Jobs and the Future of Work

Can slowing down your career help accelerate it?

A for hire sign, illustrating career choices

Is it time to take stock of where your career is going? Image: Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

Utkarsh Amitabh
Chief Marketing Officer, 5IRE Foundation - FZCO
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  • When it comes to careers, we often think about urgent matters and ignore important considerations like fit, capability, intent and long-term contribution to the problems we are most interested in solving.
  • If you feel that your career is slowing down, you are not getting promoted every few years or have been laid off, perhaps it is time to shift your focus.
  • You may not be able to make a big difference tomorrow, but if you think long-term, you will make your future self proud.

A week before graduating with my MBA, I had a bad accident. I had a couple of job offers in hand and was interviewing for another role. I was in the final round, optimistic about my chances, but life had other plans. I was mostly bedridden for the next few months. I couldn’t join the companies I had offers from. I found myself without options for a while.

It was a difficult phase riddled with anxiety about my future. I feared falling behind my peers and the steep interest rate on my education loan added to my stress. With nothing much to do but recover after surgery, I started thinking about the kind of life I wanted to build. It struck me that I was chasing popular jobs because they were popular. I hadn’t given enough thought to how they suited me. This pause in my otherwise fast-paced career helped me rethink my priorities.

Ten years after graduation, I can say with conviction that that pause I resented at the time turned out to be a blessing. Instead of rushing to take up the job that my peers were most interested in, I leaned into what I really wanted to do. I started scheduling calls with my mentors who made me realize that no one will remember what I didn’t do a few months after graduation. They will, however, remember the difference I make in the coming decades. This helped me think about my career long term, as opposed to a race that needed to be run chasing promotions and bonuses.

After my accident, I sharpened my focus on jobs that were at the intersection of technology, policy and social impact. I stopped applying for roles that didn’t seem right. Four months of guided search, connecting with peers and reaching out to professors and advisers led me to a team at Microsoft that was perfectly aligned with my interests.

Being in that team at Microsoft turned out to be transformational. I got to work on challenging projects, build skills and carve out a network that helps me to this day. None of this would have happened had I rushed into a job that seemed shiny from the outside but misaligned with what I really wanted to do.

When it comes to careers, we often think about urgent matters and ignore important considerations, such as fit, capability, intent and long-term contributions to the problems we are most interested in solving.

If you feel that your career is slowing down, you are not getting promoted every few years or have been laid off, perhaps it is time to shift your focus. Your career break or slowdown could be a blessing. Here are some ways you can navigate the turmoil.

Have you read?

Take the long-term view

We hustle through our careers thinking that we have a decade or two of work to do, but the truth is that people today could be working for eighty years on average. That’s a long time. More than running fast, we need to conserve our energy and play the long game.

All progress is a result of consistent compounding over the years. In his new book, Slow Productivity, Georgetown Professor Cal Newport discusses slow productivity, which is the opposite of the hustle culture social media tends to popularise. Newport’s work suggests that we should do fewer things, work at a natural pace and obsess over quality, not quantity.

Intensity gets you speed but consistency will take you far. That’s what you need to remind yourself. You have far more control over your long-term than your short-term future.

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Dive deep into your frustration with work

Analyse the aspects of your work life that frustrate you the most. If you are out of a job, look back and think through what you liked about your work and what you didn’t. Typically, jobs aren’t all good or all bad. We often get caught up just getting work done and don’t allocate enough time to reflect. Ignoring your frustration is sure to backfire in the medium to long run. Structural problems don’t go away on their own. You need to identify and mitigate them.

Slowdowns are perfect for diving deep into the following questions:

1. What do I dislike most about my work life?

2. What are parts of my job that I enjoy doing?

3. If I keep doing what I am doing, will my future self thank me? If not, what should I be doing differently?

Answering these questions will help you figure out the skills you need to learn, the networks you need to build and the transitions you need to undertake for your next job.

Don’t expect big changes in the short-term

We often overestimate what we can do in one year, but underestimate what we can do in a decade. We take most actions keeping the next year or next quarter in mind. This prevents us from making changes that will help carve out a tangibly better work life in the long run.

Unrealistic expectations in condensed timelines can be detrimental to your confidence and expectations for your future self. Despite a top MBA, good grades and a diverse network, it took me four months to get the job I really wanted. It might have worked out much sooner but me expecting it would have added pressure and nudged me into taking up something less optimal.

Reshape your network

I found my job at Microsoft with the help of a mentor who I hadn’t spoken to in a while. I would occasionally send him an email sharing what I had been up to but nothing more. When I reconnected with him after my accident, he pointed me to an opening at Microsoft that suited my interests. He had a clear sense of what I was good at and where I wanted to take my career. His nudge turned out to be the differentiating factor. Pay attention to your weak ties.

Remember how you do anything is how you do everything

When things aren’t going our way, it is especially important to pay attention to our habits, routines and rituals. They can fall apart, leaving us de-energised to take steps that will help us bounce back. During the first month after my accident, I gained a lot of weight. All I was doing was watching television and sending out CVs halfheartedly. I kept asking myself why did it happen to me. Instead, I should have asked what could I do about it. I did finally accept the situation for what it was and started taking small steps towards finding joy.

To conclude, the current slowdown in your career could turn out to be a blessing with the right mindset and the right approach. In a 100-year life where you are likely to work for 80 years, a pause is an opportunity to repivot your ambition, goal and outlook. Remember you may not be able to make a big difference tomorrow, but if you think long-term, you will make your future self proud.

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