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Navigating change during hard times
Q: How do you cope with uncertainity at work?
Disco Dialogues is a newsletter and interview series where Kinnari and Mitali engage in deliberate dialogue aimed to spark inner growth. Our posts start with a question to encourage reflection on topics ranging from creativity, courage and curiosity to self-care and relationships. The hope is that by sharing the dialogues that we have with ourselves and with each other, we can start meaningful conversations within our community.
People are anxious about the future. In the past few months I have had numerous conversations with folks who are worried about their future job prospects. Those who thought they were in safe jobs were laid off unexpectedly. Those who are unhappy in their current roles are struggling with the right timing on when to make a change. Former colleagues are feeling hopeless about being in situations without many choices. It doesn't matter if it's about their chances of finding a new job or their ability to hold onto their current job. The path ahead seems dark and unfamiliar.
The past two decades drew people to tech for its opportunity, culture and money. Now we find the ground is shifting under us. It is hard to really know what the future holds given the uncertain economic conditions in the US and the unending layoffs in tech. The job market is now flooded with good talent in an environment of scarce openings. On top of which, the media hype and gloom around AI is causing people to believe that jobs will be decimated in the near future.
I want to acknowledge that this can feel very disconcerting. I have been in somewhat similar positions before. In 2000 I was laid off from my first job out of college in consulting. In 2019 I made the difficult choice to leave a high paying tech job despite repeated warnings that a recession was coming in 2020.
Each of those situations was a hard lesson so I want to share some of my approaches during those experiences.
Acknowledge where you are.
Before you can move forward you have to take the time to acknowledge your situation and the arising emotions. When I was laid off in 2000, I was caught by surprise. It was the height of the dot com boom of early naughts and I had just relocated to the Bay Area from New York City to join the growing digital practice of my consulting firm. I thought I was making a smart move - opting to ride the wave of tech growth in Silicon Valley. However, three months after my relocation, I returned from a personal trip to India and found myself without access to my company email. All I had was a voicemail on my office line informing me that I had been laid off. It was impersonal and devastating.
I was barely a year out of school. I felt helpless at the time with the added anxiety of being on a work visa in the US. Power had been taken from me - the layoff happened to me rather than me making a conscious decision to switch jobs. I had to grieve the loss of my first job. I turned to journaling to create some space from my emotions. And as I separated myself from my anxiety, new thought patterns started to emerge. I realized that the discomfort could push me in a new direction. I started to explore options for taking more risks by interviewing at small startups.
I also acknowledged that I was in a privileged position. I had graduated from a world renowned institution so my network helped me land job interviews. I also considered myself lucky to have been laid off during the “dot com boom” as opposed to the “bust” that followed a couple of years later. The situation eventually helped me to pivot in my career and land a job as a product manager at a fintech startup in 2001.
Similarly before I left my job at Google a few years ago, I had to acknowledge that I was unhappy where I was. The company had gotten too big for me and a scarcity mindset had taken over the culture. It was no longer an environment in which I could be my best self. It took time - almost four years - to accept the gravity of the situation instead of denying or resisting my pain. By being completely open to the full range of my emotions, I could then welcome and befriend them.
It took courage to accept that a place that had allowed me to thrive was now suffocating me. But with that realization, I could then direct the power of my emotions towards meaningful action. Instead of being reactive, I was able to take action from a place of wisdom and make a choice to change things. To choose my own growth over the seeming stability of an existing job. To choose excitement over indifference towards my job.
Change is never easy. Many times we get comfortable with where we are and are reluctant to rock the boat when we have a steady paycheck, comfortable benefits and flexibility in our job. But sometimes we have to acknowledge that we are not learning any more and that a company can be stifling to our growth. Or that our interests in life have changed and the role that was once perfect for us is no longer serving us. Whether it is a conscious choice to change things in your career or whether it happened to you through a layoff, I would strongly encourage you to use change as an opportunity to learn and grow from the experience.
Assess your reality.
Start with net worth.
If you find yourself without a job or considering the decision to leave a job, it is important to figure out how much time you will have with your current resources. One of the first steps I took in both these situations was to gather the financial facts.
When I was laid off, I had limited fixed expenses besides rent and tuition payments. I had built up some savings during my consulting job and my severance package bought me three months comfortably. When I decided to step off the career ladder and leave a rewarding job later in my career, I started by doing an honest assessment of our financial condition with my partner. We evaluated our existing assets (savings, equity, retirement funds, home) to figure out how we could leverage them to create new cash inflows. We were diligent in reducing our liabilities (rent/mortgage, tuition payments, childcare costs, healthcare expenses) to lower our cash outflow and buy myself more runway.
I also took the time to understand the macroeconomic climate and assess the job market I was in. In 2000, the tech sector was booming so I knew three months was enough time to find a new job. In 2020, the pandemic brought the world to a standstill and I knew finding a job or starting my own business would require much more time. Today folks face difficult economic conditions with high inflation, low job openings, increasing tech layoffs. There are no safe havens for employment. People are legitimately concerned about their responsibilities - mortgage payments, child expenses, healthcare. Taking the time to assess where you are financially can help prevent doom narratives from taking over your mind.
Then self worth.
Getting laid off can have a huge impact on your self confidence. You start to question why you were the one affected and it is easy to start to doubt your capabilities. When your self confidence is shaken, it can be hard to move forward.
“...To have that sense of one's intrinsic worth which, for better or for worse, constitutes self-respect, is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference.”
- Joan Didion, 1961 essay “Self-respect: Its Source, Its Power”
I knew I needed to build myself back up from being made redundant early in my career. Before I could go out and talk to people and companies about a new job, I had to believe in myself first. I started by taking the time to look back on my work and make a list of the projects that I was proud of. When I left my job at Google, I took my past performance reviews with me. They served to remind me of all that I had achieved and the risks I have taken during my career there.
I found that setting aside time to self reflect, writing down my accomplishments and creating a list of people that were my supporters and cheerleaders put me on much more solid ground to face my uncertainty.
Take action to stabilize your internal climate
Mindset can make a huge difference in future outcomes. But in order to shift your mindset into a positive state you first have to get comfortable with the uncertain situation that you find yourself in.
I am an optimist at heart but have struggled through many episodes of depression. One of the things I have learnt from my depression is that my mind has a tendency to lead me astray. If I am not aware of my thoughts it can lead me to some dark places. So I have to consciously and constantly remind myself to look at the events in my life from different perspectives instead of focusing on the negative.
Can I use this as an opportunity to reset? To reinvent myself? To rethink how I want to approach my journey through life? This could be the moment that sets me on a new trajectory that I haven’t considered. These questions have helped me take risks in my career moving from the role of a consultant to a product manager, to a partnerships person, then to an HR leader, and currently to calling myself an entrepreneur and writer.
What if we applied a new lens to something that has happened to us? Just like there are two sides to a coin, there is always another way to look at your situation. Instead of viewing a layoff as something that happened "to" me, what if I viewed it as something that happened "for" me?
This mindset shift doesn't happen overnight. It's a journey to process the emotions when you have been let go suddenly or to accept the emotions of being unhappy in your current job. Start with small steps.
Find some grounding practices that take you out of your head. For me that is journaling and walking in nature. Figure out what works for you and make time to do them regularly.
Create habits that bring routine into your life. Habits are a critical tool to building up your self esteem. They bring focus and discipline into your life. The sense of accomplishment that you feel when you complete a daily or weekly habit builds momentum that you carry into the week.
Bring moments of positivity into your life. Starting my day with affirmations immediately puts me into a better state. Taking the time to find moments of joy - the beauty of a cloudscape in the sky or a giggle with my kid - can do a complete reset on my mood. Ending my day with gratitude can remind me of the bright spots in a sometimes dark day.
* If you are struggling to get into a hopeful space, I highly recommend the Big Joy Project. It’s a micro course (7 minutes a day for 7 days) I took earlier this year when I was emerging from a depression episode. I wish that someone had told me to try something like this when I felt unhappy in my job.
So if you are in one of these boats - laid off and wondering how to get started in this challenging job market or dissatisfied with your current role but uncertain if this is the right time to jump ship - try one of these approaches. Take the time to get comfortable with where you are and build up your internal strength before you jump into job search mode. In a future post we will discuss strategies to approach the job market.
I would love to hear how you are navigating through these uncertain times. Please reach out and share - either in the comments or through a message.