2020’s health and leadership crises are accelerating the inevitable. Whatever your job is today, it will change. It may even go away. You can count on your work, career, and life taking different shapes than you’ve planned.. As Thomas Paine wrote in 1776 during another time of crisis, “These are the times that try men’s (and women’s’) souls.”
Just look around. Notice how work has changed since March this year.
You may be dealing with a temporary disruption – doing more work at home, on the computer and mobile devices, via video conferencing. If so, your work life may initially return to some kind of normalcy, with periodic telework, online learning, and more. But the 20th Century normal where you take daily trips to the office or factory may not come back. In one recent survey, prominent organizations said that 50% or more of their staffs will probably be mostly remote before the end of this decade.
Maybe for you, the impact is more severe. You’ve been laid off, lost your job. If you are a small business owner, the shop or service business you’ve spent your life building may be on the brink or closing. If you are a contractor or consultant — a gig worker – you’ve probably lost clients and maybe your entire portfolio of work is gone.
And let’s not forget the “necessary workers.” If you are in health care, transportation, food-related work, government services, your work is certainly more stressful and how you do your job has probably changed. You’ve faced a variety of challenges and there will be lasting changes to the policies and practices related to your work.
All these dislocations make it clear that stability is an illusion (always has been!). Business-as-usual is an illusion. For as long as you work and live you must change and adapt. Sometimes you have to pivot in a flash (as with COVID). Other times you can prepare for the changes that will rattle your life. For example, you know that technology is getting smarter and may soon be capable of doing more of the work that you currently perform – including if you are a supervisor or manager. You know this; you can prepare and not let the future surprise you.
Today’s crises and uncertainties are a wake-up call to a be more powerful self-developer and change agent in your own life and work. Here’s how:
- Empathize with your own feelings right now. Like most of us, you are probably worried about how to cope in this strange 21st Century world. Maybe you feel overwhelmed or scared, and wonder if you have what it takes to move forward. A small virus has shaken your world. Some things you took for granted are now unavailable. You’ve maybe taken a big financial hit. Worse, you, your family, your friends may have been infected. Maybe you have lost someone to the virus.
You’ll be able to do little that is constructive if you don’t grieve the losses of even the smallest things. It may not be macho, but it is actually a sign of emotional strength to face into, cry, name, even write out and talk with others about what you are feeling. If you don’t, these feelings will lurk somewhere inside you, making it hard for you to move into a future you can handle and where you can thrive.
- Acknowledge the “YOU” that you are. You are one-of-a-kind and a person who’s been learning and changing throughout your life. You have experiences, you’ve learned from crises, failures and successes. You’ve learned jobs, a trade a profession. You have unique qualities (yes) to bring to the next phase of your life and work. Don’t let anxiety, stress, depression, worry undermine the YOU that you have been developing.
Sit down, create an imaginary room in your brain where negative feelings and fears can live in a sort of “retirement.” Then, describe the YOU that you’ve created so far. Make lists. Start with areas where you have some expertise – knowledge you’ve accumulated. Then, list your skills: what are you strongest physical capabilities? what special thinking or problem solving skills are you known for? what are you good at when you work with or help others (your interpersonal skills)? what about personal qualities – like persistence, or friendliness, or being trustworthy, being kind? What do you like most about yourself? This is not about being the “best”, or perfect. It’s about the qualities that you have built so far that will be your foundation for moving into the future and may bring value to others, including employers. Spend some time appreciating where you are, what you know, what you can do: WHO you are. Ask others what they see as your best qualities. Add them to the list.
- Update your learning skills. We all must face this fact: we can’t stop change. The challenge is to evolve yourself as fast as the times are changing. For this to happen, you need to upgrade your learning skills. It takes new learning approaches, mindsets, and to keep up with job changes and opportunities, to avoid falling behind, to stay on top of information that is doubling in the blink of an eye.
Learning is the skill that affects ALL OTHER skills. So, develop yourself as a learner. You will be less stressed, more confident, less likely to be manipulated. And you will be the first in line for new opportunities.
Learning is the Mother of all Skills! With advanced learning skills you won’t be left behind. A terrific use of any quarantine time is to sharpen your ability to learn at the speed of change. Technology, with artificial intelligence, is becoming a smarter learner. So should YOU.
- Be ready for personal transformation. Until very recently, companies, schools, medical systems, religious institutions were designed for member dependence. The formal leaders were supposed to think and you to follow. At the extreme, populist and authoritarian societies and enterprises actually do their best to keep their people in tow.
Of course, organizations need people to play different roles and have different kinds of authority. But, that doesn’t mean that you are a pawn in any institution where you are a member. Psychologists who study human development agree that it is human nature to mature toward greater self-management, fulfilment, contribution. You are supposed to change throughout life, becoming more knowledgeable, wiser, self-creating. You are not meant to be fixed in your thinking, capabilities, or even attitudes. You are meant to continually develop, right to the end of your life.
With wisdom, maturity and your amazing 90 billion neuron brain with its 100 TRILLION connections, you have the ability to transform yourself. Now is the time to tap into this spectacular birthright. It is your evolutionary right to own who you are and what you become. It is both an opportunity and responsibility to yourself and people you care about and who care about you.
- Take a step forward every day – any step. One secret of successful people is that, although they have a vision of the life and work they want, they take one step toward it at a time. Imagine how far you can walk in just an hour by putting one foot in front of the other. I am constantly amazed at the power of one small step!!! A step could be to call someone who may support you in some way. Or to find a course or read something that relates to a capability you want to build. It could be to invite yourself into a Zoom meeting where you could add value and expand your network. It could be to take some time to meditate, to start a new hobby, to do some exercise, to take a class, to reflect on your week. Or just rest.
Many years ago, as I started my career in adult and organization development, I taught a course to help recently returned war veterans to “learn how to learn” for success in college. Yes, there were learning skills to spruce up and to add. But that wasn’t enough. They also needed to acknowledge what we now know is PTSD. They needed to take time appreciating who they were – their gifts and talents. They needed to go deep inside to find the ability to manage and transform themselves that would be key to entering “normal” life. And they needed to feel the daily success of one step forward at a time.
These five steps apply to all of us today. We are entering a new world that is trying to transform and is on the cusp of new ways of working, relating, being. You have the power to transform yourself for a better future for yourself and your family. But it starts with YOU.
 Thomas Paine, The Crisis, Dec. 23, 1776. Published in the Pennsylvania
 CNBC Global CFO Council survey, May 14–28, 2020