January 30, 2023

Navigating Career Inflection Points

Shailja Sharma

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One of my favorite poems is ‘The road not taken,’ by Robert Frost. The opening lines, ‘Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry I could not travel both, and be one traveler, long I stood, and looked down one as far as I could, to where it bent in the undergrowth; then took the other, as just as fair, and having perhaps the better claim.’ This beautiful poem illustrates the proverbial ‘fork in the road.’ We have all faced this dilemma. Points of inflection — where we are forced to make a conscious choice and endure some form of disruption.

These ‘what now’ moments are the defining moments of our life. You may have been passed over for a promotion you had been gunning for. Should you stay with the company or plan your exit? You have just had a baby. Do you return to your job following maternity leave or do you become a stay-at-home mum during the early formative years of your child’s life? You have been offered a new job in a different country. Do you go or do you stay where you are comfortable?

These unsettling moments can arise from difficulties and new opportunities. Points of transition can destabilize you, and this can be scary. The human mind is wired to favor the familiar, to select stability. However, discomfort is a prerequisite for growth. Learn to be grateful for points of inflection.

During my tenure as a Leadership and Career Coach, I have witnessed firsthand how these conundrums can perplex and paralyze even the most seasoned professionals. At one end of the spectrum, you can remain mired in doubt and indecision and at the other end, you may exhibit knee-jerk reactions that you regret later. In this article, I aim to help you avoid these extremes, so that you identify these inflection points, learn from them, and ultimately recognize and act on the opportunities they present.

Pause

We have all been urged to pause before we react to a stimulus. The pause has been lauded by mindfulness experts and psychologists as a sacred art. It is a powerful tool to improve your ability to respond effectively. Pausing allows you to take a step back and allows time to analyze your emotions and think before you react. So, when those moments of transition are thrust upon you, resist the urge to react quickly. Step back and give yourself time to process. Do not give in to knee-jerk pivots or search for quick fixes.

Recognize your Emotions

Emotion- driven responses can derail you. Before you can start evaluating responses and choices, take time to ground yourself. Learn how to recognize and name the emotions you are feeling. Allow yourself the space to acknowledge you own inner turmoil. There are many techniques that can help you to regulate your emotions but the first step is to acknowledge that they are there.

The power of the breath is another popular concept from mindfulness that can be borrowed and adapted for this scenario. Emotions affect your physiology and in order to calm them, you need to influence your physiology. The human body’s ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response can hijack your body. Even if you are not under threat, this response which saved many of our ancestors from very real threats, can surface and hold you hostage. Use mindfulness and breathing techniques to help you ground yourself.

Conduct an Appraisal

We all react differently when our cozy little worlds are disrupted. Once your emotions have been reined in, analyze your history and recall how you have dealt with change previously and learn from your mistakes. Impulsiveness may cause you to repent at leisure. Avoid a lifetime of regret by giving yourself time to introspect and analyze. Give yourself time to appraise the situation. List out your options and write out the pros and cons of each option. Analyze the possible outcomes.

The Gift of Choice

There are seeds of opportunity hidden in these inflection points. Opportunities for growth, learning, embracing discomfort and re-examining your life path. Let’s re-examine some of the scenarios presented in this article.

Should you stay in your present company or move? Are their opportunities you have overlooked in your present job? Progress does not have to follow a linear path. If you got passed over for the promotion, is there something else you can do to build yourself. Lateral growth can sometimes offer new opportunities to cement your expertise by offering your services to others within the company in novel ways. Are there new projects you can work on, where your skill-set will position you as an expert in that cross-functional team?

Should you be a stay-at-home mum or go back to work? What are your deeply held values and beliefs about child rearing? What are the pros and cons of deferring your return to work? What does your spouse think? Are you financially able to support this decision? Can you save on expensive childcare services? Do the math. Do you have the personality and temperament to care for your child without the respite of work? What is best for the child? All these important questions need to be thought through carefully.

If you decide to really consider moving countries, test the waters. Visit the country and find out as much information as you can about all aspects of what your new life will be like. Track the career trajectories of the employees of the new company. Try to reach out and speak to them. Try to make as informed a choice as possible.

Finally, use your self-knowledge, values, and your goals as a compass to navigate uncharted territory and answer all the questions that arise. Stay true to yourself. Make choices that are aligned with what is truly important to you. Be bold and do not be afraid to chart a new course for yourself. Sometimes, you may have to devise your own innovative solution to a dilemma. Embrace an explorer’s mindset, forget following the crowd, and blaze your own trail.

‘Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.’ Robert Frost

Article by Shailja Sharma, SBS Faculty Member and Leadership and Career Coach

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