down a tenuous role, and answer some different questions. What else was he wishing for in life? When was and wasn’t he feeling flow and joy? How could he express this problem as an opportunity?

It turned out Simon was much happier when doodling with his two-year-old than when buttering up his boss on the golfcourse. He wished he had time to make the community organics enterprise work better. His nurse wife longed to return to work. From here, a whole new set of possibilities began to emerge for his whole family — and, with it, his energy and excitement grew. He could start to plan harmoniously with a changing world, spotting new openings he’d always wanted to pursue.

As we release control, we open to transformational pathways.

I’m not saying it’s easy. The ability to take misfortune and career insecurity and make something good come of it is a rare gift. If we can bend and innovate with changing times, though, we’ll be seen to have courage — and that’s the human quality that’s most commonly admired.

Are you overlooking other opportunities? How can looking at the bigger picture help you with your career change choices? Leave a comment below.

Rosie Walford coaches people when they are approaching major decisions and turning points, helping them to make truly creative choices for the long-term. She runs The Big Stretch, which organises creative coaching weeks in the mountains of Spain and individual breakthrough walks in New Zealand.