creative commons zero – pixabay

I think about careers as a funnel shape.  There are narrow areas of focus (being in school, working in a specific role or industry) and wide areas full of possibilities and uncertainty (coming out of school, recreating our work lives, being laid off).  Some people stay in the narrow part of the funnel their entire work lives, but more often we have multiple narrow and wide areas in our lifetime.

When you emerge out of the narrow part of the funnel and face the wide-open space, it can be overwhelming and uncomfortable.  There are so many choices!  How do you decide which direction to go?  The wide part of the funnel can seem really wide.  At the same time, you may not want to return to the place you just were.

There is real value in staying in the wider part of the funnel while in search.  In the classic and ever applicable Transitions : Making Sense of Life’s Changes, author William Bridges calls this space The Neutral Zone.  He advises people to fully explore this space before moving on to The New Beginning, so that you can truly understand what the change is about. “Too many people either deny this aspect of the neutral zone experience or else become overwhelmed by it. To deny it is to lose the opportunity it provides for an expanded sense of reality and a deepened sense of purpose. And to be overwhelmed by it is just as unfortunate, for one then has no way to integrate the experience with the rest of one’s life. In either case, the transition process fails to provide the person with the enrichment that is one of its natural but almost forgotten gifts”, Bridges wisely notes.

So how do you keep the funnel at just the right shape so your search feels manageable, all the while keeping it open enough to allow for possibilities you may not have considered?  Try these techniques:

  • Get clear on the logistics.  How much money do you want to make?  What kind of commute works for you?  Do you need certain benefits?  How much travel are you willing to take on?  What size organization do you want to work for? Being clear on the practical nuts and bolts of how your work life needs to operate is a first step, and one that most people find easier to start with.
  • Know how you want to contribute. Consider taking your transferable skills to another level of detail.  If you identify as a problem solver, think about what kinds of problems.  People problems or data problems?  The difficult, long-term problems or problems you can check off a list each day? Do you come up with solutions that have social impact or ones that increase revenue?  Challenge yourself to be more specific.

When you know how you want the work to look and what you want to contribute, you can successfully navigate conversations without having to know exactly what title you are aiming for, or what sector.  It also helps you relax and give yourself some necessary room to breathe in the wide part of the funnel.  And what transition doesn’t need that?