It’s sometimes said that we should prepare for careers that don’t yet exist. Should we also be getting ready to deal with work and life challenges that don’t exist — to manage uncertainty, ambiguity, and disruption? While we hope our world will be better prepared for the next pandemic, forces like environmental disaster and political turmoil have the potential to upend best-laid plans, and we are going to need the tools to cope. In a course at Smith College, called Designing Your Path, we impart six important skills to help students deal with career challenges. Maybe they’ll help you, too.
1. Develop a habit of reflection
Keep track of what lights you up and what drags you down. Write a couple of sentences a week, or record voice memos on your phone, about activities at work or beyond that engaged you. That way, during times of transition, you’ll already be in the habit of pointing your compass in the right direction. For my book “Mistakes I Made at Work,” I interviewed Lani Guinier, a Harvard Law School professor who told me about an early career move that seemed prestigious but posed a dilemma for her: She became a referee in one of Detroit’s juvenile courts.
If the pinnacle of the law profession was becoming a judge, Guinier felt she should want to be responsible for making a decision on each young person’s future as the cases came before her. But she didn’t want to — not without all of the relevant information, which she felt she didn’t have within an overburdened system. Guinier’s ability to reflect on and understand what she didn’t want was key to building her career. She headed off to the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice, then the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, where she was deeply gratified by the work.
2. Uncover tacit knowledge
Purposeful reflection can also help you uncover what philosopher Donald Schön called “tacit knowledge,” those skills and capacities you possess but haven’t identified. Some tips for getting at these: Think of a job you hated — what did you still do well? Or write in the third person about a time when you navigated a challenge, then do an online search of “important career skills” and find two that were evident in the way you handled that challenge.
Stacie Hagenbaugh, who directed Smith College’s career center for over 15 years, drilled into her own tacit knowledge in the wake of the pandemic when she found herself looking for a new role. This meant thinking about her skills and her principles. What’s the stuff you’re willing to jettison? What do you believe, and where does that also fit into the context of the stuff that you’re good at? she asked herself. She realized she loved creating new initiatives and was energized by helping people make the connections to find new possibilities, especially those who didn’t have that particular kind of cultural capital within their families and home communities. It led to her next step.
3. Consider multiple paths forward
Hagenbaugh had attended Stanford University’s Designing Your Life course and drew an exercise from it for her own students. She asked them to map their imagined career paths, then envision two others that were nothing like it. In her own job search, she did “exactly what I would have told my own students to do.” This meant being open to paths beyond the known — in her case, higher education. Hagenbaugh landed at a boarding school for grades 9-12 as director of alumni engagement, drawn in part by the school’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.
4. Practice failing — and use mistakes and rejection as data
When I interviewed the Massachusetts-based writer and illustrator Keri Smith for my book “The Rejection That Changed My Life,” she told me about a lifelong fear of failure. It was only through practicing failure privately, through one creative experiment a day, that she’d arrived at the concept for her first bestseller, Wreck This Journal.
Using mistakes and rejection as data is common. Ally Einbinder, of the band Potty Mouth — with roots in Northampton — recalled being dropped by the band’s management. But they’d made the mistake of relying on and trusting these particular managers too much, Einbinder later realized. Important e-mails had been kept from the band; decisions had been made for them that they could have made themselves. Going forward, they’d return to their DIY musical roots and maintain more oversight and control, she told me.
5. Think iteratively
Ela Ben-Ur, an adjunct assistant professor of design at Olin College of Engineering in Needham, studied mechanical engineering at MIT, then worked at the design and consulting firm IDEO, but left to coach people on using design principles “to make things better” in the world around them. She invented Innovators’ Compass, a tool to help people get “unstuck,” as Ben-Ur puts it, through iteration. She thinks of this as “evolving in service of what you care about.” If you’re feeling stuck in your career, she asks, “Can you change the who, what, when, where, or how in some way that unlocks a new possibility?” Other questions to ask include: Can you change what you’re doing in the organization? Or where? What will help open the view?
6. Develop practices for connecting with others and with yourself
Elvis Méndez, co-director of the Massachusetts community action and advocacy organization Neighbor to Neighbor, says the pandemic revealed that the nonprofit needed to be “even more intentional about our communication and building bonds with one another.” The inability to meet in person “showed us the ways in which more informal gatherings, office chitchat, and after-meeting debriefs were really important to moving our work.”
Joanna Frankel, an assistant principal in Portland, Maine, was teaching yoga and meditation when the pandemic began. Central to these practices, she said, is learning to “sit with an emotional feeling of discomfort.” When quarantine began, the yoga class she taught moved online. At the first virtual class, Frankel told her students, “This is what you’ve been practicing for. Every time we worked on sitting with the breath or calming the mind — here it is.”
Jessica Bacal is an author and the director of reflective and integrative practices at Smith College. She lives in Northampton. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.