Three keys for adapting to any career change

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Whether you work for yourself or are employed in an organization, one thing is for certain: at some point your career will change. It could be a gradual change, such as a job or industry slowly evolving or phasing out; or it could be a sudden change, such as the Board of Directors mandating a reduction in staff immediately. Regardless of the exact scenario, the key trait that will enable you to reposition yourself and thrive after a career setback is your ability to embrace adaptation.

Unfortunately, many people lack a belief in their ability to adapt. As such, they become immobilized by fear when change is apparent. So rather than adapt their mindset, approach, and even skills, they choose to stay stuck in their comfort zone, even though it’s no longer comfortable at all.

Realize, though, that adaption is natural. For example, when you travel to a location that has a different climate than what you’re used to (such as going from Miami, Florida to Chicago, Illinois in the winter), the new weather feels harsh for the first day. But after a few days in the new climate, your body adjusts and the colder temperatures don’t feel as frigid. Your body and mind acclimates and you get used to the new environment. This natural ability to adapt at a physiological level also applies to dealing with changes in the career environment. You simply need to tap into your natural ability to adapt and apply it to your professional life. The following suggestions will help you achieve that.

1.      Reflect on your past.

When change is upon you, reflect back on a few times in the past when you overcame an adversity and identify what you had to do to get through those events. Ideally, choose examples from your past workplaces. If you can’t think of any, then go back to your school days and your personal life. If you really have led a challenge-free life thus far, then think about books or movies where you’ve learned about others overcoming adversity.

Once you choose a few situations to reflect upon, determine the actions and attributes that helped you or others in the past. There’s a high probability if you repeat the mindsets and actions that worked in the past, they’ll work for you now as well. This exercise helps you shift your energy from victim to victor. You prove to yourself that success is possible.

2.      Choose to associate with like-minded people.

To keep your mindset strong, surround yourself with individuals and groups who support you in doing something different, rather than those who try to keep you chained to the status quo. Of course, this step is always easier said than done, especially when your family or closest colleagues are the ones holding you back.

First, in your work life, assess your transferable skills. For example, if you were a video store manager whose store closed, your skills likely include hiring and staffing, inventory, merchandising, and customer service. Look at what other stable and growing professions and industries use those skills and join their leading association. This enables you to actively make connections with new people in a sector that has more optimism than the one you’re currently in.

If your loved ones are contributing to your negative mindset, sit down with them and have an honest conversation about the current situation and your options for change. For example, if you realize you need to relocate to find a new job, and your spouse does not want to move, show the reality of the situation. You might say, “If we remain here we can’t maintain our lifestyle. We’ll have to downsize to a one-bedroom apartment or move in with family. But if we relocate to this area where jobs in my sector are plentiful, we can maintain our lifestyle, just in a different zip code. What makes the most sense to you?” Be calm and use specifics when you talk. Chances are the loved one will see the necessity for whatever change is needed.

3.      Do scenario planning.

Write out detailed scenarios about what can happen if you adapt, if you fail to adapt, and if you somewhat adapt. You need to do all three rather than single point planning, because single point planning can set you up for frustration if the plan doesn’t go exactly as outlined.

This sort of triple scenario planning is based on stress inoculation training, which encourages people to anticipate a negative event and explore how they might deal with it in various ways. Should the negative event actually occur, the person has an idea of what to do to overcome, which makes the negative event less stressful. The scenario planning works a lot like stress inoculation training.

For example, if you’ve been laid off and can’t find a new job in your area, you may decide that your best case scenario if you adapt is to find a job you love—one that pays great and offers high satisfaction—albeit in a different part of the country. If you fail to adapt, that scenario may include you moving back in with your parents and working at a minimum wage entry level job that you hate. And if you somewhat adapt, perhaps you find a good paying job in your town, but you’re doing work that doesn’t give you much joy or satisfaction.

With these three scenarios detailed on paper, you have the option of choice. Which scenario do you want to pursue? Now, instead of becoming paralyzed with thoughts like, “I don’t know what to do next” or “Until I figure out what is the right decision I’m not going to do anything,” you can make an informed choice of the best way to overcome your current situation. If you are involved in joint decision-making with loved ones, share what you wrote with them so they can be part of the choice process too.

Embrace the New Reality

Make no mistake: Everyone’s career is going to be affected at some point in their life. This isn’t an “if” scenario; it’s a “when.” So even if your work life seems to be going well right now, start developing your capacity to adapt so that when change occurs, you know what to do.

If you’re in the midst of a change and need to adapt quickly, remember that learning is inherently difficult because you often feel awkward, incompetent, and insecure for a temporary period of time. Eventually, though, you become so fluent in the new knowledge or routine that you can’t imagine your life any other way. Therefore, the sooner you start cultivating and embracing your ability to adapt, the sooner you can thrive in your new situation.

Marty Martin, Ph.D., has been speaking and training nationally and internationally for many years. His second book, "Taming Disruptive Behavior," will be published by The American College of Physician Executives (ACPE) in 2013. He is currently working on his third book, "Do You Have Career Insurance?" Martin is the director of the Health Sector Management MBA Concentration and Associate Professor in the College of Commerce at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois. For more information, visit

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