Harvard Business review

The Upside of Feeling Uncertain About Your Career

These days, there’s lots of talk about the crisis of meaning spawned by the pandemic and the reckoning with toxic workplaces that have many leaving companies in droves. Indeed, recent research suggests more than half of all Americans are considering a job change because they feel their employers don’t care about their concerns, and they want flexibility to become a permanent part of their work lives. Some have felt a sudden burst of clarity about what they do — and don’t — want next for their career.

But what if you don’t know for sure? What if, beyond your general sense of malaise or misgiving, you’re saddled with a deeper sense of uncertainty about what you want next? You hear colleagues say things like, “I want to make a difference” and “I want to feel like my work matters,” and privately fret, “Well, I want those things too, but is there something wrong with me if I don’t know exactly what that is?”

In our view, there’s nothing to worry about if you’re going through some of this existential career rumination but are unsure of the path forward. In fact, not knowing what to do may be your biggest competitive advantage.

We believe there’s value in sitting with this liminal state of uncertainty. In our experience, many who claim to have the answers may have defined a “purpose” merely to sooth their previously unacknowledged lack of significance, or they’ve simply managed to persuade themselves that they have a firm idea but ignored the many options and possibilities available. In a way, people search for meaning like a drunken person searches for their lost house keys — next to the lamp post, not because that’s where they dropped them, but because that’s the only easy place they can see.

Here are five ways to take advantage of not knowing what’s next.

Let the unknown open you to possibilities.

Absent the “answer” to what’s next, uncertainty raises better questions about what could be next. Not having a specific destination to fixate on (e.g., I want to be a life coach or I’m going to be a veterinarian) allows you to step back and wonder about career paths you might never have considered. For instance, Deborah, a former HR executive looking for her next chapter, allowed herself to explore a variety of possibilities before jumping into her next career. She conducted informational interviews and travelled internationally to see the “on-the-ground” work related to causes she cared about.

Consider the moments throughout your career where you felt you were  doing your best work and feeling the most satisfied. In what other contexts might such moments be possible? For example, maybe you’re in a financial role that requires complex analyses of data and the times you feel you’re at your best are when your insights lead to breakthrough solutions. Consider what other environments outside the financial realm might benefit from your keen problem-solving skills.

Learn to read the right signs.

Like driving on an unfamiliar highway, ambiguity forces us to be alert. The key is to be alert with curiosity, not fear. For too many, career uncertainty and its resulting anxiety lead to suboptimal choices. Fearing our obsolescence, lack of employability, or that we’re ill equipped to convince others of our value, we sell ourselves short. We ignore the signs that might be pointing us to something adventurous and settle for something familiar, even if it’s unsatisfying.

But consider Kate, a client of Ron’s and an accomplished marketing executive. Feeling bored after two decades of classic marketing work, she accepted a severance package after her company merged with another. Within weeks, she had multiple offers for senior marketing roles, including a CMO position, which she’d always thought would be her pinnacle role. But Ron could tell she really didn’t want it. All of the fear-based signs were telling her to play it safe. But her greatest passion was creative work, especially teaching others to unleash their creativity. Looking back on the places she spent her time, the work she loved, and impact she enjoyed, all those signs pointed in a different direction. She spent several months trying her hand at teaching graduate-level classes in creativity for entrepreneurs. A year later, she established a center focused on creativity for entrepreneurs in partnership with a local university.

Be foundational in defining your career.

Take advantage of your career liminal space by stepping back and inventorying your portfolio of competencies to ensure the widest possible applicability of what you’re good at. Lisa, a professional Dorie profiled in her book Reinventing You, came to the rather horrifying realization that she did not, in fact, want to be a legal scholar — a goal she’d spent the past 10 years pursuing. Instead of wallowing, Lisa inventoried her crossover skills and realized that with her legal training in oral argumentation, she could be a persuasive salesperson, and with the language skills she acquired for her doctoral study, she could work internationally. Ultimately, she was able to apply her skillset to a career she actually loved in the wine industry.

You can also identify areas where you want to develop. In much the way that researchers conduct foundational or exploratory research to uncover new problems, defining your future in terms of skills rather than jobs will widen your aperture. Ask yourself: Are there areas where you need to deepen any skills? For example, if you’ve been in sales and have honed your pitching skills, consider stepping back and polishing your public speaking skills. If you work with specific technologies, consider how you can help others use them effectively. Use this time to round out the broadest applications of what you’re good at and shore up any flat sides.

Allow ambiguity to make you more adaptable.

The constant turbulence of today’s world demands the ability to turn on a dime when needed. But humans are predictability-seeking machines, and we don’t like pivoting unless we’re forced to. In fact, much of our apparent quest for meaning is simply an inherent obsession with order, familiarity, and predictability, because these are the basic dimensions of sanity and stability that keep our stress and anxiety at bay. Our natural instincts are to impose certainty on ambiguity to regain a sense of control.

What if, instead, you allowed yourself to lean into the discomfort? By facing ambiguity, you weaken its grip, making the unknown less terrifying. Instead of asking, “What threat do I need to mitigate?” in the face of the unknown, ask, “What does this ambiguity free me up to do that greater certainty wouldn’t?” For example, rather than focusing only on opportunities for which you’re already skilled so that you feel more “employable,” experiment with areas where you may be less skilled but that you’ve always been curious about and enjoy the freedom of trying something without having to prove anything to anyone.

To be sure, there is a basic level of mental and psychological maturity needed to embrace uncertainty and acknowledge what you don’t know. But as Voltaire famously noted, “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.” By increasing your adaptability, you make yourself that much more attractive to future hiring managers who are looking for the characteristic of agility in countless jobs.

Learn to live purposefully.

While the hyper-specific nature of a personal “purpose statement” is alluring, it’s often rooted in false precision. Frequently, personal purpose devolves into generalized sloganeering that feels inspiring, but offers little practical guidance.

Rather than aiming at a narrow target like, “I want to start my own consulting practice” (often born from a desire for freedom from corporate constraints and controlling one’s destiny) or a vague, broad one like, “I want to help people live better lives” (a common aspiration after working mindlessly for years in a boring job), consider what it would mean to live more purposefully each day.

For example, to feel more control over your time, what habit could you build into your routines to carve out time for yourself — to explore future career options, to practice self-care, to spend more time with friends? If helping other people is something you value, consider places you might volunteer regularly or younger professionals you could mentor. Living purposefully means aligning your daily choices to a set of values and intentionally choosing some options over others based on those values. Rather than trying to live a purpose, learn to live with purpose. You can do this whether you’re pursuing a career change or not. And if you are, doing so more purposefully will likely increase the quality of the choice you eventually make.

To be sure, living in between career chapters can feel maddening. Given the choice, we’d all prefer to have clarity instead of facing the fog of not knowing. But for many, finding clarity is an iterative, sometimes necessarily messy process. Grasping for false precision to quell your angst will likely lead to greater discomfort later when you realize you jumped from the proverbial frying pan into the fire. Unburden yourself from the false obligation to know something that might not be knowable now. Shaping the next chapter of your career deserves all the time, care, and attention you can give it. Don’t resist the uncertainty, embrace it. Like buried treasure, it holds clues to possibilities you’ll be glad you didn’t rush past once you discover them.

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