The rumors that have been swirling for months have materialized and the pink slip has arrived. Suddenly, the reality of facing a major career transition is staring you in the face.
First, don't feel bad about feeling bad. It's easy and normal to be angry and bitter at a time like this.
But if after that first flush of emotion you can go into this time of transition with a sense of exploration, a willingness to learn and an open mind for honest self-appraisal, this can be a dynamic and exciting new challenge.
That was the message of Synthia Smith at the Careers Transition workshop at the recent AAPG annual meeting in San Antonio.
Smith is a partner and vice president of Mastery of Learning, an educational and consulting company that specializes in the application of chaos and complexity concepts to accelerated learning, project management, creativity and change management.
She also was the facilitator for the first day of the two-day, AAPG-sponsored career transitions workshop.
"Geoscientists are trained in the process of discovery," she told an audience of about 30 geoscientists of all ages who were in the midst of a career upheaval.
"It starts with a hunch and some fuzzy data," she continued. "They add pattern recognition, some intuition and a great deal of hard work to generate drilling prospects.
"Those same skills can be applied to their lives when they are going through any type of transition."
I'm Really … ANGRY!
Smith is in a unique position to help geologists through these kinds of transitions because she's been there -- albeit voluntarily. She is a geologist and worked for Exxon for over 18 years before resigning to start her consulting business.
"There are large-scale, organizational and personal drivers that are influencing the world around us today," she said, and the personal reaction to all of this chaos makes people feel:
- Anger and frustration.
- As though there is more to learn and do and less time and support to do it with.
- Less time for themselves and their families.
- A sense that you can't keep up.
- Loss of sleep and relaxation.
"It is difficult for people to adapt to change because our body-mind system processes information at enormously different speeds," Smith said, "so everybody has their own time table for adjusting mentally, emotionally and physically to a major change in their lives."
Still, Smith continued, "when people go through any kind of change, they have to go through that transition on all those different levels -- and they need to get comfortable with the idea of change. This is particularly difficult with a job loss, which is like leaving one family and getting adopted by another -- or having to assemble one on your own.
"Anytime you move to a new situation there's a whole process of accommodation, particularly when that change is forced on you," she said.
"People need to be aware that it's okay to feel disoriented during this period of change -- and often it can help if they understand some of the science of chaos and complexity and the strategies that are useful in helping move through these times in our lives."
Models of Understanding
Smith introduced three models of change to help participants understand the process. They included:
"(This) model addresses the idea that self organizing structures exist in open systems that are far from equilibrium and arise out of the energy, information and/or mass passing through the system," she said.
"This model helps people understand that chaos and change are natural processes; these processes have a beginning, middle and end; and every natural system goes through a period of perturbation before the new pattern emerges."
The Spielberger model.
"(This) model describes the interplay between curiosity and anxiety and your response to an increase in stimulus intensity," she said.
Basically, new challenges are exhilarating and produce a positive effect at low levels of stress, but if things happen too rapidly and stress is very high there's an anxiety reaction that is negative.
"Job loss certainly creates this high level of anxiety," she said, "but understanding this process gives you a way to harness the anxiety and allows you to see that sometimes it's good to back off and take a breather -- and at other times its best to push on through.
"We've found that once people have learned this model it allows them to take care of themselves physically, emotionally and mentally during times of stress without completely disengaging from their task. They are able to see that life is this dynamic interplay of different feelings, and it's the stress and recovery cycle that leads to growth."
The dynamic balance model.
This model holds that chaos is the natural state of things -- and when there is order in nature is it almost anomalous.
"Organizations, like a company, are fragile things that exist in the background of chaos," she said. "But it is this interplay between chaos and order -- an ever-moving dynamic edge -- where you get innovation, learning, growth, adaptation, improvisation, evolution and creativity.
"On a personal level, if there is too much structure in your life there aren't enough dynamic processes at work," she continued. "However, if your life is too chaotic, there won't be enough structure to get anything done. The key is to find that balance between the two.
"What parts of your life need to be reliable and structured? What parts need to be more chaotic and unpredictable?
"In the new world of work, where jobs come and go and that old stability is not longer present, you must design some stability into your life. You do that by building up your personal resiliency in ways that aren't dependent on a salary or a job."
The Write Stuff
Smith stressed the importance of finding and cultivating personal strategies for developing resiliency to change, and suggested such techniques as quiet mind skills and writing as important tools for moving through a period of change.
"Scientists sometimes have a difficult time with this kind of 'touchy feely' stuff, but it works and is critical to successfully getting through a life change," she said.
"Quiet mind skills include mindfulness, sensing and feeling, and awareness of the world around you. Everything from meditation to martial arts, relaxation tapes and juggling can help you quiet your mind and sharpen your focus."
Writing, she said, is probably the most effective tool for dealing with the emotional reactions chaos and change.
"There's no better way to come to terms with unexpressed feelings and thoughts -- to do the really difficult soul searching and sorting things out," she said.
Scientific studies, too, have shown that writing can have a huge impact. A 1991 Spera Study by James Pennebaker, for example, researched the effectiveness of writing on job searches.
Pennebaker studied a group of 100 senior engineers that the researchers said was one of the most hostile they had ever worked with and surmised that this hostility came through to job interviewers.
"Our body-mind system can process millions of bits of data per second, but we only consciously attend to 14 to 40 of those bits of information," Smith said. "This is beyond 'body language' -- people can sense your real attitude even if you are saying all the right things and making all the right moves."
The study split the group of engineers into three groups: One did nothing different, one was told to write about how they were getting along with a time management system, and the third experimental group was instructed to write about what happened and how they felt about it.
The group wrote for 30 minutes on five consecutive days. Within a couple of months of this training, 27 percent of the group that had written about their feelings had found jobs versus only 5 percent in the control group. All had been on the same number of job interviews.
"According to the study, these men reported feeling better immediately after writing each day. They were very open and honest in their writing and described the humiliation and outrage of losing their jobs as well as marital problems, fears for the future, and money," she said.
"This study points out how private, honest communication with yourself through writing can help you defuse difficult emotions and gain better understanding and self-disclosure, which is useful in all areas of your life."
But there's more than understanding change and chaos. People also must develop strategies to self-manage their careers by clarifying internal needs and balancing them with external opportunities.
"Internally, the first step to self-managing your career is knowing yourself and being true to yourself," she said. "What do you really want to do? And be ruthlessly honest about this. What product or service do you have to offer in this marketplace environment?
"Also, you must emphasize your strengths -- know what you are good at and do it better; develop mastery and excellence around your areas of strength," Smith said.
Key elements to controlling the outside world that impact your career include:
- Be proactive -- take charge of your own future.
- Prepare for opportunities by considering how future trends may affect your industry and profession and recognizing business trends.
- Ensure your marketability by having a fallback position in the event of a job disruption -- and by developing broad multiple networks that you can draw on.
- Practice continuous learning that leads toward mastery. Make sure each work assignment allows you to develop new skills -- not only will it be more interesting, but your professional value increases over time.
- Think like a business -- think multiple income streams versus dependence on a salary.
"The significant message … is the importance of managing your own career," Smith stressed. "Even people who are in a large company and very successful need to be proactive, because you need to continuously prepare yourself for the future.
"Instead of identifying with a specific company, think of yourself as a professional, then pick your industry and know the nature of that industry," she continued. "For example, the oil business is cyclical, so make that characteristic part of your future planning.
"Also, acquire new skills that will help you meet future opportunities that will be created by your industry's trends. In the oil industry that might mean learning Russian, for instance.
"Focus on achieving mastery in your profession and then in your chosen industry," she said. "There are people who really are masters at what they do -- and it’s great to seek them out and find out what you can learn from them. Then find yourself the assignments and work projects that will allow you to develop those competencies to become a master.
People in the midst of transition see only the turmoil, Smith said -- but, at some point they gain some perspective and move on through.
"After a period of time, when their lives have readjusted to a new structure, they are able to look back and see that, while it was a tough time, there was no other way to learn as much about themselves and the people around them," Smith said.
"A career transition can be a period of very rapid personal growth and a tremendous opportunity to see what you are made of -- and to allow yourself to be tested in ways that you cannot fathom unless you are in the situation."