6 Steps to Embrace Career Uncertainty


Dealing with career uncertainty can be one of the toughest challenges we boomers must confront at this stage in our lives.

We are all well aware of how reality has failed to conform to the rosy scenarios we learned as children: that we would work for supportive companies who would provide us with pensions, that the social security system would always be there, and that we would be able to pay off our mortgages, put the kids through school, and retire comfortably and essentially debt-free. As we are all observing, however, the defined-benefit pensions we expected are history, boomers are often bearing the brunt of downsizing and corporate restructuring, and our personal nest-eggs will likely never recover from the Great Recession.

Uncertain times are particularly difficult for people like us who haven’t been trained to expect them. We live in an interlocking set of comfort zones:

  • We’re still working in the same job that we’ve worked in for years and we hope/think that things are going to stay OK. For now…
  • Our health, and/or that of our parents or our kids is OK — or under control. For now…
  • We’re saving some money, or paying down debt, and things will be OK if we keep at it. Unless something happens…

Indeed, what if something knocks us out of our comfort zone in any of these areas? Yes, the house of cards falls apart.

Rather than live in fear and denial of the unknown, there are steps we can take to pro-actively take charge of our future. Resilience requires a new set of attitudes and practices. Most importantly, we need to start the resilience process before we’re going to need it. If we don’t start now, being blindsided by the loss of a job, a family crisis, or a personal health event will be a much more challenging experience than we would like.

Check out these six practices that can get us on the road to greater command of our options in the face of uncertainty. The approach is to build a set of personal resources to help better weather the potential storm:

  1. Accept your situation. When we lose a job, get sick, or experience an unforeseen crisis, we tend to play the “woulda/coulda/shoulda” game, and spend an unnecessary amount of time in recrimination, regardless of whether we’re to blame. We need to stop that. It’s not going to get us anywhere. It’s not going to solve anything, nor will it make us feel any better. Reacting to the shock of a crisis is normal and to be expected, but at some point, we need to accept that it happened, and that we are going to need to figure out a way to feel OK with ourselves. If we don’t — if we carry our anger, hurt, guilt, or shame out into the world, that negativity is going to haunt us and impede our progress. As difficult as our circumstances may be, we actually have a choice about what kind of attitude we are going to adopt in response.
  2. Expand your mind. Read, read, read. Once we have moved into acceptance, a new world of possibilities opens up. Take the opportunity to immerse yourself in knowledge. Deepen your understanding of your situation. Rekindle your love of learning, and find the inspiration in discovering new information and new ideas. Your discovery process in one direction may lead you to unexpected insights and new ideas.
  3. Write. Express yourself. Dedicate time every day to keeping a journal that tracks your progress. This is just for you — no one else should read it. They don’t even need to know you’re keeping it. The purpose is to workshop ideas, reflect on where you are each day, and to foster a dialog with the inner creative voices that could lead you in positive directions. If you can develop a clearer picture in your mind of where you want to go with your life — whether it is about career, relationships, money or health — then you will be better able to discern opportunities that become available to you. Without having created these pictures, you won’t have any established reference points, and the opportunities will pass you by, unnoticed.
  4. Reach out. There is a tendency when we get into challenging situations to cocoon, to withdraw, to wait until we “get a handle” on the situation, or wait “until it blows over” in order to seek support. This is the diametrically wrong approach. Crisis is the time when we need all hands on deck. Asking for support is not the same thing as being bailed out or taken care of. Asking for support is not abdicating your own responsibility for taking care of yourself. Engage with your family, friends and trusted colleagues. Share the reading and writing ideas and insights that are emanating from points 2 and 3, and engage in a dialog to further refine ideas, strategies and plans.
  5. Get coached. When circumstances feel overwhelming, it can be a good idea to get more professional help. Often, though, we dismiss the idea of a career or a life coach (or financial or health care advisor) because we are “circling the wagons” and don’t want to spend the money. This is understandable, but may be “penny wise and pound foolish.” Think of it this way: even if our troubles are not of our own making, working with someone whose job it is to help people and support people through these challenges can accelerate the process of getting through them, and help clarify and prioritize clear and effective action plans. If your coach can help you get a new job sooner, or find the right health or financial resources you need, aren’t they saving you time and earning you money?
  6. Keep iterating. This means you should never fall into the trap of feeling like you’ve found the one perfect solution, or that you’re done with your process. Resilience to uncertainty requires constant vigilance. Things will continue to change and evolve as you move through your crisis. It may be tempting to grab the first solution that comes your way, whether it is a new job that “seems” OK (but might not be), or a doctor who has all the answers, or an investment strategy that will solve your money problems. Make the best decision available to you at any given time, but be prepared to course-correct, and to modify or change that situation if new information comes to light.

We all want to get back into our comfort zones, where we can breathe and relax again, and not have to worry about all this uncertainty. It’s OK: it’s human nature. Unfortunately, I believe we are headed for more uncertain times ahead, and that we will all need to get comfortable with more uncertainty, not try to run away from it. Building resilience is like any other form of exercise: practice makes it practical. In building your resilience muscles, make sure to clarify your intention for the kind of life you want to live, including the major aspects of career, family, relationships and health. Form follows thought, and aligning these intentions inside you will little by little create the kind of outer results you’re looking for, and help you make a smoother, more effective transition to the next phase of your life.

  • It really helped when you said that working with a career coach can accelerate the process of making a good career plan. I just graduated from college and I’m having a hard time finding a job in my selected field. Maybe I should try reaching out to a career coach to make a solid plan to launch my career.

    • Thanks, Taylor! You may not need a career coach. It sounds like you need to do more networking. Meet more people and have more conversations about what you want to do, what your interests are, and the kinds of changes you’d like to see happen in the world and in your chosen field. Build a “tribe” of colleagues around your shared vision. Be entrepreneurial! Starting a business is essentially free, today. While you’re waiting to get hired, show that you’re already a business person by offering a product or a service related to your chosen field. Your entrepreneurial initiative will get you noticed – and could very well get you hired. It’s up to you. A career coach isn’t going to be able to do any of that stuff for you…

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    John Tarnoff is a career transition coach, speaker and best-selling author who helps late-career professionals transition to meaningful second-act careers beyond traditional retirement.

    Following a successful career as a Hollywood film executive and tech entrepreneur, he reinvented his own career at 50, earning a master’s degree in Spiritual Psychology to focus on professional development and training.

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