How Uncertainty Can Help Your Career

“So, what do you want to do with your life?”

If you didn’t just visibly cringe or feel your stomach churn while reading that question, this article isn’t for you, at least not today. If you did (sorry to trigger indigestion), you know how uncomfortable it can feel to be uncertain about your 5, 10, or 50-year career plan. Grab some antacids, read on, and embark on this perspective-altering journey.

First, consider the circumstances. Why does uncertainty tend to feel so uncomfortable? Society places a lot of pressure on you to know what you want to do with your life professionally and be able to spew out your long-term plan on demand. Even if you believe society’s pressures are unrealistic, you may wish you had clear, predictable career plans to discuss and follow. Your uncertainty not only has social implications but a biological function, too; your brain interprets your uncertainty as a threat to your wellbeing, according to Psychology Today. That’s part of why it’s hard to avoid feeling a little freaked out when you don’t have a career plan forged into concrete.

But remember these two things: for one, people’s attitudes about the importance of career plans are socially constructed. You don’t have to subscribe to the cultural ideal that everything hinges on you having a career plan that’s constantly well structured. Secondly, your mind has a tendency to stimulate the freak-out response to life events that aren’t genuinely life-threatening. Therefore, both are flawed, so neither your internal (brain) nor your external (social) pressures are reliable measures of your future career success.

In essence, nothing we know for certain is truly certain, anyway. The world isn’t nearly as black and white as it appears. You can change the story. You can choose to view uncertainty as an asset, as an exciting moment, as an opportunity, as something that will benefit your career long-term.

As you begin your career uncertainty revolution, remember these ways your state of unknowing can actually benefit your career.

1. It's an Inevitable and Valuable Part of Your Career Plan

Uncertainty can help your career because it is actually a part of your larger process of planning your career; it is, at one point or another, inevitable. You can’t create a legit plan until you ride the waves of uncertainty, so don’t think of it as the absence or the inhibitor of a plan. Embracing it as a step along the way and working through it will illuminate your path to career satisfaction. Here’s the truth: you WILL identify a career that you love, and not knowing what that is just yet is not a permanent state of being, it is a part of your process. And remember that the people who think they have their career plan all figured out can be blindsided with uncertainty again at any time. Even the most successful people have experienced some degree of career uncertainty. It’s something you must work through, but if and when you do, certainty and satisfaction can be the next stops along your path.

2. It Means You Have Limitless Options

Man choosing between doors

Having flexibility and freedom of choice can be a beautiful thing, and as someone who hasn’t decided on a career just yet, that flexibility and freedom is all yours. Your brain might not tell you that initially, since it craves certainty to feel secure, but don’t let it cloud your judgment or block your view of your abundant options. You’ll be more satisfied in the long-term if you explore your options rather than force yourself into a career that doesn’t really fit you. Don’t sell your soul for a paycheck just to feel like you have career certainty – embrace the feeling of limitless options and let it to guide you along the path to a lifetime of career satisfaction. 

If you’re feeling uncertain because you just don’t know what you want to do yet, maybe you’re a person with a wide variety of interests and narrowing it down is challenging for you. If so, that’s a great problem to have; use your uncertainty to your advantage and have little flings with a few career fields! Pinpoint two or three of your greatest interests and test the waters: snatch up a volunteer role, do an internship, try to get some contract work, offer your services for free in exchange for the learning experience – whichever way best affords you access to the career fields in which your interests lie. If you need help figuring out what it is you might enjoy doing, talk to friends and family to see what they think you’re great at and meet with a career counselor for guidance.

If you’re facing a period of career uncertainty due to a loss of employment (whether you chose to disembark or it was out of your control), you may be experiencing a more complex range of emotions that include fear, frustration, anger, confusion, and grief. Take a little time to allow yourself to experience those emotions; you can’t move past them without acknowledging and working through them. But in order to move your career forward, it’s crucial that you at some point begin to shift the way you think about your uncertainty. That’s not to say it will be easy. If you loved your previous job, then you know what you have to do next – beef up your résumé and start submitting those applications – but if your previous job wasn’t exactly what you had in mind for the long-term anyway, you can start to explore your options again. Reflect on how your unexpected career change makes you feel: are you really sad that you lost your previous job or are you just more fearful of the consequences of losing it, such as the impact on your finances? Embrace the beauty of having time to explore your now limitless career options, and find solace in the fact that you can take back control of your career future starting now.

3. It Can Make You Stronger and More Marketable

If exploring your uncertainty requires you to evaluate and actively explore various career options before you decide on “the one,” you can bet that you’re going to significantly grow in numerous ways through the process. Every job or class you take that exposes you to a possible career option will develop your knowledge and skill set. These experiences will also happen to strengthen your résumé, which can make it easier for you to land jobs down the line. Your various exploration activities (paid jobs, education, or otherwise) will expand your network of people who can give you future job references and valuable career advice. All the while, you’ll also be building your mental and emotional strength as you embrace your period of uncertainty and use it to your advantage. Being able to adapt to change is a valuable skill that will help you maintain your motivation and optimism when faced with life’s future uncertainties. Your breadth of experiences and emotional strength will be very attractive to future hiring managers – and to think, it all came from your initial career uncertainty!

Here are some final nuggets of wisdom as you begin to approach your uncertainty with greater confidence and appreciation.

Take the words “never” and “always” right out of your vocabulary. They simply won’t serve you. Telling yourself you’re never going to find a job, never going to be able to pay your bills, or always going to be stuck in a miserable job will only prevent you from seeing your options (by now, you should know that you do in fact have them). Furthermore, it inhibits you from taking action, which is ever so crucial right now.

Don’t let your brain’s stress response take total control of you, because you have the power to change your mindset.

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The next time you’re asked about your career plans, speak confidently about your uncertainty. Explain that you’re not yet sure where or what you’ll be, but that you’re exploring and narrowing down your options so you can choose your best career fit, that you’re taking your time so you don’t choose a trajectory that doesn’t suit you. Change the way career uncertainty is viewed by showing others how exciting and valuable it can be.

See Also: 10 Signs You Have Found Your Dream Job

And, in the future, when you meet new people, try not to probe about what they do for a living or what their career plan is. Work is a small talk go-to, but you never know what someone else is presently going through, so don’t put them on the spot. If you hate being asked about your career plans, chances are many other people you talk with do, too. Instead, ask them about their interests and hobbies. Let them broach the subject of their career if that’s what they’re eager to discuss. Play your part in creating a societal shift one conversation at a time.

And when you do reach a state of certainty in your career plan or position, remember to look back on your period of uncertainty with gratitude. Without it, you wouldn’t be there.

How has uncertainty played a crucial role in your own career journey? What advice do you have for making the best of career uncertainty? Share your story and advice in the comments section below!




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