Changing careers during a pandemic

6 min readCorbin Child

In the midst of a global pandemic and on the anniversary of my tenth year practising as a civil litigator, I decided to completely reshape my working life. Gone are the days when I scoured law databases and texts for precedent. I am now committed to the tech industry and my many web-based projects.

The future is filled with uncertainty, but it is true what they say, change is exhilarating.

Unexpected events disrupt our routines and lead us to ask big questions about what matters and what is worth doing. It’s no wonder, then, that during the Covid-19 pandemic many people are rethinking their careers.

Big changes can cause anxiety. It’s hard to dive into reinventing your career if you’re feeling risk-averse or you are worried about your prospects.

So how do we balance the pressing need to ensure our basic survival with a growing urge to do something new?

Think differently

When you don’t know what the future will bring, or when the path you thought you were on takes an unexpected turn, it makes sense to pursue a diverse portfolio of options rather than just sticking stubbornly to one. Even in happier times, career change is never a perfectly linear process. It’s a messy journey of exploration — and to do it right, you have to experiment with, test, and learn about yourself.

Think about all of the different versions of yourself that you would like to become.

Some versions may be concrete and well-informed by experience; others are vague, nascent and untested. Some are realistic; others are pure fantasy. Some will appeal to you more than others.

Let yourself imagine a divergent set of possible selves and futures. Embrace that process and explore as many of them as you can.

The “liminal” period

“Liminality” is existing betwixt and between a past that is clearly gone and a future that is still uncertain. Liminality can be an unpleasant state to inhabit emotionally. People going through it feel a lack of direction and oscillate between “holding on” and “letting go.” But this fraught stage is a necessary part of the journey, because it allows you to process a lot of complex emotions and conflicting desires.

Liminality prevents you from shutting down prematurely and missing better options that still lie ahead.

The current crisis is likely to prolong this in-between state so we must embrace it and explore its benefits. Neurological studies suggest that taking advantage of liminal time to do your “inner business” may be more beneficial than engaging in a flurry of busy-making self-improvement efforts. Downtime is crucial not only for replenishing brain fuel for attention and motivation. Downtime also sustains the cognitive processes that allow us to fully develop our humanity. It’s how we consolidate memories, integrate what we have learned, plan for the future, maintain our moral compass, and construct our sense of self.

Get going on projects

The most common path to a career reinvention involves doing something on the side. This is how we cultivate knowledge, skills, resources, and relationships until you’ve got strong a strong foundation to explore a new career. On nights and weekends, people take part-time courses, do pro-bono or advisory work, and develop start-up ideas. Most people work on several possibilities at once, comparing and contrasting the pros and cons of each. This activity is crucial. It helps you work through not only the practical questions but also the existential ones that drive career change.

Who am I? Who do I want to become? Where can I best contribute?

Our current environment of quarantine and lockdown unfortunately constrain this process. People have long used contract or advisory work to explore new options or to finance new ventures, for example, but non-essential work is drying up. Nevertheless, under the present circumstances many people are finding it easier than before to reallocate time and resources to side projects.

You don’t need to limit projects to the scope of your desired career change. Many people today are doing rewarding work and discovering themselves by engaging in crisis initiatives at their existing organisations or in community volunteer efforts. The point is to do new and different work with new and different people, because that process represents an opportunity to learn about yourself, your preferences and dislikes, and the kinds of contexts and people that bring out the best in you.

Work your relationships

Networking is difficult during a lockdown. Many people today are wondering how in the current environment they can initiate and build the relationships they need to reinvent themselves.

An age old tip for career change is to mobilise your weak ties.

Put energy into relationships with people you don’t know so well or don’t see very often, in order to maximise your chances of learning things you don’t know already. The problem with friends, family, and close coworkers — your strong ties — is that they know the same things you know. They’ll want to help you, of course, but they’re unlikely to be able to help you think creatively about your future. It’s more likely that they’ll pigeonhole you.

But there’s a catch when it comes to your weak ties. Although these people are more likely to be a source of useful new information and resources, they’re also likely to be less motivated to help you, especially when they’re stretched themselves. For this reason, in times of uncertainty people tend to rely more on their strong ties, which are based on commitment, trust, and obligation.

So we have a weak tie/strong tie conundrum. One way around this is to focus on a sub-category of "dormant ties" — that is the relationships with people who you were once close to but now haven’t been in contact with for roughly three years or more. You may receive novel and helpful information from these ties, together with more motivation to assist you with your career endeavours.

Talk it out

Self-reflection is important during significant change. It is a practice best nourished by talking out loud with people who sympathise, commiserate, question, read your body language, and share their own experiences. One of the reasons potential career changers benefit so much from attending courses is that their fellow students represent a ready-made community of like-minded people to talk to. Just the simple act of creating and telling a story about what you want to do, or why you want a change, can clarify your thinking and propel you forward.

Commit yourself to a course of action by talking out loud to others.

Even this can be hard in the current environment of self-isolation and social distancing. Still, with a bit of initiative and creativity, you can find ways to explain yourself out loud. Schedule walks that respect social distance or create a Zoom group that meets regularly to share plans.

In the end, when it comes to reinventing your career in a time of crisis, remember that the time to get going is now — but don’t go it alone.