Adopt a Career Growth Mindset and Never Think of Yourself as “Unemployed”


Do you have a zero-sum attitude about your career? Do you think of yourself as either “employed” or “unemployed?” Adopt a career growth mindset to look at your career more expansively. See yourself as always engaged and working “on” your career, even if you’re not currently working “in” your career.

What is a Career Growth Mindset?

Much of our current thinking around this concept stems from Carol Dweck’s research at Stanford University and in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. According to Dweck’s research, we have two ways of looking at ourselves and develop one of two mindsets around what we are capable of in all areas of our life. The idea of the career growth mindset stems from this principle.

The Fixed Mindset is the zero-sum approach. In the Fixed Mindset, if we’re not winning, we’re losing. We don’t believe that we are capable of more than our experience. We predict the future based on the past. We restrict our potential based on the (false) belief that we are locked into past behaviors and past disappointments. The result is that we allow our limiting beliefs to govern our lives. This prevents us from imagining different outcomes in our lives and/or careers.

The Growth Mindset presupposes that we are a work in progress and that we have the choice to behave differently as we navigate through life. In the Growth Mindset, nothing is fixed. Everything is possible. This is not to say that we can do anything, but it does empower us to look more deceptively and more openly at the opportunities that are actually popping up all around us.

The career growth mindset applies this approach to our work lives and defies the notion that we are destined to stay stuck in an unsatisfying job or career.

It also questions the assumption that we need an employer to validate us and that without the supposed security of a regular paycheck, we are prevented from providing our professional value.

How to Develop a Career Growth Mindset

Do you ever hear yourself saying or thinking things like “Oh, that’s not who I am,” or “That’s not the way I work,” or “I’m not good at ‘x’ or ‘y?'” These are examples of how a fixed mindset can undermine your ambition and purpose.

The only reality to these limiting beliefs is the one that you are ascribing to them. In the realm of the growth mindset, such self-definitions are foolish and unnecessary.

As we know from advances in neuroscience over the past few decades, our minds are infinitely malleable. “Neuroplasticity” is the physiological term for how your brain actually rewires your neural pathways through intention and repetition. If you haven’t read “Atomic Habits” by James Clear, it’s an eye-opening treat that can unlock your ability to eliminate bad habits and replace them with good ones. Neuroplasticity in action!

Take 15 Minutes and Start This Process

Consider the following steps to shift from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset:

  1. Question the static aspects of your life and career. Make a list of all of your current frustrations and have traditionally experienced in your job and/or career. Better yet, put these frustrations on a whiteboard or a large sheet of paper and stick it up where you’ll see it every day. Keep looking at it and adding to it so that it contains a comprehensive picture of all the areas of your life and career where you feel stuck.
  2. Reframe the top 5-10 most triggering, depressing, or shame-inducing ideas and concepts from this list. Use your creative imagination to fantasize about how different your life would be if you could reverse these static situations. You don’t have to think or worry about how to change them. Just think about how much better your life would be if you could change them.
  3. Make these reframed scenarios 50% believable. One of the keys to shifting into a career growth mindset is to stretch yourself – but not to the breaking point. If you set goals that seem too out of reach from where you are right now, you could get discouraged. Instead, as you’re reframing your fixed mindset situations, set goals that are challenging and probably uncertain, but not unreasonable or impossible.
  4. Keep at it. Start slow, but make the reframing and redefining process a regular part of your routine. Set aside time every week for a ritual check-in with your limiting beliefs and fixed mindset. Consider keeping a journal or use a habit-tracking app on your phone to monitor and measure your progress.

You’re on your way! These four steps will put your mind on a new footing.

Apply the Career Growth Mindset at Work

If you’ve been suffering under a fixed mindset at work, and feel like you’re under-appreciated, held-back, or undermined, shift to a career growth mindset to open up some new possibilities.

  1. What if you are not stuck? The solution may be radical (you might need to move, go back to school, or make some other sacrifice). But consider that there is always a course of action to navigate away from your current conundrum.
  2. Find your real allies. Stop relying on friends or colleagues (or family members) who reinforce your fixed mindset. Cultivate relationships with people who are imaginative, resourceful, and positive to help you develop new ideas and new strategies.
  3. Lean into the discomfort. It’s OK! Change is hard for everyone. But if others can endure the change and turn it into an advantage, you can, too. Start by taking small risks and keep taking them, even if you feel foolish, embarrassed, awkward, or uncomfortable. Learn from your mistakes. Resilience is the strength you build by continually picking yourself back up after a failure.

If you’re “sick and tired of feeling sick and tired,” it’s time to embrace your career growth mindset and see where it takes you.

Reprogram Career Mindset Myths

Our business culture perpetuates many myths.

Your fixed career mindset is not an indication that there’s something wrong with you. It’s not because you are incapable of expansive thinking, learning new skills, or (if you’re an older worker) understanding technology.

It’s because you were taught to undervalue yourself. You were taught to fear uncertainty. You were taught that you needed to be beholden to the company or to your boss. You were taught that you were a widget and easily interchangeable. So you had to kowtow and be afraid of losing your job.

Your career growth mindset will tell you that the more experience you gain, and the older you get, the more you have to contribute. The more you think of yourself in that positive light, the more others will see it in you and seek you out.

Your career growth mindset will tell you that you provide a unique spin to the work that you do. Even if you do the same job as someone else, you bring your unique personality, interests, preferences, orientations, talents, and approaches to your work. That’s worth something! You make a difference that is not easy to replace.

Stop buying into the negativity that tells you that you can’t, you shouldn’t, or you won’t.

Getting Fired is Not Fatal

Nor is getting fired shameful.

This is the biggest myth that we have all been taught. And it is time to reject the notion that we are always going to be put at a disadvantage because we need that paycheck.

From the career growth mindset perspective, losing your job is an opportunity to find something better.

Losing your job is feedback. It’s a data point.

You no longer fit that particular position. For whatever reason.

Remember, they hired you because they believed you could do the job. What changed?

Maybe it was them. Business conditions changed, New management came in. Your new manager doesn’t see eye-to-eye with you.

Maybe it was you. The job stopped being interesting. Maybe you realized you were more interested in a different role but that role was not available to you. You and your team stopped getting along (or never really got along).

These are just some of the possibilities. But nowhere in these scenarios is the message that you are a bad person or that you did something wrong.

Stuff happens. Things change.

Yes, losing a job is a big loss. It opens up a void in your life and that’s not fun. But, again, it’s not fatal. You can fill that void. And hopefully you’ll fill it better than it was filled before.

Three Radical Mindset Shifts

Check out the following three examples of empowering career growth mindsets.

Disclaimer: Yes, these are not without some discomfort and risk – and take some practice.

I also realize that earning money is important and essential and necessary. So I’m not living in a fantasy around what you need to do to keep working. Sometimes, on some issues, you just have to keep your head down and soldier through. I get it.

But take a step back for a moment and imagine what you could do if you were able to conduct yourself according to these three mindsets. What would that open up for you in your life and your career?

Career Growth Mindset #1: Supplicant to Partner

Scheduled for a job interview?

The traditional fixed mindset would have you auditioning for this potential role as a supplicant hoping to be picked out of a line-up of similar supplicants.

In this power dynamic, the interviewer holds all the cards and you’re nervous about making a good impression and having the right answers to their probing and uncomfortable questions. Even if you’re not actually thrilled about the job description, if they don’t pick you, you’ll feel rejected.

The career growth mindset says that you’re interviewing them as much as they’re interviewing you. Take back your power by seeing yourself as a partner in this decision. You have something tangible to offer. But you also have (or should have) criteria for what’s going to work for you in this job. You want to make sure that this is a position where you’ll be able to do your best work. Why not set yourself up for maximum success?

If you are confident in your professional value, you’ll know that it is going to have to be a win-win for both parties if this job is going to work out. If you don’t get the job, it will simply be because you were not the best fit for them. But learn from that interview experience. You’re one step closer to finding a role that truly suits you.

Career Growth Mindset #2: Go for the Project, Don’t Go For the Job

In the fixed career mindset, you get hired to do a steady-state job where you’re working for a manager and delivering a series of assignments.

In the growth mindset, you want to think of your assignments as projects that you own and that utilize the best of what you have to offer. Use this project-oriented attitude to explore new skills, new workflows, and new opportunities for growth. Use your projects to contribute your unique value to the innovation, problem-solving, and business growth that your employer is striving for.

Adopting a project-oriented mindset helps you to better quantify what you do and what you accomplish. This translates into greater confidence and a sense of direction for you. But it also serves as a compelling track record of your growth and expertise. This can lead to greater opportunities and promotions in your current job. It can also draw new career possibilities to you.

Finally, leverage the working relationships that you build through your projects to burnish your reputation, authority, and trustworthiness. Look to work with more people as you go from project to project and create a like-minded referral network that can continue to support you and channel new and interesting work your way – even and especially within your organization.

Career Growth Mindset #3: You Are Never Out of Work

In the fixed career mindset, you’re either employed or unemployed. You either have a job and are receiving a paycheck, or you don’t have a job and are trying to get a job so you can get another paycheck.

This is an outdated mindset from an earlier era where you worked in the same department at the same company for decades.

The career growth mindset focuses on the portfolio of value that you provide no matter who you’re working for, and no matter whether you are earning a paycheck or not.

Just because you’re not working for a company right now doesn’t mean you’re out of work. You are following the latest developments and are engaged with your professional network about where you can provide that value. In your interactions with recruiters and hiring managers, you are looking for the best fit for how you can share the value that you offer and that you are continuing to develop.

You are continually looking to provide value, or are preparing for the next opportunity where you’ll get the chance to do so. This might mean that you are providing consulting services as a bridge to your next longer-term gig. You might also be volunteering or otherwise engaged in service projects to further your career skills and goals. You might be working with other industry colleagues on leadership initiatives, conferences, or meet-ups to discuss and debate important issues in your industry.

This is actually a great time to review what’s going on in your industry and incorporate new trends, skill sets, research, or methodolgies into your career plan and job search focus. And you’ll be able to talk about all of this great new thinking you’re doing when you interview for new positions.

Reach out to your network and get updated on what your connections are doing. Maybe they’ll have some unexpected ideas for you or be willing to give you a valuable recommendation.

Meet new people and expand your outreach to target companies and new professional connections. Spend your time setting up and conducting informational interviews. Learn more about how other accomplished professionals in your industry do what they do. You can learn valuable tips and tricks and best practices that you’ll be able to take with you to your next job. You’ll also be expanding your referral network. This is the best way to tap into the “hidden job market” where up to 80% of all hiring actually takes place.

Your Future is Malleable

Out of all the possibilities open to you, where are you going to start?

Pick the most leveraged action (the one that just popped into your head) and start there.

Question the limiting nay-sayer in your head and dare to imagine your career beyond your conventional thinking.

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John Tarnoff is an executive and career transition coach, speaker, and author who supports mid and late-career professionals in defining, planning, and achieving more meaningful and sustainable careers.

Fired 39% during his 35 years as a film producer, studio executive and tech entrepreneur, he learned how to turn setbacks into successes in a volatile business. He reinvented his own career at 50, earning a master’s degree in counseling psychology to share his career lessons with others going through similar challenges.

Since leaving entertainment in 2010, John has coached individuals, groups, and led career workshops for university alumni, including for UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. Corporate coaching clients have included Bank of America, Bridgewater Assoc., Levi-Strauss, Softbank, TD Ameritrade, and Thrive Global.

He is the author of the best-selling Boomer Reinvention: How to Create your Dream Career Over 50 and has been named a Top Influencer in Aging by PBS/NextAvenue.


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