You’ve Reached an Inflection Point in Your Career. What Now?

Points of inflection — life’s what now? moments — emerge frequently across our professional and personal lives. They can arise from difficulty, like when we lose a job unexpectedly or are forced to deal with a chronic illness, or in the wake of exciting new opportunities. Whatever the catalyst, points of transition can feel threatening. Research suggests that typical reactions range from avoiding the problem by retreating or postponing to knee-jerk pivots or the search for quick fixes.

Examining our first reaction to destabilizing change invites us to explore the possibilities that exist beyond our initial impulse. This requires having the humility to recognize that even the most well-trained and talented among us can become unsure, unsettled, and reactive when operating in unfamiliar terrain. Developing a practice of pausing to regulate, resource, and reorient before we respond can counteract the threat response and help us to be more curious and creative in the face of what now? moments, even when we’re not sure what comes next.

Nine months after returning from parental leave, Anne, who had built a successful management career in Silicon Valley, was debating whether to resign. She was working for a company that proudly pledged to support working parents, and she had a committed, hands-on husband and a mother who provided childcare. Yet, despite the support, a mounting sense that thriving in one domain meant short-changing the other had Anne feeling stuck: “I feared I wouldn’t be able to re-enter the workforce — that I was glamorizing the grass on the other side when, in actuality, I might feel isolated, lonely, or stigmatized as ‘just a stay-at-home mom’ in our Silicon Valley bubble.” For Anne, the choice to stay or go was both obvious and impossible.

Ashley, a rising star sales manager at a global design company, faced a similar dilemma with a different set of priorities at stake: whether to remain in the job that she loved or focus full-time on an entrepreneurial venture. “I started something with my mother and my sister,” she shared in conversation. “It was a side gig really, but I wanted it to become something more.” Ashley was conflicted. Commitments at the intersection of her career, a high-potential passion project, and a very active family life had her struggling to find a way to bring her best self in three domains at once.

For both Anne and Ashley, competing priorities created a turning point that required more than a simple course correction or picking a lane. Instead, they stood on the threshold of uncharted territory without a map or compass to guide them.

Points of inflection — life’s what now? moments — emerge frequently across our professional and personal lives. They can arise from difficulty, like when we lose a job unexpectedly or are forced to deal with a chronic illness, or as in Anne and Ashley’s cases, in the wake of exciting new opportunities. Whatever the catalyst, points of transition can feel threatening, especially when our identity and self-direction are called into question. Research suggests that typical reactions to the disjunction we feel when we hit an impasse and are unsure how to proceed range from avoiding the problem by retreating or postponing to knee-jerk pivots or the search for quick fixes.

Examining our first reaction to destabilizing change invites us to explore the possibilities that exist beyond our initial impulse. This requires having the humility to recognize that even the most well-trained and talented among us can become unsure, unsettled, and reactive when operating in unfamiliar terrain. Developing a practice of pausing to regulate, resource, and reorient before we respond can counteract the threat response and help us to be more curious and creative in the face of what now? moments, even when we’re not sure what comes next.

Regulate

Feeling lost or uncertain can lead to emotion-driven responses that distract us from focusing creatively on the challenge at hand. There is ample research to suggest that it is both possible and beneficial to temper our emotions in the face of interruptions and disruptions if we are properly resourced to do so. Developing an intentional practice of rigorous self-awareness and self-regulation before a what now? moment can help us to prepare by feeling less panicked and more in control before the inevitable happens.

Start by recalling the last time you faced instability. Perhaps you were passed over for a promotion or were offered a fantastic opportunity at another company. Did you react emotionally? Avoid making a decision? Rush to judgment without all the facts? Examination of past behavior can help you identify where you might avoid risk or succumb to knee-jerk reactions in the future.

Resource

No matter how self-aware, well-regulated, and experienced we are, every transition point is unique. That’s why plans and processes that work well in stable times often break down in times of uncertainty. Making time to assess the new landscape can help us to shift our attention from the threat of the unknown toward inquiry as we enter uncharted territory.

Taking a careful inventory of available resources is critical to responding well to the emerging situation — even when time is of the essence. This can include emotional resources, such as access to coaching or therapeutic services, material resources like funding, or social resources through professional or personal networks. Identifying where these resources are abundant and noting where they’re lacking can lead to concrete action (resource gathering) or serve as a creative prompt (how might we proceed without certain resources?) depending upon the circumstances. Whatever the case, a focus on identifying and gathering resources grounds us in action without requiring firm decisions before we’ve had time to get our bearings in the new terrain.

Reorient

Purposefully creating space for learning at a point of disruption can help to shift from a problem-solving mindset to a discovery mindset as we enter uncharted territory. While this may seem counterintuitive for people who have been rewarded for decisiveness, engaging in a process of sensemaking — observing the contours of the new terrain, clarifying where we are and where we hope to go, and identifying options and possibilities — rather than rushing to pivot or make firm choices can help us to reorient in the midst of changing circumstances.

For some this involves capturing these observations on a wall full of sticky notes; for others an electronic whiteboard, list, or spreadsheet. The particular method is less important than making a commitment to a fearless and searching examination of relevant aspects of the emerging circumstances as a route to integrating insights and uncovering potential paths forward in the wake of the what now? moment. These eventually become the map and guide to navigate the new terrain, which can lead to more creative and context-relevant responses.

Respond

In even the most turbulent of times, settling emotions and developing a practice of inquiry and exploration helps us to actively move from impulse to creative problem solving. Making time to regulate, resource, and reorient can help us to formulate new ways to approach uncertainty — ways that account for the unique opportunities and challenges that exist in the given situation. This can also help to spark a new perspective on who we are in times of change, how we respond, and how we might chart a new course — even when it’s uncomfortable.

For Anne, that meant a choice to leave her job and experience what it was to be a mom first. Five years of exploration and experimentation later, she has no regrets. She is at ease with exploring who she is becoming, which is a visual artist. Ashley followed a different path. After engaging in a process of regulating, resourcing, and reorienting, she responded by presenting her dilemma to her leadership team, and they worked together to integrate her passion for community service into her position. Four years later, she is still working at the company she loves in a way that works for her desire for service and the needs of her young family. Both women’s stories underscore the paradox and the potential of modern work life — walking in opposite directions, yet equally empowered and content with the journey.

The key to navigating the unknown is to rethink our relationship with change and to recognize that what now? moments can be an invitation to inquiry and exploration rather than a threat. This means acknowledging that new circumstances may lead us to freeze or react without thinking, and that our first impulse is something we can temper with attention and practice. The steps we’ve suggested can help us to view points of inflection as opportunities to reflect on our commitments, examine our priorities, and course correct when necessary. Learning to do so is a professional and personal development imperative in times of uncertainty and change.

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