How to Make the Best Career Plan In the Face of an Uncertain Future


Your career plan for the upcoming year is going to be crucial. Start by building a solid foundation. Don’t take anything for granted. Don’t lock into any one approach. Be analytical, flexible, and pro-active. Be mindful, focus on your values, and dare to dream.

In times of change and crisis, people often adopt one of three response patterns. This applies to our career plan, but it is also reflected in the way businesses act when they’re under stress.

Three Ways to Respond to Change and Volatility

Some people or businesses just continue doing pretty much exactly what they’re doing, making small tweaks or adjustments to keep things going as steadily as possible. But they don’t want to rock the boat on the assumption that their steadiness will help them prevail. Let’s call this the Group 1 approach.

The second approach (Group 2) is to retreat, circle the wagons, and hibernate. In economic downturns, many companies resort to this behavior, laying off staff, slashing budgets, and canceling forward-looking initiatives. Individuals also go into similar pullbacks from their work and their colleagues. This approach is predicated on the notion that survival is only possible by eliminating anything and everything that is not absolutely essential. The assumption is that once the tough period passes, and the world becomes more steady-state, things can resume and rebuild to adapt to the new normal.

A third way (Group 3) is to invest in the uncertainty and look at it as an opportunity. This approach analyzes the situation and shifts all (or most) existing resources to meet the situation head-on. Rather than implementing a minimal response, this approach understands that the situation will have a long-term and permanent impact on the business. Incremental or temporary adjustments won’t work. For individuals, this means a willingness to do a complete paradigm shift away from conventional thinking.

Post Pandemic: An Ongoing Experiment in Uncertainty

Here’s what this lesson means for you and your career going into 2022.

I encourage you to adopt the Group 3 approach in the way you conduct yourself in your own business, and in the way you work today – and in the way you are planning for the future.

As we have seen in 2021, there have been too many conflicting forces and responses to establish any sort of consensus about how to “return to normal.” The best we can expect is that there will be continued surprises, uncertainties, and “black swan” events. These will not only challenge our ability to plan for the future, but they will also prevent us from relaxing our vigilance and resilience in the present.

We will need to plan multiple scenarios and contingencies to address multiple challenges. We will need to do our best to keep our heads cool, and to raise them above the current fray to gain some altitude and perspective on what’s going on.

When it comes to career planning, imagine that you are in a canoe shooting down a roaring rapid that doesn’t seem to be ending any time soon. You want to keep calm, focus on the current under and around you, look ahead and anticipate the rocks and eddies appearing in front of you. Be mindful of what’s in your peripheral vision, while also keeping an eye downriver and doing your best to plot the safest course.

Not easy, right? But I believe it is manageable. There are, after all, calm stretches in between the rapids. These will be opportunities to regroup, reassess, and plan for the next period of challenge or uncertainty.

Are You Prepared For This?

Are you leveling up your career approach to become more prepared and more resilient so you can handle this new period of uncertainty?

For example, have you been staying up to speed on new technology skills? Have you been working with your colleagues on developing new workflows and best practices to get your work done whether in a remote, hybrid, or in-office setting?

Are you reading and researching more about what’s going on in your sector? Are you looking to stay ahead of the curve in order to take advantage of opportunities others may not be seeing?

If you’ve been laid off and have been looking for work, have you re-oriented your work/career profile to put your remote working and tech abilities front and center? Are you the kind of person employers in your field will feel comfortable and enthusiastic about hiring for the new normal?

Don’t make the Group 1 mistake and assume that you will be able to get by with the skill sets and mindsets that you had before the pandemic.

Don’t make the Group 2 mistake and pare your business expenses to the bone believing you’ll be able to make a fresh start when this is all over. You will likely find that a huge gap has opened up that you’re going to have a hard time bridging. The people who took a Group 3 approach are going to be way ahead of you. They will likely get the first pick of the opportunities that come around at that time.

Build Your Foundation Before You Redefine Your Work

Your career plan has to be built on a solid foundation.

Before you engage in your Group 3 initiative, make sure you have the fundamentals covered. You want to know that you have covered as many contingencies as possible. This will give you the freedom and the (relative) peace of mind to take those steps into the unknown.

Here are a few things to keep in mind and to work on in anticipation of these big sea changes that we’re going to see play out over the coming year.

What’s Your Money Runway?

Despite the “great resignation” and the seeming inability of companies to find the right employees to fit the right positions, I still believe there’s going to be a lot of shifts and job loss ahead. And employers aren’t handling this with particular grace.

If you’re currently employed and have escaped previous down-sizing, be prepared for more. Bean counters are undoubtedly analyzing the impact of their staff reductions or staff re-allocations this year. Even in companies that have done well, there will be a desire to extract even more efficiencies from their various strategies.

The first question financial advisors always ask us is: how much savings do you have to weather a layoff?

I would go one step further and make some cash flow tweaks over the next twelve months. Even and especially if you are currently working, give yourself an internal pay cut and put the money into your “rainy day” account. Play with just how far you can extend yourself into the New Year, assuming a worst-case scenario.

Transition Timeline

Again, pivoting off the corporate big picture, don’t assume that 2022 is going to bring back the old normal. Armed with your money runway scenarios, you must make a career plan to use your time more effectively and more productively.

For the coming year, I’ve put up a big calendar on my wall with the words “Make Every Day Count” inscribed above it. In the square for each day, I jot down what I accomplished that day that is part of my overall plan and the milestones I intend to achieve.

Capture your intentions, make your plan, and create a reasonable timeline with milestones so you can gauge your progress. Know at any given moment where you want to be and need to be in the execution of your career plan.

Emotional Readiness

These past couple of years are probably the most challenging times we as a society and culture have faced in over a century. Existential questions and threats to our system of government, to our economy, to our health, and to our environment make life today more unsettling than we could have ever imagined.

And yet we have to proceed in the belief that there is a way through it all – one that includes our self-preservation!

Balance and flexibility are no longer nice-to-haves. They are survival skills. Two practices that we can use to improve our resilience to the loss and disconnection we are experiencing all around us are to be grateful and to be kind.

The truth is we have a lot to be grateful for. The great majority of you reading these words live with great abundance in comparison to the level of need and disenfranchisement present on this planet.

Start and end each day with a moment of reflection (call it prayer if you are so inclined). Make a mental or even a written list of what you are grateful for in your life, including the opportunities and abundance that you experienced today.

Being kind means being kind to others, because they are also going through very much the same sorts of disruptions and upheavals that you are. But it also means being kind to yourself.

Today, more than ever, the accumulation of small slights, hurts, requests (demands), changes, and other upsets can cause us to snap. One minute, we seem to be doing fine. The next minute, we’re in a rage.

But our upset and judgment are not changing any of the external factors or forces. In these moments, try to remember that you are doing the best you can and that others around you are also doing the best they can. We all deserve acceptance, respect, and kindness.

If you start by being kind to yourself, you’ll find that this frees you up to be kind and compassionate with others.

Being kind to yourself also helps you see that you are free to set reasonable boundaries so that you don’t get overwhelmed. In your daily reflection.

Community Support

Why do you think you have to do this alone?

We’ve lost so much spontaneity and intimacy over these past two years. And I don’t think we actually do a very good job of articulating or accepting this loss. We’re still trying to soldier through and hold our breath. But we’re running out of oxygen.

It’s time to reach back out (safely) and “conspire” (literally “breathe together”) with our friends and loved ones, however physically distant they may be.

Did you start a Zoom group with friends and then let the group lapse? Did you start doing Zoom lunches with friends and colleagues but also let those lapse? Is it time to come out of your home-based shell and recapture the rhythm of meeting with friends and colleagues out in the real world?

Re-commit to connecting. You all know that I talk about networking endlessly, but this doesn’t have to strictly be about your career plan. This is more foundational. Make it about creating mutual support on a personal level with people you want to hang with but haven’t been able to see in person. Set up the time to really listen to one another and to feel acknowledged.

Create a Living Vision as Part of Your Career Plan

This is one of the most powerful planning and visioning tools in my arsenal. With so much negativity and uncertainty swirling around us, now is the perfect time for you to anchor your future by creating a Living Vision statement.

A Living Vision is essentially a letter that you write to yourself from your future self.

Very often, in working with clients to make their career plan, I recommend that they pick an extended timeframe – say 3 – 5 years. From that vantage point, I ask them to write their statement in the first person. then, they imagine that they’re looking back on their career as it is today and charting the intervening events and milestones that have led them to that eventual success.

For our current state of affairs, I recommend that you write a Living Vision statement set one year in the future. Imagine it is the end of 2022 (or early 2023, depending on when you’re reading this article). Take the position that the best-case scenario(s) that you are planning and hoping for have come to pass.

Imagine yourself in your new or updated professional role. You could be employed, or working freelance, or working with a partner or a small group of colleagues. Use your creative imagination to extrapolate the aspirations you have now, the plans you’re making, or the goals you’re setting. Place yourself one year from now with that imagination realized – or on the way to getting realized.

Have fun with it. Make it at least 50% believable. That means that your Living Vision is based in today’s reality and what could reasonably happen within the next year. But it also contains an element of measured risk and hope. These are- things that are just outside of your concept of “realistic” but still within the realm of possibility. Maybe a number of factors would have to align for the vision to come true. But then again, you might surprise yourself.

The point of the exercise is to realize that the future is not pre-ordained and that our intentions carry weight. By holding that positive vision of the future, you are already setting the wheels in motion inside yourself to make it happen.

Don’t hold back on your vision. Putting mental and emotional energy behind it gives it form and weight. Creating your vision may open your mind to possibilities and opportunities in the coming months that you would not have seen had you not created your Living Vision.

Now, you’re aware of where you could be, and where you want to go. So your unconscious mind will be looking for ways to make that happen. And your nuts-and-bolts career plan could get an upgrade as a result.

Embrace What’s Possible

Ironically, the best plan for the future is to be fully present right now.

The Group 3 strategy might seem like the riskiest. After all, it’s the one where you’re “hanging ten” on the edge of your figurative surfboard. But it is actually the most secure because it puts you smartly in motion and will always put you ahead of the competition.

Confront your money and your time parameters so you never feel dread over what you’re doing right now. If you’re going to feel dread, at least you’ll be heading towards that cliff with your eyes wide open. Who knows, you may find a parachute, a hang glider, or a rocket ship before you get to the edge.

Be grateful and kind to yourself and to others. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. Rationally speaking, you have no other attitudinal choice that makes sense. Your only control over what you can’t control is your attitude about it. So choose to feel better about yourself and your situation.

Take one step at a time.

Cherish your relationships.

Imagine the future you want. Be just realistic enough to feel comfortable about your goals. But include the aspirational dreams that you’ll have to stretch for.

If you’d like to dive deeper into the preparations you can be making to support your career through potential uncertainty, check out my LinkedIn Learning course “Preparing for Career Transition Over 50.”

Good luck with your career plan, and leave your questions and comments below so we can continue the conversation.

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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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