The 3 phases of a major life change

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Many of us believe that unexpected events or shocks create fertile conditions for major life and career changes by prompting us to reflect on our desires and priorities. This goes for the coronavirus pandemic. A little over a year ago, when I asked people in an online survey to tell me how the pandemic had affected their career change plans, 49% chose this response: “That’s me. gave me time to rest and / or think.

It’s a good start. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from decades of studying about a successful career change, it’s that thinking on its own is far from sufficient. We rarely think of a new way to act. On the contrary, we act in our own way in new ways of thinking – and of being.

Yes, events that disrupt our usual routines have the potential to catalyze real change. They give us the opportunity to experiment with new activities and to create and renew links. Even in the seemingly ‘unproductive’ time that we spend away from our daily working lives, we conduct important home affairs – asking the big existential questions, remembering what makes us happy, building the strength to make tough choices, consolidating our self-esteem, and more.

Enough has happened in the past year that many of us are keenly aware of what we no longer want. But the problem is this: more attractive and feasible alternatives have yet to materialize. So we are stuck in a limbo between the old and the new. And now, as most of the Covid-related restrictions finally fall and a return to the office is imminent, we face a real danger: finding ourselves sucked into our old jobs and ways of working.

How can those of us who want to make a career transition avoid this? How can we progress towards our goals based on what we have learned over the past year?

Research on the transformative potential of a catalytic event like the coronavirus pandemic suggests that we are more likely to make lasting change when we actively engage in a three-part transition cycle – a cycle we focus on separation, liminality, and reinstatement. Let’s consider each of these parts of the cycle in detail.

The advantages of separation

“I have passed the lockdown in this idyllic and isolated environment,” said John, a businessman whose last executive role ended at the start of the pandemic, allowing him to relocate to the country. “I got to see spring come and go,” he said. “I got to see a lot of nature. It was just an incredibly peaceful backdrop. I got married last year, so my wife and I spent a lot of time together. My son, from whom I had been separated, came to live with us. So I got to know him again, which was a great experience. It was a very blessed time.

John’s experience was not unique. Research on how moving can facilitate behavior change suggests that people who have found a new and different place to live during the pandemic may now have a better chance of making lasting life changes. Why? Because of what is called the “discontinuity of habits”. We are all more malleable when separated from the people and places that trigger old habits and old selves.

Change always begins with separation. Even in some of the ultimate forms of identity change – brainwashing, de-indoctrination of terrorists, or re-education of drug addicts – standard operational practice is to separate subjects from all who have known them before and deprive them of an anchor in their old identities. This separation dynamic explains why young adults change when they go to college.

My recent research has shown how our work networks are prone to “narcissistic and lazy” bias. The idea is this: we are spontaneously attracted to people who are like us (we are narcissists), and we maintain contact with them, and we get to know and love people whose proximity makes it easy to get to know and to love. them (we are lazy).

The pandemic has at least disrupted physical proximity for most of us. But that might not be enough – especially as we rush through our desks, travel schedules, and social lives – to alleviate the powerful similarities that narcissistic and lazy biases create for us at work. This is why maintaining some degree of separation from the web of relationships that defined our former professional lives can be vital to our reinvention.

Tammy English, University of Washington, and Laura Carstensen, Stanford University, found that the size of networks of people decreased after age 60, not because people had fewer opportunities. to connect, but because, more and more, they saw time as limited, which made them more selective. It is highly likely that many of our experiences with the pandemic, like John’s, will further our reinvention by encouraging greater selectivity in how and with whom we spend our limited time.

Introductory learning

When the pandemic hit, Sophie, a former lawyer, was emerging from a two-decade career and found herself wanting to explore a range of new work possibilities, including documentary filmmaking, journalism, non-performing roles. executives on the board of directors and the sustainable development board. The lockdown created a liminal time and space, an ‘in and in’ zone, in which the normal rules that governed Sophie’s professional life were temporarily lifted, and she felt able to experiment with all kinds of work. and leisure without engaging in any of them. . She took advantage of this time to take several courses, work on start-up ideas, do independent consulting, join a non-profit board of directors and produce two of her first short films.

Taking advantage of the introductory interludes allows us to experiment – to do new and different things with new and different people. In turn, this provides us with rare opportunities to learn more about ourselves and cultivate new knowledge, skills, resources and relationships. But these interludes don’t last forever. At some point, we need to learn from our experiences and use them to take informed next steps in our career change plans. What is worth going further? What new interest has arisen that is worth a look? What are you going to let go of after finding out it’s not that appealing after all? What do you keep, but only as a hobby?

When Sophie took stock, she was surprised to realize that she had not grown in her role on the board as much as she had expected, as she had very quickly started to tie up. significant ties to the film industry. These were vital acknowledgments for her before embarking on the next steps in her transition plan.

Reintegration: a time for a new start

Most executives and professionals with whom I have shared pandemic experiences tell me that they don’t want to go back to busy travel schedules or long hours that sacrifice time with their families – but fear that nonetheless. they do.

They are right to be concerned, because external shocks rarely produce lasting change. The most typical pattern after receiving some sort of wake-up call is simply getting back into shape after things are back to “normal”. That’s what Wharton professor Alexandra Michel discovered in 2016, when she investigated the physical consequences of overwork for four cohorts of investment bankers over a 12-year period. For these people, avoiding unsustainable work habits required more than changing jobs or even professions. Many of them had physical breakdowns even after moving into organizations that were supposed to be less labor intensive. Why? Because they had actually moved into equally demanding positions, but not taking enough time between roles to recover and take a psychological distance from themselves.

Our ability to take advantage of the discontinuity in habits depends on what we do within the narrow window of opportunity that opens after routine changes. One study found, for example, that the window of opportunity for adopting more environmentally friendly behaviors lasts for up to three months after people move. Likewise, research on the “fresh start” effect shows that while people experience increased goal-oriented motivation after returning to work from a vacation, that motivation peaks on day one and declines rapidly thereafter.

The hybrid work environments that many organizations are currently experimenting with represent a new window of opportunity for many people wishing to change careers, in which the absence of old benchmarks and the need to make conscious choices provide the opportunity to implement new goals. and intentions. If you’re one of those people, it’s now up to you to decide if you’ll use this time to make a real career change – or if, instead, you’ll revert to your old job and habits as if nothing was wrong.


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