Career Shock: What It Is and Why You Should Care

Irina Filonova explores the role that chance plays in our careers and how to harness the power of happenstance to ensure your future success.

August 1, 2022
Illustration of a person contemplating a set of hurdles, with a bull's-eye target in the distance.
(wenmei Zhou/digitalvision vectors/getty images)

The world is not the same as in pre-pandemic times. The world is not the same as before Russia invaded Ukraine. And the world won’t be the same when we face the consequences of automatization and disruptive technologies that haven’t been invented yet. Is it doom and gloom? Not really. It is a life in the 21st century heavily influenced by globalization, unstable economies and geopolitical unrest.

To survive, contemporary organizations respond to complexity and volatility by reorganizing, restructuring and adjusting strategic goals. What does that mean for you? Diminished job security and an increased number of unpredictable events—a.k.a., career shocks, which might affect your work trajectory by sending you off in a new direction.

Nowadays, unplanned events are the norm, not an exception. Nevertheless, in my coaching practice, I rarely see people enjoying unexpected situations or sudden career turns. Instead, my clients resist change, cling to the status quo and use old tricks to address new challenges. So in this piece, I’d like to explore the role that chance plays in our careers and how to harness the power of happenstance to ensure your career success.

First, let’s investigate what career shocks are and what they are not. In research literature, Jos Akkermans and his colleagues define a career shock as “a disruptive and extraordinary event that is, at least to some degree, caused by factors outside the focal individual’s control and that triggers a deliberate thought process concerning one’s career.” In a nutshell, something happens outside your control zone, ranging from natural disasters to a substantial conflict with institutional culture. Next, this unplanned event forces you into deep reflection followed by a change of behavior (learning new skills) or taking action (searching for a new job).

For the career shock to happen, both elements—the “extraordinary event” and a “deliberate thought process”—have to be present. For example, engaging in a job search as a natural progression in your career or pondering the purpose of your work during a 3 p.m. tea break doesn’t fit the description of a career shock. In contrast, if you decided to leave academe to join a nonprofit organization after giving up on grants and publications, or you go with a part-time arrangement because raising a baby wasn’t as easy as you anticipated, you can call yourself the proud owner of a career-shock badge.

Like jellybeans, career shocks come in a variety of colors defined by several attributes, including frequency, duration, predictability and controllability. In addition, career shocks could be negative—such as layoffs, accidents, workplace injustice—or positive in nature. The examples of positive career shocks would be an unexpected promotion that requires a new set of skills and an updated professional identity or a sudden pursuit of a different occupation after meeting an inspiring mentor. Both examples could be considered career shocks because of the extraordinary events followed by a change in behavior and/or actions. The positive occurrences are tougher to recognize, because they are often welcomed and secretly awaited. But when overlooked, even positive chance events may cause psychological distress and affect performance, because we don’t adequately adjust to the change.

At this point, you are probably well aware of the looming presence of career shocks together with the fact that it is only a matter of when, not if, you will encounter them. What’s next? While no one can prevent happenstance from interfering with your plans, you can soften the blow by trying my homemade REAL (recognize, explore, accept, learn) strategy to cope with change.

Recognize change. Change is everywhere: nature, aging, an inhale followed by an exhale. And yet we long for our world to be as predictable as our morning coffee. Let’s imagine for a moment that your favorite coffee shop is unexpectedly closed, and you are forced to make the beverage at home. Coffee is coffee, right? Why does it taste different then? Because it is no longer the same!

A similar analogy is relevant to a person going through a career shock: the individual’s shape is constant, but outside circumstances and the inner world have shifted. Thus, it is important to identify subtle and significant elements of change. To start, kindly ask yourself, “What is the objective difference between before and after the unexpected event?” and “How are my values, interest and aspirations different since the change occurred?”

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Explore your inner world. Change doesn’t come alone; it brings a variety of emotions and feelings, and it can trigger unhelpful thought patterns. At this point, you have a choice to pretend that “coffee is coffee” or get curious and collect rich information contained in your body and mind.

Here is how this would look with our coffee example. You could pay close attention to the flavor and texture of the drink, feel how it cascades through your body, waking up your brain and heart. Moreover, you could observe emotions and thoughts revealing the joy of accomplishment (“I did it”) or disappointment of not having “the usual” (“I should have known better”). In the case of a career shock, you could start exploration with the following prompts: What emotions—anxiety, fear, joy, frustration and so on—are present right now? What thoughts come to mind when I think about my situation and future plans? What do I believe about myself right now?

Accept the now. Once you’ve assessed the aftermath of change and your emotional and cognitive reactions, it is time to accept the updated reality. In my experience, this is the hardest step due to our desire for stability and predictability. We want our coffee shop to stay open. We want our usual never to go away. We scream, “It’s not fair,” or “Before, I used to do/be/have …” or “I can’t believe …”

Likewise, in career change, you might feel urgency to return to a familiar yet toxic workplace or apply for the same job knowing it will only bring misery and boredom. You could also spend hours figuring out what you could have done differently and answering internal what-if questions. But without saying yes to your current conditions, you are destined to the mental sinkhole of never-ending ruminations and regrets. There are no tricks to speed up the process other than facilitating your inquiry by asking yourself: What am I not willing to accept right now? Then be open to what comes next.

Learn forward. Congratulations! You made it to a harbor of data gleaned throughout the process. Now, I invite you to dig out your scientist hat and tool up with objectivity and a growth mind-set to craft the key learnings. Are you ready to make your own coffee, or would you rather find a new coffee shop? Or did you discover that you’d rather have a cup of herbal tea because you didn’t like the caffeine kick when you mindfully observe it?

In professional life, let’s suppose you realized you were no longer competitive for a faculty position. This career shock sounds painful, but it also presents an opportunity to make sense of your work history and summarize your successes, motivations and areas of dread. Once you finalize your reflection, think about learnings you’d like to take forward and then create a flexible and actionable career plan. Some actions could be as simple as expanding your network to match your new career interests or checking out your 10-year life vision before accepting an invitation to a job interview.

In the end, we know everyone confronts career shocks, which is a good thing. Why? Because dealing with unplanned events has been linked to career success, decisiveness and even the decision to pursue postgraduate education. Moreover, overcoming challenges builds your “change muscle” and increases adaptability and resilience, components required for a successful and sustainable career in the 21st century. Indeed, none of us has a superpower to avoid the unknown, but, armed with knowledge, we have a human power of agency—the choice to respond to chance and use it to our advantage.

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Graduate Career Consortium logoIrina Filonova is the founder of the phd whisperer, an evidence-based coaching and training practice in Okinawa, Japan, and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium—an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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