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Pause and Reflect—Now Is the Time to Take Stock of Your Career

If an unexpected career pause has taken you by surprise, here's how to use the time to take a breath, assess your career, and set yourself up for success.

By
Rachel Cooke
5-minute read
Episode #592
journaling at home

In recent weeks I’ve spoken with countless people in varying states of career uncertainty. Whether they’ve been furloughed or laid off, had to shut down a small business, or remain employed but can’t figure out what “business as usual” should even look like right now, people are wondering what’s next for them professionally.

While none of us would have chosen the current moment and all the challenge and ambiguity it brings, I believe there’s an opportunity in it for us should we choose to harness it. In our LBC—Life Before Coronavirus—many of us were guilty of running on autopilot. A common response to “How are you?” was “I’m so busy!” Of course, that technically doesn’t even answer the question at hand, but it was our predominant experience.

Suddenly there is less to do. Which opens up space for us to breathe, reflect, take stock of the path we’ve been on, and set an intention around how we’ll approach—or reconnect with—our careers.

When there is so much to do, our focus is on doing it. We don't take time to question whether we're passionate or excited about what we're doing.

So now, many of you are in a moment of pause you didn’t see coming. Suddenly there is less to do. Which opens up space for us to breathe, reflect, take stock of the path we’ve been on, and set an intention around how we’ll approach or reconnect with our careers in LAC—Life After Coronavirus.

If you’re not sure where to begin, I’ve got some thoughts to share.

Be the editor of your story

Your career is more than just a series of jobs and deliverables. It’s your professional story to tell. And whether you’re nearest the beginning, middle, or end, this pause represents a wonderful time to assess the plot thus far, deciding how you want to influence the ending.

So consider the story you’d tell a potential hiring manager today about what you’ve done, the impacts and outcomes you’ve delivered, and what you’ve learned along the way. How compelling is your story? What plot points might be missing? If it were a book, what would you hope for or imagine in the next chapter? Would you be rooting for yourself as the main character?

Whether you’re nearest the beginning, middle, or end, this pause represents a wonderful time to assess the plot thus far, deciding how you want to influence the ending.

Maybe, as you review your career highlights to date, you note that you’ve done a lot of backend support and you’re ready for a frontline role like sales, business development, or client management. Maybe you want your hero or heroine to do some non-profit work.

Do you find that you’d like to be promoted, or maybe make a lateral move into a new area? Are you hungry for people leadership experience? Is there a reward that would feel impactful for you? Or maybe the story feels like a Pulitzer-winner and you don’t want to change course, but now you’ve validated the path you’re on.

There are no right or wrong answers here. It’s all about checking in on your trajectory. Your objective is to start to imagine the possibilities. Let’s make sure this story is a bestseller!

Ask big, hairy questions

Editing your story helps you imagine some next potential stops on your journey. But now it’s time to reflect on how you spend your day-to-day. Think about the specific actions, responsibilities, and conversations that command your time each day. Which do you enjoy, look forward to? Which do you find draining or demotivating?

What do you wish there was more of in your day? Are you craving more human interaction? More opportunities for data analysis? Fewer spreadsheets? Do you want to write less? Or more? Is there a technical skill you wish you had more opportunities to practice? Maybe you’ll discover you want to be traveling more or less. Maybe you’re working too many hours.

I want you to really visualize yourself spending time on these activities—both the ones that are part of your current job and those that feel absent. And note how your imagining of the experience makes you feel. What excites you? What depletes you? What inspires you? Ask yourself these questions.

Knowing how you want to spend your time (and how you don’t) will help you craft a plan for moving toward your next opportunity, or shaping your current one in the face of the new normal.

Build an action plan

So, now you have a sense of where you’d like to take your career and how you hope to be spending your time. Let’s talk about actions you can take to make great things happen.

Let’s imagine that you’ve decided you’d like to move into a role that’s more directly client-facing. A specific opportunity may not be available in the moment, but what are some steps you can take now to ready yourself for future success?  Here are a few to get you thinking.

  • Start to network with people, both in and outside of your company, who fill these roles. Let them know of your interest. Pick their brains for advice on how to prepare for such a role.
     
  • Identify any specific skills you might need to brush up on—be it communication, presentation or negotiation skills—and consider taking some online courses right now to build capability or even get yourself any relevant certifications.
     
  • Reflect on past experiences and practice telling old stories in a new way to highlight any role you might have played in engaging with clients or customers.

The list can be endless. Volunteer to help colleagues with client pitches, find a peer mentor, review old successful client presentations to identify what made them winners. The goal here is to brainstorm all of the possible ways you can start to make progress right now, and prioritize and sequence the ones that most interest you.

Once you've brainstormed, turn the ideas that excite you into clear statements of commitment. Take your networking idea and make it an action item—“I will reach out to one person in my industry per week and capture their advice.”

Just because business-as-usual feels somewhat stalled right now doesn’t mean you can’t make progress happen for yourself.

Let that path meander

When my parents completed their schooling, my mother became a librarian and my father a math teacher. Fast-forward to today—my mom is a librarian and my dad a math teacher. Their careers were shaped in an era that valued consistency. Welcome and retirement parties often happened in the same place.

Many of us will have half a dozen or more careers in the span of our professional lives, so don’t feel like you’re committing yourself to forever.

Today we have countless options available. Many of us will have half a dozen or more careers in the span of our professional lives, so don’t feel like you’re committing yourself to forever. Your focus should be on the now and the soon.

What you enjoy now might only jazz you for a year or two before you get the itch to try something new. So lean into that feeling. Your path can wiggle. It helps keep you interesting and interested. And takes that pressure off. Because really, isn’t there enough pressure on us already?

About the Author

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke is a leadership and workplace expert who holds her M.A. in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University. Founder of Lead Above Noise, she has been named a top 100 Leadership Speaker by Inc. Magazine and has been featured in Fast Company, The Huffington Post, and many more.