Today, the industries in which we've worked are disappearing altogether, entirely new kinds of businesses are arising overnight, pensions and other retirement benefits are disappearing, we are under constant pressure to stay technologically current, demands on our time in and outside the workplace are expanding—suddenly all these concerns are universal, chronic and stressful. More and more of us, voluntarily and involuntarily, are making high-risk professional zigs and zags, jumping into the unknown of new working landscapes without much in the way of predictable outcomes or safety nets.

Each of us is living in a new realm of ambiguity—which can result in an anxiety-producing chronic state of indecision. In our working lives, when self-identity and financial well-being hang in the balance, most of us are conservative, reluctant to play the odds aggressively. To get a deeper, and more than just anecdotal, sense of this shifting landscape and an overall insight into what Americans are thinking and feeling about work, I partnered with the research team at J. Walter Thompson, one of the largest advertising agencies in the world.

In March 2012, January 2013 and May 2014, JWT and I conducted three national surveys of employed Americans, a representative sample (respectively 857, 800 and 650 respondents) of men and women in all 50 states working in a wide range of jobs and fields. We posed open-ended questions about the centrality of work to people's identities and the degree of control they felt they had over their working lives. The results were startling on multiple fronts. Only four in 10 people think they will be in the same job five years from now. More than half are considering changing not merely their jobs, but their careers. Think of that: A majority of Americans are dissatisfied enough with their working lives that they seriously dream of an entirely new occupational path.

But there is a huge gap between the daydream of a new occupation and moving toward it, between thinking one needs to make a significant professional shift and actually doing anything about it. In our surveys, 46 percent of the people who want to change their jobs have not taken any concrete steps toward preparing for the lane changes they're contemplating. In the face of today's deep economic uncertainty, this is a dangerous disconnect.

We are restless. And we are paralyzed. So what's stopping us from moving forward?

It was no surprise that more than half of the people said that financial concerns inhibited their willingness to risk a job change. But the story is a lot more complicated than worry about paying the rent and car and grocery bills. Beyond the prospective financial risks of changing careers, these people described being held back because they don't have the time and mental bandwidth to explore new jobs or occupations. And among the younger cohort, "self-doubt" most commonly prevented respondents from pursuing new work, while a plurality of those in their fifties cited "fear of starting over" as the main obstacle to changing jobs or careers. An increasing number of people in the prime of their working lives said they felt exhausted by the work-life choices they were obliged to parse.

In other words, we are not pursuing our dream jobs in large part because we're afraid, confused and exhausted.

Further, when we are exposed to something out of the ordinary, something we perceive as "risky," our bodies produce the stress hormone cortisol, priming us to fight or flee. That's okay when serious threats are few and far between—a kid dashing into the street to retrieve a ball or an annual performance evaluation—because our bodies can gear up, deal with it and return to normal. But when we are constantly bombarded by the new, when the threats are ambiguous and chronic—as in so many of today's work environments—our bodies remain on high alert and in a state of constant negative arousal. This isn't a good thing.

Our ideal state for calculating risks at work is a sort of Goldilocks mode—too little change and we get bored, too much instability or upheaval and we shut down. When problems feel manageable and when we have the time and tools to process and understand our various options—when they feel like challenges—that's when we are operating at our best.

How does one figure out when to play it safe and when to take a leap? By experimentation. By embracing risk.

The kind of risk-taking I'm talking about is thoughtful and continuous. It doesn't mean quitting a job on a whim, signing a lease on office space before drafting a business plan or launching a product without a comprehensive competitive analysis. At the start it's modest and incremental, a matter of developing a continual habit of mind, a perpetual sense of nimbleness—which bit by bit and day by day will lead to significant change and long-term professional resilience and relevance. It means learning to ask questions of bosses and colleagues and peers day in and day out, developing an attitude of perpetual curiosity. It means getting out of your comfort zone to build vibrant networks of contacts. It means regularly crafting experiments to test new occupational notions. It means not just sucking it up and accepting the feeling of being undervalued in your workplace. It means sticking your neck out to try something new and accepting the possibility that you might fail. And after inevitable setbacks or mistakes, it means getting back up and at it, willing to try again.

It means visualizing your working life as if you're an acrobat, acquiring the assorted skills that make walking the professional tightrope a familiar thing, so that you are poised to leap from one trapeze bar to another, learning to accept the midair untethering between one gig and the next, praying your timing is good enough to make the catch, knowing how to fall safely if this time it is not.

Conscious, consistent, modest risk-taking will help you become more open, more able to recognize opportunity when it crosses your path and more likely to seize the chance to make the right big change at the right moment.

A regular practice of risk-taking before reaching now-or-never crises and inflection points of "I quit!" crises will help you develop a career philosophy and let go of the notion that you must have a perfect, fixed career plan. Such an inflexible life itinerary is increasingly impossible in today's working world. Plans can and will be undone by factors beyond our control. A consistent philosophy of risk-taking, however, prepares us for the course corrections that we'll inevitably have to make to thrive in our careers.  

Sum It Up by Pat Summitt This excerpt is from Risk/Reward: Why Intelligent Leaps and Daring Choices Are the Best Career Moves You Can by Anne Kreamer.


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