If you have wrestled with the question, "What's next?" recently, you are not alone. We are all being asked to reflect on this daunting career question more frequently, both by choice and by circumstance.
It's no secret that the work landscape has changed. People are no longer working at the same jobs for 40 years with the safety of pension plans waiting at the end. The average employee tenure in America is now four to five years, and job roles often change dramatically within those four to five years. Among workers 25 to 34 years old, the average tenure drops to three years.
The most effective way to navigate this new landscape is making changes based on one's existing strengths, or to borrow a term from Silicon Valley, pivoting.
What is a career pivot?
I define a career pivot as doubling down on what is working to make a purposeful shift in a new, related direction. Pivoting is an intentional, methodical process for nimbly navigating career changes. When you pivot, you shift to new, related work by leveraging your existing base of strengths, interests, and experience.
A successful pivot follows four stages (the first three repeated as many times as necessary):
- Plan by creating a foundation from your values, strengths, interests, and one-year vision for the future
- Scan by researching new skills and opportunities
- Run pilots — small, low-risk experiments to test your new direction; and finally,
- Launch into your new direction, continuing to gather data along the way.
Pivoting requires you to make many decisions along the way, big and small. Some of the biggest pitfalls that I have observed in pivoters are decision fatigue and overwhelm — here's how to combat both:
Reduce decision fatigue:
Your existing routines are likely to get shaken up through the pivot process — especially in the pilot stage — so it is imperative to reestablish anchors in your day. Without habits and routines to systematize your well-being, decision fatigue will set in.
Decision fatigue, also referred to as ego depletion, refers to the dwindling effectiveness of our decision-making abilities throughout the day without proper recharging. ln a New York Times article, journalist John Tierney summarized the consequences: "Virtually no one has a gut-level sense of just how tiring it is to decide. Big decisions, small decisions, they all add up ... ego depletion manifests itself not as one feeling but rather as a propensity to experience everything more intensely."
When you are in the middle of a pivot, big decisions regularly weigh on your mind: Should I stay at my job or quit? Should I fold my business or keep at it? Should I move to a new city, or just take an extended trip? It is no wonder that with these questions gobbling up the lion's share of our mental bandwidth, we become exhausted sorting through smaller daily questions like what to eat, what to wear, or when to exercise.
There is a reason Steve Jobs wore a black turtleneck and jeans every day — it saved him the mental energy of having to make at least one decision.
Similarly, I default to making my mom's chili soup recipe for the majority of my meals when I am deep in the zone in my business. It is one less thing for me to think about. For exercise, I schedule my yoga and Pilates classes on their own calendar as nonnegotiable activities. It saves me the trouble of debating if or when I am going to work out every day or inefficiently planning and replanning the anchors in my schedule each week.
If decision fatigue is an ailment of the overtaxed mind, then what is the cure?
One of the most powerful allies you have for making clearheaded choices throughout your pivot is one that is readily accessible to you at any moment: getting quiet enough to connect with the part of you that already has the answers.
Try a 30-day decision tracker:
When making important decisions, I sometimes find myself trying to over-intellectualize something I am stuck on, talking through the same issues with friends in an endless loop, or otherwise evaluating a next move without making any progress toward clarity. The mental spinning is merely a chew toy for my mind, one that keeps me busy but offers no nutrition.
At this point, there are two courses of action to take — or a combination of both:
Relax, meditate, tune in to your intuition. If there is no clarity, sit with the discomfort and have faith that the right next action will arise. Surrender to the uncertainty. Trust that things will work out, and look for learning in the meantime.
See the situation like a scientist. Look for experiments to run. Gather more data. Ask different, more refined questions. Observe your thoughts over a period of time.
If you are having trouble evaluating a pilot or a decision, and that confusion is preventing you from moving forward, try this exercise: Track that focus area for 30 days.
Rate how you feel about the pilot or decision every day on a scale of 1 to 5. At the same time, write down short, daily notes to add a qualitative observation component to the tracking exercise. Oftentimes just the increased awareness from being an observer during this time inspires new, small actions within each day. Here's a template to help with that.
At the end of the observation period, review the data. What trends emerge? As my friend Jenny Ferry says, "Stay curious. Situations are either resolving or dissolving." The same can be said for anything you feel stuck on. Stay curious and open to the direction the situation is taking rather than forcing a solution or weighing it down with expectations. In doing so, you can objectively observe whether it is resolving or dissolving and what next steps to take as a result.
Decisions are data:
Tracking and evaluating your decisions like this is critical for getting feedback, reviewing your observations, and asking for input from others. That way, when you do launch onto a new path, it will not be blindly. Every pilot is an opportunity, a small test to determine if you actually enjoy the doing of what might be required for your one-year vision. Pilots expand your knowledge and skills and help you close the gap between where you are now and where you want to go.
The simplest way to evaluate a pilot is to revisit the hotter/colder game: Was it hot and on the right track, lukewarm and not quite right, or cold and a misguided flop? Did the pilot energize you, yield positive results, and encourage you to keep going in that direction? Or did it cause frustration and difficulty as you hit one roadblock after another, not yielding the return on investment you desired?
If your evaluation indicator is warm, what next pilot could you run, this time with slightly higher stakes or wider reach? If your evaluation indicator is cold, or not yet achieving the results you seek in terms of enjoyment and impact, reconsider how you can hook back into your strengths or vision. You may also need to spend more time scanning by asking others for feedback, finding accountability buddies, and learning new skills.
You can be quite content experimenting with pilots and preparing for your launch for months (if not years), so long as the experiments are aligned with your broader career vision. However, some pilots are so positively charged that they become massive magnets drawing you closer, leaving you powerless to resist.