Last week’s Diversity Journal Club was about handling anxiety, and not surprisingly, there was a lot of talk about career uncertainty, career change, and the anxiety these things can produce.
I tweeted a few things that have helped me handle my anxiety in this regard, and the journal club organizers asked if I’d be willing to expand on them in a guest post.
Before I get started, I want to note that I am making my comments as someone who does not have an anxiety disorder or depression. People with those sorts of diseases will surely have additional challenges in handling anxiety, which I am not at all qualified to address. However, even as someone whose only chronic illness is asthma, I have used counseling services several times in my past, and have always found them to be extremely useful. If you are struggling with anxiety for whatever reason, please do consider seeking some professional advice and support.
I’ve recently undertaken a rather large career change myself: I quit my full time job and set up shop as an independent contractor and consultant. Working as a contractor is going reasonably well, but it is full of sources of uncertainty- the most obvious being where I will find my next contract. I’m also trying to use some of the time freed up by this change to bootstrap a company that makes things for people who love to learn. That is going according to my plan, but that plan was to go really slowly, at least at first. In a climate that celebrates venture-backed start ups, it is easy to start feeling like my company is failing before it has even really gotten started, even though I made a conscious decision to do things differently.
If you’d like to see where I’m at, here is my company website. I am actually a little further along than shown on the website. I decided that my first area of focus would be publishing short ebooks (you can also read more about that decision if you’d like), and have one book under contract at out with an editor right now and am close to signing a contract on another book.
There is A LOT of uncertainty and anxiety around the products aspect of my company. I would be lying if I said that all of this uncertainty and the anxiety it produces don’t occasionally make me wonder if I’m doing the wrong thing with my life. My husband can attest that I sometimes have a beer or two or three and whine about it all.
But I also know that I am unbelievably lucky to have the chance to try this out, and I don’t want anxiety to keep me from giving it my best shot. That means I have to keep my anxiety under control. Here’s how I do it.
I remind myself about how much time I have.
I am 42. I plan to work in some capacity until I’m at least 65, assuming my health holds and I don’t strike it so rich that “travel the world living a life of adventure” becomes an actual option. I got my PhD and entered the workforce 15 years ago. I expect to work for 23 more years or longer. I’m not even halfway done yet! So I have plenty of time left, and I can afford to take a few years to try to make my current plan work. If it doesn’t work, I have plenty of time to do something different.
Yes, this ignores the very real problem of age discrimination, but as someone who’s spent her entire career dealing with the very real problem of gender discrimination my approach is to acknowledge it exists and assume that I will find a way to do interesting things, anyway.
I keep my eye on my own definition of success.
I spent far too much of my 20s and early 30s chasing someone else’s definition of success. I have finally learned to at least try to judge myself only by my own metrics. This can be hard to do: I am not immune to the effects of peer pressure. But when I feel myself worrying that I’m “failing,” I try to take a step back and ask if that is really true, or if I’m just aiming for a different prize.
I also find it helpful to remind myself that the only thing I actually must do with my career is make enough money to support myself and my family. All other aspects of success are up to me to define.
It is natural for us to absorb the definition of success that is common in the environment in which we work- but we don’t really have to accept that definition. We can choose a different definition, more in line with our own goals. If you choose to aim for a different goal, though, don’t be surprised if some of the people around you are not supportive. Watching a friend make a large change in goals can cause people to question their own choices, and that can be uncomfortable. Some people will lash out at the person whose new direction initiated the confusion. Just remember that your choices and goals are not actually a commentary on their choices and goals, and try not to let them derail you.
I try to understand the root of my anxiety and work to mitigate that.
I can feel anxious for a lot of different reasons. A few years ago, I had a tremendous bout of anxiety that I eventually tracked back to a feeling that my technical skills were getting stale, which would limit my career options. I decided to start working on a personal side project to alleviate that feeling, and that led me to launch Tungsten Hippo, a website about short ebooks. I have done everything on that website myself, and seeing it take shape reminded me that I am perfectly capable of learning new technical skills when I need them, and quieted that particular bout of anxiety.
More recently, I’ve been stressing about money. My husband and I checked our budget before I decided to quit my full time job, and we can accommodate a less predictable income. There is no rational reason for me to be stressing about money, but there is also no denying that I was stressing about money. When I examined my anxiety a bit more, I realized that what I actually need to stop worrying is a reliable income that covers a certain percentage of our monthly expenses. That amount is a small fraction of the amount I actually bring in each month, but it is apparently really important to me. Therefore, I recently signed on to do some work that pays much less than my usual sort of work, but is reliable and can flex around my other commitments. This makes it worth doing, even though by a straight analysis of the hourly rate, it might not be.
This example also feeds back into the point about knowing what success means to me. By most objective measures, the contract I just signed is a “step down” from my usual work. Some people might consider that an indication of failure. But in fact, it is allowing me to continue to pursue my larger goals, so to me, it is part of my attempt to succeed.
Everyone has their own definition of success and their own anxiety triggers. It can be hard to see those through the fog of society’s expectations for us, though. Perhaps the first step towards combating career-related anxiety is to spend some time learning about what really matters to you. This has been an iterative process for me, and it is ongoing. However, as I learn more about what matters to me, my enjoyment of my own life continues to grow. So I think it is worth the effort.