Bounce Back from a Career Challenge: Pandemic Fallout Edition

5/5   in the series Job Search Masterclass

Every challenge, loss, and failure is a gift to make you stronger and more agile, efficient, creative, productive, and aware. What seems like a setback can actually serve as training to help you solve the next problem and prevent other failures.

I’ve had lots of failures and challenges. I’ve been laid off and fired. I’ve applied for jobs and not gotten them. I’ve been ghosted by recruiters and decision-makers. But by far, my most challenging year was 2020. As a professional speaker, I rely on in-person speaking gigs for most of my income. So when the pandemic hit, all of my engagements were cancelled or delayed, sometimes indefinitely. I was in trouble. 

After bingeing on cupcakes, I began to think about this challenge with a refreshed perspective. Rather than something difficult happening to me, I reframed it as questions. Was there something I could do for others? Was there some problem I could solve that would enable others in my network? I knew how to give webinars, as I had been doing this for years. And I could speak about topics that were important, timely, and relevant to my communities, such as networking from afar or career planning in a crisis. And I had experience and skills in creating experiences that solidify bridges between organizations and their constituents, whether they are customers, members, students, or staff. 

Now I had a plan. I reached out to current and former clients, friendly associates, people with whom I had never formalized any business, and even cold contacts, and I offered to be a resource, to help them through this challenging time. I didn’t ask for a job. I offered to assist. To serve. To solve problems. To navigate beyond their challenges.

I ended up booking more speaking gigs than I ever had. But the lesson was even more powerful: when you are faced with a challenge, find a way to turn it into an opportunity. How can you shift what appears to be a deficit into an asset? How can you serve your community?

Take on your challenge

You undoubtedly have had to face more than a few challenges during the pandemic. Many of us continue to deal with zeptosecond-to-zeptosecond changes that affect our career health, and consequently our emotional, mental, and physical wellbeing and professional goals. Our plans – to get or stay in job x, to land promotion y, to move to location z, or to get a salary increase – may have become the stuff of literal dreams as the pandemic caused unexpected perturbations. And if you are employed, you are most likely still facing new challenges in your workplace, ranging from communications and workflow concerns to new deadlines and new deliverables. 

Despite these conditions, there are ways to bounce back. As engineers, you are uniquely situated to meet these challenges because you have been trained and educated to solve problems and innovate. This is your moment to fully leverage your chemE skills. Following are some ideas to help you bounce back from whatever career challenge you may be facing.

Remember who you are

When faced with a challenge, we tend to forget the essence of who we are. The challenge, and the fallout from it – losing our job, not getting a promotion, not getting interviews – tends to telegraph fake news to our brain that there is something wrong with us. This is false. We must recognize  that a challenge can influence how we perceive ourselves, and we must remember that a challenge does not define us. When you hear these negative descriptions of yourself, stop. Seize the moment to say, “Wait. I am speaking ill of myself. This is the time to pause.” 

Collect data

Take a look at your record of achievement. Examine the problems you have solved (both in your professional and personal life), the skills you have honed, and the projects to which you have contributed to identify and examine the truth. Engineers like you deal only in data and truth. You voluntarily take on and tackle difficult problems every day. You eat challenge for breakfast. Remember this, and appreciate who you really are.

Identify the pain point

A key aspect of moving beyond challenge is to pinpoint the pain point. If you can do this, you can potentially offer a solution. Look at the challenge. Ask: what is the actual problem? What are the contributing factors? What is interfering with the ability of my community to solve the problem? Why does the previous solution no longer work? 

Identify a solution

Once you have clarified what the problem actually is, you can seek to solve it with your diverse skill set. Search your brain (and your record) to examine how you are uniquely positioned to add value here and now. Why can you, as a chemE, solve this problem? What are some potential new solutions? How can I help?  

Activate your networks

Networking is not about trying to get something from someone; rather, it is about crafting long-term, win-win alliances where both parties provide value. When faced with a career challenge, this is your chance to reach out to your networks, including fellow AIChE members and the global community of chemEs, safetyEs, and processEs. Email or message people through LinkedIn, and state you hope they and their families and colleagues are healthy and safe. Ask how they are and set up a short, 15-minute Zoom or phone call to catch up and see if there might be an opportunity to collaborate or to contribute to their efforts. Let your networks know you are available to help them solve problems. This does not mean you have to go into detail about the career challenge, such as stating you were fired. 

Look for lessons

Every challenge or failure is an opportunity to self-assess our abilities to migrate through unexpected turbulence. Take note of the many skills you have gained and information you have acquired during this period. Perhaps you discovered that you are stronger than you expected, or you witnessed your ability to manage multiple projects and people (including kids and pets!) under straining circumstances. Don’t undervalue your proven ability to solve problems in the middle of a raging dumpster fire.  

Even in the face of unsurmountable challenge and turmoil, you are still here, endeavoring to solve problems and change the world for the better with your knowledge, expertise, and gusto. The challenge or failure you face right now may be the means to even more success, excitement, joy, and bliss in your career and life, even if you do not see that now. Accept and appreciate your resiliency by learning to love your failures, losses, and challenges, because the mental muscles you develop now will catalyze your grand success later.

Note: Concepts in this blog build on and have appeared in other works by the author, including her presentations, articles, columns, and book, Networking for Nerds (Wiley, 2015).