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Surviving Pandemic Career Changes—Interview with Modern Mentor Rachel Cooke

If the pandemic has messed with your work life, you're not alone. Whether you're unemployed and searching for a new job or employed but searching for your lost mojo, leadership consultant and host of the Modern Mentor podcast has compassionate, actionable advice to help you not only survive but thrive.

By
Jade Wu, PhD
16-minute read
Episode #337
The Quick And Dirty

COVID-19 has thrown us and our careers a curve ball. We need to acknowledge the pain of our situations and give ourselves some compassion.

  • Be mindful of the stories you tell yourself. They can create unhelpful feedback loops. 
  • Remember that self-care is more important than ever. Take care of your body, connect with friends, rest, and let go of things you cannot control.
  • Fight burnout by recreating elements of pre-pandemic work such as setting aside "commute time" for learning, exploring, or relaxing. 
  • Set professional boundaries and learn to defend them. It's important for your mental health.

These days, I sometimes find my eyes glazing over as I stare at a grid of Zoom zombies, my mind slipping to my dinner plans or to days when human contact felt more energizing. Then I pinch myself with the reminder that I'm lucky just to have a steady job, in a pandemic economy where many are facing unemployment, losing their businesses, having to reinvent everything they do, or working in jobs that literally put their lives at risk.

I truly am fortunate. But I've also been hearing from many, both employed and unemployed, who are struggling. For people whose livelihoods have been upended by the past year, there is daily stress in the uncertainty of their career futures. People like me who are fortunate to have jobs may experience burnout or feel stuck. What can we all do to keep our career momentum going, whether we're currently unemployed or missing our career mojo?

Joining me today to offer her compassionate yet concrete advice is Rachel Cooke, founder of Lead Above Noise, a team-, leadership-, and organization-development consultancy. She is also the host of the Modern Mentor podcast, a weekly show here on the Quick and Dirty Tips network where she informs, equips, and empowers her  listeners to define and create their own versions of professional success.

Have a listen to our conversation by clicking the audio player above so you'll get every nuance or read this lightly edited transcript.

Dr. Jade Wu

I am delighted to introduce you to Rachel Cook. She is the host of the fantastic modern mentor podcast. Rachel has built a career out of inspiring people to perform at their best, all with a dash of humor and fun. She's a consultant coach and speaker who's been featured in publications like Fast Company, Huffington Post, and many more. Rachel is also the founder of Lead Above Noise, a leadership and organization development firm with a mission to deliver the insights, tools, and strategies that empower people and teams to achieve their fullest potential. Welcome to the show, Rachel.

Rachel Cooke

Jade, I'm so excited to be here.

Lost jobs versus lost momentum

Jade

Let's talk about the big elephant in the room, which is that during the pandemic, a lot of people are facing unemployment, underemployment, or uncertain employment futures at just record numbers. So how can we cope with these employment-related stressors?

Rachel

There are so many people that are struggling or suffering right now, which is why I think my expertise and your expertise sit so nicely together. You know, I'll tell you, Jade, there are two conversations I feel like I'm having versions of on repeat. The first one is essentially what you just articulated. I'm talking to people who have lost their jobs or they are preparing to lose their jobs. They're facing some kind of economic or employment uncertainty. 

All of us, even those of us who are fortunate, are living through trauma right now. We need to honor that and respect it but also be grateful and find strategies to move forward.

The second conversation I feel like I'm having at least as frequently is with people who have not lost their jobs but they are really struggling to focus or concentrate or motivate, but their mindset is: I shouldn't focus on that; I should just be grateful for having a job.

I've really tried to create the space to say "You know what? All of us, even those of us who are fortunate, are living through trauma right now. And I think we need to honor that and respect it but also be grateful and find strategies to move forward, whatever our situation."

Jade

Absolutely. I love that you use the word "and" there to join those clauses. I think it's so easy for us to say, "I'm feeling so burnt out, but I should be grateful" or "I am feeling so exhausted and I'm feeling so anxious, but it could be worse." So it's kind of invalidating the first part of what we're feeling. But you're absolutely right; we can feel both things.

So given that premise—which I think is such a beautiful premise—what are the things we can do to help ourselves keep up momentum, to move forward, to stay active?

Be mindful of the stories you tell yourself

Rachel

If you have lost your job, if you are facing economic uncertainty, I'm not going to tell you that you can just optimism your way out of that, right? It's totally fair to acknowledge the stress and anxiety. But I also think it's important to distinguish between what is real and factual and what is maybe a story that we're telling ourselves.

When we stick to the facts, we can build an action plan to move forward. But if we allow ourselves to dip into that spin of uncertainty, it's hard to climb out.

So for example, acknowledging that you've lost your job. If you've lost your job ... totally fair. But telling yourself "I'm unemployed. I will never be employed again. It's never going to get better. This is the end of things for me" … that's where our self-talk starts to go. This is where we start to move beyond facts and into a spin that becomes unproductive. So I think the first thing that's so important is just to be really objective and factual. What is my current situation? I'm unemployed. I need to repair that. So let's focus on that. When we stick to the facts, we can build an action plan to move forward. But if we allow ourselves to dip into that spin of uncertainty, it's hard to climb out.

Jade

So true. I think that spin is very easy to fall into when you are feeling uncertainty and anxiety. And I love that you call them stories because that's true. Our brains are designed to tell us stories all the time. But whether those stories are useful or not in the moment, and whether they're accurate and based on fact or not, you know, it depends.

So I think you gave a really good example of not necessarily putting on rose-colored glasses and saying "Oh, everything's peachy." Everything's not peachy. It's okay to say that it sucks. And at the same time, we don't need to go down the rabbit hole of projecting that suckiness all the way into the future when we don't know for a fact that that's true yet.

Start with the the challenge and set a goal

Rachel

Absolutely. You do start with your mindset. You start with focusing on what is the challenge that I absolutely have to solve for. And then I think it's being really mindful and creative and action-oriented, right? Because whether or not you feel like that next job is just waiting for you, it just needs you to knock on the door.

Start with your mindset: What is the challenge that I absolutely have to solve for?

Is there an opportunity to look for something part-time or maybe just some gig work to keep myself afloat, to keep some sense of income or revenue coming in, and to feel like I'm keeping my foot in the door of employment, right? That's one path you could go down. If you are in a situation where your finances maybe allow you a little bit more breathing space, you might look at education. Is it time to go back to school?

I am also a tremendous believer in the power of your network. So who can you reach out to, whether it's to have somebody look at your resume, whether it's asking somebody for an introduction, whether it's talking to a former mentor, a previous boss, a previous client or maybe it's just, you know, reaching out to friends and getting some moral support?

Jade

One thing I notice is not to maybe get stuck in the black or white thinking. Like, it's not like I either have my perfect full-time job or I have nothing. It's not like I need someone in my network to get me an interview or I don't talk to them at all. There's a lot of in-between and creative and out-of-the-box things that we can be doing. And not necessarily just waiting for the perfect opportunity for that next perfect job to start it on working on stuff.

Rachel

You summed that up so well. And what I think you're articulating is: absolutely set a goal. Have a vision of a finish line, but give yourself the grace to celebrate each step you take toward it, right? It doesn't have to be achieving the big goal. You know, what's one thing that you did today to move yourself in the right direction?

Have a vision of a finish line, but give yourself the grace to celebrate each step you take toward it. What's one thing that you did today to move yourself in the right direction?

Make time for self-care

Jade

I also know that you're an advocate of self-care. So tell me more about that.

Rachel

I am absolutely a believer in self-care. If I'm honest, that is not a thing I've ever struggled with, possibly to my children's detriment. I have always put my care at the top of any list. I have always made sure that I have time to exercise, to do the things that I need to do for myself, to spend time with my girlfriends. And I really do consider that one of the keys to my success. I think everybody, including ourselves, suffers when we don't take care of ourselves. Even though you may feel guilty taking an hour to talk to a friend or go for a walk or exercise, the truth of it is that's how I keep my energy tank full.

Jade

I can so relate to that. When I work with patients, I often just want to shout from the mountain tops to all of my patients, all at once, "Take time off! You're not responsible for everybody else's happiness or wellbeing or getting their things done. You need to take care of yourself first."

In the examples that you listed for your self-care activities—the exercise, the talking to friends, the taking time for yourself—what I noticed is that these things are pretty accessible to most people. They don't necessarily involve spending a lot of money on fancy products or going to a spa day at an expensive resort. So what do you consider to be the core components of self-care?

Rachel

If you have the means to indulge in something, I think that's great. But I absolutely don't think it's a necessary precursor, right? To me, self-care is anything that feels good that allows your mind to kind of let go.

Self-care is anything that feels good that allows your mind to let go.

I always tell people there is no right way to self-care, but if you're doing something for self-care and you're hating it, or you're dreading it, or your mind is spinning, that's the only time you're doing it wrong.  A couple of times I tried Spinning. I hate Spinning. I know people who swear by it, it's like their religion, but it's not for me. So I have found ways to exercise that I enjoy, that I look forward to. And I think that is the only requirement of self-care.

Make meaningful connections and "water-cooler moments"

Jade

Let's switch gears and talk about the other group of people that you mentioned, those who are still working, but their work experience, their work culture, maybe their work meaning even feels very different now during the pandemic than pre-pandemic. How do we maintain our mojo? How do we maintain good relationships with our coworkers? How do we stay fulfilled?

Rachel

I'm having conversations with clients on this all the time. These days people are struggling because they're feeling disconnected, they're feeling isolated, they're feeling uncertain. And these are really challenging times. I think it's important to recognize while we are continuing to manage through this pandemic, we don't need to pressure ourselves to recreate the old world via Zoom. The reality is Zoom creates a different experience. One thing I've been encouraging people to do is allow themselves to redefine things a little bit. It's okay to facilitate conversation in a different way. It doesn't have to feel like let's all pretend we're sitting in a room together. Because things are different. So let's set a different marker for success.

I talk to so many people who are missing what they call those water-cooler moments, where you're just kind of wandering down the hall and you bump into someone.

I keep coming back to people and connecting and networking. I think it's so important now more than ever. I talk to so many people who are missing what they call those water-cooler moments, where you're just kind of wandering down the hall and you bump into someone. And now it's like the only way to talk to someone is to schedule a meeting. And I think my answer to that is somewhere in the middle. I think it's totally fine to put a meeting on the calendar that's just called "water cooler." And it can be 15 minutes, you know? And you can put five of them on your calendar in a day. I think it's important for us to create time for conversations with people that don't have a specific agenda or objective. They're just there for us to check in on each other. How's it going? What's new? What are you working on these days?

Something else I've been pushing people to do is think about if you used to commute and now you don't. Because a lot of us are in that situation. A lot of us have been guilty of just repurposing that commute time as longer work time. So I used to have, let's say, 90 minutes of commute time. Now I'm just working those hours.

I say, block that time off, call that your commute, and use that time to do something you might've done on your commute. Maybe it was reading, maybe it was listening to the Savvy Psychologist podcast. How can you be more intentional about how you use that time? And it doesn't just have to be about work. It can be about personal growth or exploring ideas or things that are going to bring your mind back to a place of excitement and engagement and connection, exploring new ideas that maybe you can bring into the workplace.

Jade

I liked that idea of blocking off that commute time because I'm certainly guilty of now commuting for about 20 seconds by walking up the stairs. And I go straight from pajamas to, you know, a work call. I don't have as much of a ramp-up to my day. There's not that compartmentalization. There's not that free-associating kind of creative in-my-head time that I used to have while I drove into work.

And going back to your point about creating those water-cooler moments and having spontaneous connection and inspiration with your team, I really liked that. I'm part of Ashley, a writing accountability group, because in academia it's really hard to carve out time to write. It's just a thing that we, we all have. It's a Zoom meeting that we schedule where basically we hardly talk at all, but we just have our videos on and everyone's working on their own thing. And it seems silly to schedule a meeting just for individual work. But honestly, I'm kind of addicted to it. It's so helpful. It feels like there's comradery. It feels like there's connection.

Know and defend your boundaries with grace

Rachel

I love that idea. You're almost creating that feeling of sitting side by side and working independently. And I think we crave that and I think it's something we should all be thinking about doing more of.

We're all struggling to say no to things because we think, Who am I kidding? My boss knows I'm not going anywhere.

Something else I've really been encouraging people to do is be mindful of their boundaries. And you know, part of what's happening is I think we're all struggling to say no to things because we think, Who am I kidding? My boss knows I'm not going anywhere. But the truth of it is we are all responsible for our own energy and our own wellness. And I think it's tremendously important to set boundaries and to communicate them and to hold our colleagues and even our bosses accountable for respecting them.

Jade

I'm such a fan of that idea.

What might be really helpful is if we walk through a couple of examples of how you would set a boundary, like a script that you could say to your boss who is asking you to answer emails late into the evening or expecting you to be producing more work than can be done in a typical day. So what would you say in those moments?

Rachel

What I really encourage people to do is to say something like, Hey, you know, I'd love your help in managing what I have on my plate right now. You know, just to recap, here are the four or seven or 16 things that you've asked me to do. And I just need to be really honest because I will never sign my name to something that I don't really stand by. And I won't deliver something that I can't deliver at a hundred percent quality. So can you help me prioritize? What would you like me to focus on for today? And then the rest, you know, I can get to throughout the balance of the week, but you know, positioning it, not as a "help me; I'm drowning. I need help. I can't handle it" but rather "quality will suffer."

It is incumbent upon you to flag for your boss where it just isn't feasible and you need help prioritizing.

And it is incumbent upon you to flag for your boss where it just isn't feasible and you need help prioritizing. It might also be a question of "Hey, you know, with everything on my plate, I'm probably gonna need some collaboration here. So would you mind reaching out on my behalf and maybe connecting me with somebody in marketing or sales who can partner with me on this piece of work?" That might be another way that you approach it.

Jade

Brilliant, brilliant. That's a really helpful reframe—to think of it as "I'm prioritizing quality work" and also allowing your boss to be accountable and responsible for their part of the job. Because as a manager, their job in part is to allocate resources, allocate time and make sure that their people are getting what they need.

Rachel

You need to say what you need and not apologize for it. And I think that is something that people tend to be guilty of. We're so apologetic for things that do not require apologies. We are whole people. We are parents and partners and children and siblings, and we participate in communities or churches, or we have whole lives. And I think right now, in particular, we're in this moment in 2021 where there's so much talk about the importance of inclusion, right? And inclusion means so many things. It may mean race. It may mean diversity. But it also means, to me anyway, creating a culture in which people can bring their whole selves to work.

We're so apologetic for things that do not require apologies. We are whole people. We are parents and partners and children and siblings, and we participate in communities or churches ... we have whole lives.

And so again, part of your responsibility as an employee and as a citizen, and as whoever you are in this world is to be clear about that. Maybe you have young kids at home and your schedule is fixed. And so you communicate that to your boss, being really clear about who else or what else needs you.

And by the way, maybe nobody else needs you, but your mind just needs a break. And that too is a hundred percent valid. We do not apologize for recognizing that we need to refuel our own tanks. 

Don't apologize for having needs and boundaries

Jade

I actually want to drill down a little bit more and ask you about how to not apologize for things that need no apology, because this resonates with me so much. I'm an Asian woman, Canadian. This is like three strikes against—I'm just apologizing all the time. I'm apologizing for other people's mistakes and it's, it's kind of nuts. And so what are some other things we can say other than "I'm sorry"?

Rachel

First of all, that was hilarious and one of the best laughs I have had all week. So thank you for that. And I just want to acknowledge that it takes time and it takes practice and I'm not going to pretend that I'm never guilty of it.

Sometimes it's a matter of realizing you just did it and backpedal a little bit, you know, saying, "Hey, I'm sorry, I'm not able to get this done." Or "Actually, you know what? I hope you understand why I'm not able to get this done because blah blah."

But sometimes it can be as simple as instead of "I'm so sorry; would you respect my boundaries? Can I set this boundary?" maybe it's "Thank you for recognizing that I need to sign off."

I personally am in a situation right now where I have a client for whom I'm running a series of programs. And one of the programs is being delivered to an audience in Asia Pacific. So the time zones make that incredibly complicated. And so the client said to me, Hey we're going to need you to deliver the first session from nine to 10:30 PM your time. I almost said "I'm so sorry. I can't make that work." But what I said instead is "I want to make sure that this product is exactly what you need, and you need my energy to get this done. And realistically, I am not my best self after 8:00 PM my time."

Jade

I'm just nodding along here and thinking that sounds so reasonable and not at all rude or aggressive. And you're showing your commitment to the clients. You are showing your passion for your work. It's like there's no losing here.

I just want to ask if there are any other pieces of top advice you would want to give to people right now who are either struggling with uncertain employment situations or just difficulty feeling fulfilled or feeling motivated at work.

Remember that you can't connect the dots looking forward

Rachel

Yeah. I would love to give one piece of advice. It is a quote that Steve Jobs famously delivered in his commencement speech back in 2005 when he was talking to the graduating class at Stanford and he was talking about what it means to have achieved what he has achieved: You can't connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking backward.

So, you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future and you have to trust in something: your gut, your destiny, life, karma, whatever—he literally said "whatever." And I think that that quote feels so resonant right now because I feel like I'm watching people operate from this place of fear and anxiety and whether it's "Oh my gosh, I lost my job. And now I'm going to have these months of unemployment on my resume. And I'm never going to be employable again" or it's a matter of "Ugh, I'm so bored and I need to do something different, but I don't know what next, and how do I decide and how do I know?"

The truth of it is we all get to craft our own stories. We get to look back and pull the thread through every choice we made and every experience we've lived.

The truth of it is we all get to craft our own stories. We get to look back and pull the thread through every choice that we made and every experience that we've lived. And so if you've lost your job and you do find yourself unemployed for one month, six months, 12 months, it's going to become a part of your story, make sure that you find a way to do something with that time that you feel proud of. Maybe it is professional development. Maybe it is caring for a loved one. Maybe it is learning a skill or doing a piece of pro bono work, but this will become a part of your story.

And likewise, if you're looking to make a change and you're pressuring yourself to make sure that you make the exact right choice, just know that there is no such thing as the right choice, whatever choice you make is the next chapter in your story. And you get to be the author of it.

Jade

That's such wise advice for anybody right now, whether we're dealing with homeschooling plus working full-time, or were unemployed, or we're trying to make a change, or we're just recovering from an illness and recovering from trauma. Beautiful.

Well, thank you so much, Rachel. This was an incredibly fun conversation and so helpful. I'm sure our listeners will take away a lot from it. So thank you so much for joining us.

Rachel

Thank you so much for the invitation, Jade. This was an absolute pleasure.

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Jade Wu, PhD Savvy Psychologist

Dr. Jade Wu was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast between 2019 and 2021. She is a licensed clinical psychologist. She received her Ph.D. from Boston University and completed a clinical residency and fellowship at Duke University School of Medicine.