Advice & News

August 27, 2020

Everything in Your Career Is in Flux

Disclaimer: While this article was written prior to the fires in the western part of the U.S., the HigherEdJobs team understands that this may be triggering to those affected by the devastation caused by the fires. The people affected and our entire higher ed community is in our thoughts during this difficult time. We simply hope that this article can serve as a reminder of the fragility of life and careers and encourage you to live your best life and do your best work.

There's a knock on your front door. You answer and standing there is a firefighter who says, "We need you to evacuate because your house is on fire. What do you want us to retrieve in the next five minutes before your house gets ruined with fire and water?"

This happened to Denise Gosnell. Having to choose three items to keep was a life-changing moment for her because it revealed a lot about herself, what her true priorities were, and if she was living a life that was aligned with what mattered most to her. At the time, Gosnell was a workaholic lawyer who, despite being able to travel the world and live in her dream home, was unhappy and unfulfilled.

She retrieved her daughter's favorite toy, a blanket her grandmother made, and her wedding photos -- things that are irreplaceable and represent memories that shaped her life. You would likely choose something similar, but applying this thought exercise to your career can reveal a lot about how you work and choose to live your life.

When colleges and universities ordered their employees to work from home at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, many higher education professionals retrieved only what they needed from their offices, although not as quickly as someone escaping a burning building.

Still, people may view their careers and the higher education industry with a sense of panic: the world is burning! Professors switching from face-to-face to online classes described their work as "triaging." Staff and administrators were putting out fires on a daily basis. Career plans have gone up in smoke, or at least they are clouded in uncertainty.

Let's continue this heuristic by pretending everything related to your career is on fire:

Your Resume/CV
Someone just took a lighter to your 20-page CV. You need to salvage your best three experiences to share with employers. "People making evaluations average together information they get," wrote Art Markman in his book "Bring Your Brain to Work." "So three big achievements plus a few lesser accomplishments may actually result in a lower average than three achievements alone." That doesn't necessarily mean you should have a resume with just three bullet points, but "be selective about the positive information you present and focus on your greatest strengths," Markman added.

Your Office
Now your office is on fire. What if you had to retreat to another environment, like online teaching or working at another type of campus? Many people have already adapted to limited or no office access during the coronavirus pandemic, but it was temporary and without the thought of "Poof! It's gone for good." After ensuring your physical safety, think about where and with whom you find psychological safety. Where do you feel most productive and which tools do you need? Who in that building will you miss working with the most? Don't worry, Bob and Nancy made it out. But was your next thought cursing about not backing up your files? And shame (shame!) on you if it was your first thought.

The point is to listen to your career survival instincts. Which of the things in your office represent the four P's of your career that you will reach for: Pay (the check in the drawer), Process (the files on the computer), Prestige (your business card or State U. pennant), or People (a sentimental gift that Bob and Nancy gave you)?

Your Job
While still hypothetical, the last two fires are metaphorical. Got it? OK, you're fired.

Maybe you were fortunate enough to remain employed after the coronavirus pandemic incurred job loss, furloughs, and hiring freezes across multiple business sectors, not to mention the health hardships and loss of life. Still, many people live in constant fear that the worst will happen to them: what if I lose my job? This anguish will prevent you from doing your best work.

So, what if losing your job was inevitable? Tell yourself, "They can't fire me because I resign...to being fired." This is the same type of "practical fatalism" followed by Ishmael and his fellow crew members aboard their whale ship in the book "Moby Dick." They just assumed they wouldn't survive the journey, freeing their minds to work and enjoy each day.

Fatalism certainly shouldn't be your default thinking but, in a way, it could help you overcome fears and see your career as being more than your current job.

Your Passion
We end with a good type of fire. Think of a time in your career when something sparked a fire inside you. How can you rekindle that passion elsewhere in your work?

Gosnell, who now owns three companies including her law firm, created a company called The Vacation Effect, helping busy entrepreneurs learn how to take a week vacation every month while growing their business faster. She recommends identifying three things you love doing, whether anybody pays you or not, and naming how you do those three things with your own "power word." For example, Gosnell loves 1.) learning new things, 2.) problem-solving/simplifying the complicated, and 3.) helping others. She does this by being an "amplifier."

"Anytime I have (...) a new opportunity or a decision I'm being asked to make, I can ask myself, 'Does this let me be an amplifier?'" Gosnell said as a guest on the Science of Success podcast. "Does this let me problem-solve/simplify, help others, or learn new things?"

Think of the three things you have a burning desire to do, or things that need reigniting in your career, as well as your "power word" describing the action that lights the fuse.

And make sure the fire in your career is shaping and illuminating your work and not destroying it.