What to Do When You're Not Sure What's Next for You and Your Career

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Let’s start with a series of hypotheticals. Let’s say you’ve done well, maybe you sold your company or business. Maybe you made it to the top of your field, and it’s time to pivot. Or maybe you dialed back your career to focus on family for a few years and you want to re-emerge. Maybe you’ve realized a new way to operate with your set of skills in this largely gig economy. Maybe you want to piece together a different employment scenario to take better advantage of the new WFH norm.

Any one of these scenarios sits under the very same umbrella. You don’t need a fresh start, but you’d like very much to pivot. And, as appealing and purposeful as that pivot might seem, you are nagged by the harrowing 3 a.m. question of, “What’s next?”

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Let’s start with the good news: Asking this question is very often a symptom of success. The bad news? Well, it might wake you up with a start at 3 a.m.

Shifting gears is a common phenomenon in a gig economy, but that commonality doesn’t make it any less stressful. So much of our careers, it seems, happen without a roadmap or safety net these days. Reaching your goals often presents a double-edged sword: It’s hard to effect a career transition when there’s no resume or list of accomplishments to tout in the new field.

What’s more, sometimes you cannot even be sure what that next field will be, but rather have a bundled or vaguely constellated collection of wants and needs that have as much to do with lifestyle choices as career goals.

No matter the exact nature of the flexion point or its attendant dilemmas, this lack of certainty as to the next step in your career can be a crucible. If approached correctly, it can be a great time to think about what you’ve done, what you want and how you can present yourself going forward. It’s a daunting moment to be sure, but it can be an incredibly productive moment, given the right mindset and a few tools. As I have helped a number of clients in this exact position through my PR practice, I wanted to take this opportunity to share a few tips on how to navigate it:

1. Take a good, long look in the mirror.

First things first: Take stock of yourself. Sit down with your resume. Before you think about rewriting it, pretend you’re famous — or about to be. Think about how you would interview yourself if you were to be a subject for a profile. What would interest someone and what would you want to highlight? Are these the same things? Is there tension, or a difference? If so, what and why? What can you make of capitalizing on that difference if there is one? This can help you see what a potential transition looks like.

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2. Take a good, long look around your environment.

Once you’ve had a chance to think about what you are putting out into the world, think about what you are taking from it. Look at what you consume: What do you watch or listen to? Whom do you follow online? Does this track with your ambitions at all? What sort of conversations do you want to be a part of?

3. Check the algorithm.

Now it’s time to turn the tables and see what you look like to others. Google yourself and take in your social media as though it were a stranger’s — maybe even have a friend or family member read it aloud to you. Again, does it track with your notion of where you are coming from? What does it look like compared to where you might want to go? You might not know exactly where that is yet, but you will have a sense of what can use some polishing, editing or research.

4. Develop action items.

Finally, come up with a list of what to do next. Notice, I have not yet said to make any decisions about your next career move. Rather, the trick is to engage first. Get yourself out there, and then figure out where and how to act. Do your research. Take the temperature of the rooms you aim to enter. Sign up for newsletters to stay abreast of trending topics in the space you’re targeting. Join virtual or in-person networking events to meet and get yourself seen and known by potential collaborators. Most importantly, remember that you aren’t a neophyte; you have a whole career behind you.

So, with your new goals in mind, dust off your old address book and get in touch with old colleagues whose brains you’d like to pick about your pivot. Chances are they’ve had experiences of their own you could benefit from hearing. Looking ahead means getting the lay of the land, so remember to keep stock of what you’ve learned for future content. In my PR practice, we always encourage clients to get tweeting and to engage accounts whose attention they want at once. We often interview them in-house to brainstorm and make talking points. Perhaps the actual interview should wait until there is news to share but an interview exercise is never a bad idea.

There’s no reason to wait to have conversations, to assert your presence and to start networking however you see fit in your industry. The important thing is to get out there and not to wait to be some Platonic ideal of yourself that no one will ever be. What’s more, that ideal will shift with every new need or idea you have. So don’t wait — take stock of what you’ve got to offer, organize yourself and get out there.

Transitions are the defining moments of our lives. While we are living through a chaotic year with perhaps more transitions than we’d like, it’s important to see them as opportunities to wrest control of the narrative and assert ourselves in bold, smart, new ways.

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