Building Resilience in the Face of Uncertainty

Go back with me to seven months ago. It’s one hour before my job interview starts, and I’m sitting in a coffee shop, sipping green tea. Hoping it will magically soothe my nerves. I could explain to you in depth the feelings I’m experiencing as I wait for my interview. I feel a sense of anxiety in the form of tension in my body, I’m somewhere along a sliding scale of nausea, and I have a sense of urgency to be sitting in the room mid-interview, or at the very least, distracted in some way until I get in there. Most of all, I feel deeply compelled to go through my notes I’ve prepared, and my intentions for being there. Controlling the only part of the otherwise nerve wracking interview process I can, my own responses. And through all of this, I know I’ve never really been in a situation in my life where being turned down for a job would mean I couldn’t afford food or shelter. So why all the anxiety? I’m sure it’s different for everyone, but for me an interview represents an unknown future, outside of my control or awareness. 


Let’s break down the unknown for a minute. What does it represent and why does it matter? No one has a crystal ball, which means that even 10 minutes from now we can’t predict exactly where we’ll be or what we’ll be doing. But we probably have a pretty good guess, and on most days, the outcome of the next 10 minutes won’t affect our lives in a significant way. But there are times in our career, relationships and other parts of life where we’re forced to sit with an unknown outcome and wait. And I’m sure lots of you feel me on this one, the waiting is almost always more painful than the worse-case scenario we could possibly imagine. The nagging anticipation of sitting in the unknown makes us distracted, antsy, confused and compels us to sit motionless under the only cloud in the otherwise perfect sky. And of course it’s a storm cloud. 


Fear of the unknown is a whole-body, visceral emotion. It affects so many people, and creates doubt amongst the strongest of us. And yet, it’s often irrational. Because even if we rely on random chance to dictate the outcome of our circumstances, there is no way we’ll end up living out our worst case scenario 100% of the time. So how do we unknowingly allow ourselves to slip into this fear-based mode? And what can we do about it?


Fear of the unknown is an especially important topic in relation to career because career can be very closely tied to who we are, our self-identity. This can make an unknown feel like a threat to who we are, at our very core. This perspective feels like a precariously balanced tower, with no foundation. I sure wouldn’t want to be standing at the top. 


What I’m suggesting is this: If we can build our self-awareness and become confident in our identity within our career, we can then roll with the waves of uncertainty rather than getting knocked over by them. And this is much easier said than done, I totally get that. But I believe it’s crucially important so that we’re not relying on external “successes” to find happiness in our careers, but that we find joy every step of the way in knowing that who we are and what we want in our career is driving every intentional decision we make. Here’s an example of what this looks like in practice. Meet Sam, he’s been working in marketing for the past 7 years, since he finished school. Sam has been thinking about what he values most in his career, and has had experiences that have helped him pinpoint areas he really can’t stand (which is just as important). He’s starting to get a sense of what’s driving him in the field of marketing, and how he feels like he’s making a difference in the world. Sam thought that he was in line for a promotion, but was actually let go due to some recent changes in his company. Although this has come as a shock to Sam, who was expecting to work for this company for the foreseeable future, he knows he’s going to be ok. He has a weekend course in creative online marketing planned in a couple weeks time which he’s excited about, some informational interviews booked with people he admires in his field, and he’s confident in his knowledge of the market through constant research. He knows that he’ll be able to move forwards in a way that fits exactly what he wants for his career. He might even have been doing some freelance work on the side that he can expand on now that he has more time. Sam’s flexibility and deep understanding of his career identity has turned this potentially life altering event into just another step in his journey. 


Here are four ways you can build on your career identity and develop resilience so that you can deal with any unknowns that come up in your career:


  1. See the upside of unpredictability. Recognize that part of the challenge and novelty of career (and life) is that we can’t predict the future, and we probably don’t want to. Humans thrive on novelty, and we wouldn’t find the same level of engagement in life and our careers if we could predict the outcome. But the ability to predict the future does sound like a really great premise for the next sci-fi hit movie ;)
  2. Consider the worst-case scenario. This probably seems a little counter-intuitive. I don’t want you to do this just to ruminate about everything that could go wrong. But I do want you to run through the worst-case scenario in order to determine the best way you could handle the situation. How could you use your resilience to overcome it? What skills do you have that would come in handy? Could you possibly help out others in the process? Are there actually some unexpected benefits to this scenario that you hadn’t thought of? How could you grow from it as a person? Often times we can play this out in our mind and not let fear have the upper hand by understanding that the worst-case scenario might not be quite as we expect. 
  3. Work through the emotional root cause of your fear. Do some reflecting on the emotions that might be at the core of your difficulty in handling uncertainty. Does fear of the unknown leave you feeling incompetent, unaccomplished, unworthy, powerless, incapable of handling the outcome? The root emotions will differ person to person. If you can determine which emotion(s) resonate with you, you can begin working through this block. Journal about which events in your life may have contributed to this limiting belief you have about fear of the unknown. Chat to your friends about it, you’d be surprised at how many people this affects, and it’d be helpful for your family and friends to get to know you that much better. 
  4. Appreciate where you are now and how far you’ve come. It can be easy to feel overwhelmed if all you’re focusing on is the future and how much pressure you place on yourself to ‘achieve’ certain things in your career. Take some time to look back at how far you’ve come in the last few years. See the progress you’ve made. Even if you’re just starting your career or are transitioning from another field and have not yet taken a single step, look at the intention you’re creating by reading this article, by considering what you want in your career in order to create joy. That, my friend, is progress that many people don’t reach in their lifetime. An important part of appreciating where you are now is giving your brain a chance to pause during the day in order to do so. Use an app like headspace or insight timer, and take 5 minutes to meditate each day, allowing your mind and body the chance to catch up to everything you’ve done today. Because it’s hard to make intentional decisions about your career without clarity of mind and genuine presence.


Fascinating study on this topic:

Career Identity and Life Satisfaction: The Mediating
Role of Tolerance for Uncertainty and Positive/Negative Affect