Willing to be Aware and to Change Things

Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D.


People wanting and needing to work who see only dim possibilities to earn money doing the work they had been doing. Some people will have the delightful surprise of landing just that opportunity but most probably won’t.  For the latter group I’d like to say things are probably not as bad as you think…especially if you are willing to change.

Alas, as we all know only too well, these are hard and frightening times. Economic uncertainty is amplified by a very visible doomsday scenario repeated in endless loops in every media.  It’s scary and it’s depressing.  And yet…just as good times fuel inevitable bubbles, bad times create the impetus to make things better.  That’s true for individuals and for the organizations in which they work.

Admittedly, this blog sails perilously close to Pollyanna’s famed line, I’m glad I broke my leg for I might have broken two. But red ink, hard times, and a life that’s clearly not working can be one’s best ally if it creates enough motivation so we change a familiar and comfortable but deeply flawed status quo in ways that revitalize our work and our lives.

In some circles it is widely accepted that change is easy, requiring only encouragement and praise. That’s sometimes true, say in the case of getting rid of a bad habit which mostly takes being aware of it.  But basic change is neither simple nor easy in part because most people love the benefits of denial, that magical not-seeing which evens out life’s harsh and rugged terrain.  Few of us want to be on alert and at battle stations all the time so we turn down the volume of awareness of what’s not working.  Millions and millions of people manage to remain functional that way.  But they never get to learn how much better things could be.

A crisis of disappointment and frustration heightens our awareness of the gaps between what was hoped for and what was realized. That gap may motivate us to move out of the comfort of habit and become willing to be aware and to change things.

Even when the gap is large and well known, most of the time nothing much happens. Griping and venting allows lots of us to avoid taking any action.  Why does that happen?  Basic change is not like giving up a simple habit. It involves moving into the unknown with consequences that are usually unpredictable. People don’t make major changes in what they do or how they live until and unless the fear of the consequences of not changing is greater than the fear of changing.  Major change, therefore, takes courage and those first steps benefit from the kick in the small of the back that crises create.

In Perspective:

It’s very hard to look for a job when you really need one but nobody’s looking for you. Then, inevitably, every rejection feels personal; they didn’t like me. If we plotted your emotions chances are very good that the graph would look like a series of jagged peaks and valleys with very few plateaus between them.  Economic need and your own confidence is what enables you to start the process of searching but it is your resilience that allows you to bounce back and keep going in the face of disappointments.  Though the process of finding work can assault one’s self-esteem, the outcome can be great. And it only takes one Yes.

Therefore, remember all the other times in your life when things were very bleak but you pulled yourself together and made omelets out of broken eggs.

Never forget the media focus on what’s terrible and rarely report good news. Naturally this strengthens a half-empty, pessimistic view.  Even now when the headlines scream that unemployment is rising, it’s critical to remember that also means a good percentage of the population are employed.  The bottle is at least somewhat full.  Make it Happen!

Do your research: Even in the midst of this current crisis of confidence and deep recession, there are places and industries and companies that are hiring. Then, the question becomes, are you willing to move or retrain and start again?

 In addition to looking for organizations that are hiring, as you search, remember there are many companies that are as good to work for as the large organizations featured in Fortune magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For.”

The Best Companies value employees as significant assets and their culture reinforces mutual commitment and engagement between employees and the organization. Best Companies have a history of trying to avoid lay-offs even during slumps and believe in sharing the pain before resorting to draconian cuts in their labor force.  In line with these values, they have generous training and education programs.  It’s to your advantage to find them.

Broaden your horizons as to the kind of work you do or the customers you could serve. In other words, in addition to looking for opportunities doing the work you have already done, imagine other occupations where, with some training and experience, your skills could be valuable. As I tried to imagine myself in this situation I remembered three legal cases I worked on when my specialty was career plateauing or the end of promotions.   That expertise was relevant in those three age discrimination cases and to my surprise; I served as a consultant to the defense in those instances.

I had never been in court and knew nothing about how the practice of law was conducted. On the other hand, I felt very strongly that the defense needed to win because if the cases were lost, age discrimination would gain major precedents when, in fact, there had been no age discrimination.  The prosecution involved people who were over 40 and had not been promoted simply because the competition gets geometrically more difficult as the number of positions decline as you rise up the organizational pyramid and they were no longer competitive.

Providing the defense with cogent arguments and relevant facts made me feel like a detective when justice needed to be served!  It was an exciting time, success was really important, and I played a significant role in defeating the prosecution.  Gee…that was really interesting.

Imagine who might need what you offer whom you’ve never thought of as a customer.

A close friend is an independent contractor with special skills in Information Technology has applied for office work. He’s always depended on word of mouth to find clients but lately the pipeline has been empty.  The reason is simple but as the changes occurred very slowly, they weren’t noticeable.  In the 15-20 years he’s been doing this, many of the IT skills he brings to a client have become commonplace among administrative assistants who charge much less than he does.

He and I recently got to brain storming about what he might do: Who needs your skills and either doesn’t know it or doesn’t know how to find you? Who are potential customers?  We started to create a list:  start-ups who face mountains of tasks from the git-go, long-established small and medium local businesses who use antiquated processes; organizations that don’t have training departments but need employees trained in up-to-date IT processes…the list is limited only by your imagination.

How can he learn who might be appropriate candidates for his offerings? Let’s start with:

o  The local Chamber of Commerce

o  Lawyers whose practice includes incorporating start-ups

o  Local professional societies and their newsletters

o  Schools, especially business schools and community colleges

o  Online networks, alumni associations, friends, family, colleagues…Since there are only six degrees of separation between you and someone you want to contact, no one is out of range.

Get help. Many people find it very hard to acknowledge to themselves much less to other people, that they can’t manage their problems on their own.   If you find yourself stymied and don’t know what to do, or you’re paralyzed by fear of rejection and defeat, or confused by the responses you are receiving in your search, reach out.

At some point or another, the majority of people have had the experience of having reached the end of their rope without any idea of what to do next or why that’s been happening. That’s when you need help and there’s lots of it around if only you look for it.  Some help is informal and typically involves small groups of people in the same boat who share experiences and support each other.  A lot of help is provided by professionals and includes career counselors, coaches, mentors, psychologists and psychiatrists.  All of these sources of help will get you a more balanced perspective, new ideas, less extreme emotional responses, and active support.  There’s everything to gain – and nothing to lose.

 While there are still many organizations in which people are employed for all or most of their working life, a very essential change has been the disappearance of absolute job security.  This means that essentially everyone is a business with one employee.  Therefore, everyone needs to remember that no one cares as much as you do about what happens to you.  Creating your future is your job.  Best of luck!


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