Recently I came across this extraordinary article by Dr. Robert Sternberg on the career crises he’s faced over the course of a long, prosperous career. Seriously, check it out —it’s amazing. I’ll wait…
Ever since I read the article, I’ve continued to reflect on Dr. Sternberg’s words. I think the sheer honesty of his account really struck a chord with me. Make no mistake, it was an extremely gutsy choice on his part to write it.
Here’s a guy who’s spearheaded theories about intelligence and creativity that continue to flourish today. At one point he was president of the APA, which voted him one of the “Top 100 psychologists of the 20th Century.” Clearly someone with nothing left to prove, right?
Rather than bask in this well-deserved success, however, he reflects instead on the opposite: on those occasions in his professional career when failure and disgrace loomed so close they seemed almost inevitable. The most revealing of these is his account of the controversy a few months ago when he was appointed president of the University of Wyoming. After only four months, he tells us, he “found that my values and beliefs were not as much shared at the new university as I had hoped, and that I was a terrible fit. So I resigned.” Ouch.
At these junctures, Dr. Sternberg says, what he wanted desperately was to find a rabbit hole and disappear into it. He’s refreshingly candid about the feelings of inadequacy, of shame and anxiety, that accompany these moments, and I suppose that’s what resonated most with me.
Fortunately, Dr. Sternberg continues, “In all these instances, I recovered—eventually.” He offers a list of 10 useful mental habits which helped him to pull through in his own experiences. My favorite is the final one, #10, which reads simply: Move on.
This intrigued me. What could “Move on” mean in more concrete terms? I decided I had to interview Dr. Sternberg and get some clarification. When I asked him how he would operationalize “move on” for people at difficult career crossroads, he replied: “Realize that dwelling on the past will only paralyze you in moving on to the future. Actively seek a new job or a new situation. Make sure the new job or new situation is different from the old one in a way that provides a better fit to who you are. In other words, don’t get into the same bind again.”
After a pause, he added: “Also, don’t necessarily seek the direct opposite of what you had. Often, that too is a recipe for disaster.”
Then, when I asked him why, despite the fact that job-hopping has become more frequent, so many people still seem particularly afraid of changing careers: “They fear career change because they worked really hard to get to where they are in the former career path and they have little or no idea whether they will be able to reach the same heights. ‘What if I bomb? Or merely turn out to be mediocre or ordinary?’ People have invested a lot in their old career path and it is hard to risk throwing away all that investment. I shared my story because I thought others could profit from what I have learned.”
With that in mind, I’d like to offer three principles of my own for successfully dealing with a career crisis or difficult transition:
Take control of your personal narrative.
It’s worth taking some time to consider the story you wish to embody to a prospective employer. What kind of person are you? What are your central values, your focal characteristics, your eventual career goals? And how do your successive experiences and application reflect your progression toward that? These are the questions that hiring managers have on their minds as they shift through resumes: not what you’ve done, but why you did it.
Great news: you have total control over this aspect of yourself. A cover letter, for example, is an invaluable tool which you can use to present your experiences as part of an overarching narrative. Moreover, an interviewer or an employer probably already knows that you can carry out the job’s duties competently; what they want is for you to invest them in the unique and ongoing storyline of your professional career—a storyline which their position fits perfectly.
And the easiest way to convince them? Convince yourself first.
So important I had to borrow it; sorry, Dr. Sternberg. To build on his words, resist the urge to obsess over past failures and counterfactual what-if scenarios, which prevent your ability to stride forth into the future. Of course, a little self-reflection is extremely helpful—how else would we improve ourselves? But there comes a point when self-reflection is just procrastination by another name.
So pick yourself up, leave your baggage behind, and just move on. “Put the crisis behind you,” Dr. Sternberg concludes. “The future awaits.” Exactly right.
Resist the urge to settle.
When you’re trapped in a truly unsatisfying career position, the desire to take the first chance of escape can become overwhelming. It may feel like you’re drowning and this is the only life preserver in your grasp.
But remind yourself that if you settle now, you aren’t solving the problem, merely postponing it: settle now, and eventually you’ll just relive the crisis, the feeling of captivity, the anxiety over job prospects.
Am I saying, “Never give an inch, no matter what?” Not at all. Compromise is a necessary part of the workplace, just like everything in life. But my advice to you, always, is to stay true to your personal narrative, which should in turn reflect your very best conception of who you are. To let go of a prospect, however unsuitable in the middle of a career crisis is no small matter: it takes a great degree of discipline and self-control, especially in today’s economy. But if you stick to your principles and keep the overarching goal in mind, you will recover—eventually. And on your terms, not theirs.
Dr. Sternberg and I share the belief that the most important factor in navigating these crises isn’t your resume or your list of references: it’s yourself. What’s really crucial here is your ability to develop your personal narrative, to fortify your mental discipline, and to leave behind your old limitations. While a career crisis may leave you feeling powerless, the truth is that you always have more power than you think, precisely because so much of it depends on you. Understand this, and in every crisis that comes your way, you’ll see another opportunity to advance the story only you can write.