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How to Cope with “Career Failure”

“Career failure” is a loosely defined term. It could mean something different for all of us. Maybe you’re stuck in a dead-end job, maybe you were fired, or maybe you were passed over for a promotion. If you’ve ever felt that you aren’t where you thought you would be in your career, you’re not alone. Did you know that “30% (of Americans) view the work they do as “just a job to get them by,” rather than a career or a steppingstone to a career.” (Pew Research Center) Getting to your end goal is hard, and there are bound to be road-blocks along the way.

For me, I hit my lowest point when I realized that the “career” I had been working towards wasn’t for me. I felt that I had wasted my time developing skills I wouldn’t use, and should be further ahead. Things have turned around for me in a surprising way, but hindsight is 20/20. It isn’t very comforting to be told that “things will work out in the end” though. So here are some ways to cope with feelings of “career failure.”

Stop Comparing Yourself to Others

Have you heard of the Social Comparison Theory? The theory “states that we determine our own social and personal worth based on how we stack up against others.” (Psychology Today) Knowing that we are placing value upon ourselves based on the perceived value of others is the first step in stopping this damaging practice. We are too unique as individuals to compare fairly. Simply put, we are trying to compare apples and oranges. History, personality, life events, and a million other factors, including luck, go into every factor of our career identities. To simply look at another person our age and think, why aren’t I as far along as they are, isn’t fair to the work we’ve put in or our own personal experiences. It also means that we are trying to quantify someone else’s journey, which isn’t fair either. Instead of comparing, ask for advise and listen to their story. Maybe there’s more to it than you thought. (Read Joshua Becker’s article A Helpful Guide to Stop Comparing Yourself to Others for more tips.)

“Comparison is the thief of joy.” —Theodore Roosevelt

Make a List

One of my (not so secret) pastimes is making lists. Lists help you quantify your actions, keep track of plans, and stick to schedules. Making a list of the actions you’ve taken or can take to rectify what you perceive as a “career failure” is a great way to break the negative spiral and start working on getting back on track. It might help you realize that you aren’t in as much of a rut as you thought, or it could help you begin the process of change. Here are 7 list styles HubSpot suggests trying out when you don’t already have a go-to To-Do list type.

When making your list, make sure that the actions or items are quantifiable. Writing something vague like “become better at public speaking” isn’t an action item. “Attend my first ToastMasters meeting on Thursday” is a quantifiable action. Make sure that you include items that you have already completed. This will help show you the effort you’ve already put in. It also feels great to check items off of a list! Here’s an example list from when I realized I needed a new job:

o   Update my Linkedin profile
o   Set up an automatic alert on
o   Get a haircut
o   Determine how much $ I would need to make to accept a new job
o   Ask an old mentor if they know of opportunities

Reach Out to Your Network

Asking for help doesn’t have to come off as desperate. In fact, advocating for yourself shows perseverance and drive, qualities employers desire. The key is to not complain about your current situation, but instead to describe what your goals are and why. Reaching out to your network is a fantastic way to learn about opportunities, prime people to recommend you, get advice about difficult situations, and generally feel better about your situation.

What if I don’t have a network? This is a common question, but I’d challenge anyone to not have a single connection. It could be an acquaintance of your mother’s, someone you went to school with, the lady at the library you always talk to at checkout. Casting a wide net is important. Just because someone doesn’t have any help or advise in the present, doesn’t mean that they won’t in the future. People genuinely like to help others. Give them an easy way to do so.

Growing your network is another way to set yourself up for success. Being active in your community, attending “networking events,” or even hanging out with old friends can produce opportunities. Feeling stuck in your career is nothing to be ashamed of. As long as you approach your network with a modest and appreciative attitude, and avoid insulting your current employer, networks can help you climb out of your career failure rut.

“Giving connects two people, the giver and the receiver, and this connection gives birth to a new sense of belonging.” — Deepak Chopra

Career failure isn’t a constant state, and can often be a feeling not rooted in reality. The first step is to stop comparing yourself to others. After that, approaching the problem with a clear head, you can begin to make an action list and reach out to your network for support.

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