Many people feel stuck when they’re navigating uncertainty in their personal or professional life. Don’t despair; there’s help. Associate professor of marketing Joan P. Ball offers easy-to-follow practices to help you steer through transitional phases. Change is a constant, Ball explains, so learn to embrace moments of liminality – the uncertain times that come between stages of your career or life – and create spaces for learning during transitions. Gleaning insights from the latest psychological and social science research, Ball empowers those who feel lost to build resilience and follow their curiosity.
- Everyone faces uncertainty. Learn to respond with “dispassionate curiosity” rather than react impulsively.
- Develop “active resilience” to prepare yourself for when adversity strikes.
- Navigate life transitions by embracing time flexibility and liminality.
- Develop self-awareness to pursue a more aligned “self-world fit.”
- Map your own career trajectory.
- Give yourself time for exploration and experimentation.
- Align your priorities with your values, needs and desires, and then take action.
- Draw on courage, humility and passion to help you “wayfind” during uncertain times.
Everyone faces uncertainty. Learn to respond with “dispassionate curiosity” rather than react impulsively.
Inevitably, at some point in your life, you’ll contend with uncertainty that will leave you unsettled and make you ask yourself, “What now?”To figure out what comes next, reframe these moments as periods that offer you the potential to create, reflect and redefine your priorities. When What now? moments interrupt your life, they often trigger disruptive negative emotions, such as disorientation and despair. Don’t impulsively react. Instead, pause to reflect. Then respond by approaching such junctures with “dispassionate curiosity” rather than fear or emotional reactivity. To manage uncertainty and improve your decision-making, change your emphasis from knowing to learning.
When you face the uncertainty of a What now? moment, do the following:
- Stop: If you’re feeling incendiary emotions as a response to a perceived threat – for instance, the possibility of losing your job – stop and acknowledge these emotions. Pause until you feel calm and collected enough to respond to the situation.
- Ask: Create a “curiosity loop” by intentionally asking yourself questions that help you reflect on the situation. This will create space for learning.
- Explore: If your line of inquiry leads you to a clear solution, then move forward, but if it raises bigger questions, search for ways to explore possible actions or solutions. For example, you might accept a new job role with a trial period.
Develop “active resilience” to prepare yourself for when adversity strikes.
Resilience researcher Michael Ungar defines resilience in times of uncertainty as “both the capacity of individuals to navigate their way to the psychological, social, cultural and physical resources that sustain their well-being, and their capacity individually and collectively to negotiate for these resources to be provided in culturally meaningful ways.”
Develop “active resilience” by assessing your own levels of resilience in the following 10 areas: friends and family, community, environment, recreation and fun, health and fitness, career and work, finance, spirituality, learning and growth, and love and partnerships. To assess the way you might respond or react to catastrophic life-altering events in these areas, assign yourself a ranking between 1, for least resilient, and 10, for most resilient. Repeat the assessment by ranking your resilience to day-to-day disruptions in each area. This practice will reveal the areas where you feel particularly vulnerable to or threatened by change. Knowing your “perceived vulnerabilities” can help you pause when uncertainty triggers you. It can also reveal the resources you need to mobilize to prepare yourself for adversity.
Navigate life transitions by embracing time flexibility and liminality.
Silicon Valley start-ups have popularized the notion of pivoting – rapidly changing direction in the face of a challenge. Yet when you’re facing What now? moments that have little to do with finding a product-market fit, pivoting probably doesn’t represent the best choice.
Instead, use the metaphor of mountain climbing: Imagine you’re scaling a mountain, and you stop to make camp and weigh the risks, taking a moment to pause as you plot your route forward. Similarly, when you’re journeying toward achieving your goals in life, and you feel uncertain about how to proceed, it’s often best to create space for reflection and curiosity rather than simply pivot in another direction. Practicing active resilience often requires making space for “active waiting”: accepting that you might achieve your objectives within a different time frame than you initially hoped.
“When we face What now? moments, the binary choice to either pivot or persevere can force a decision before we have time to gather resources and orient ourselves in what is effectively new terrain.”
Psychology professor Kenneth Hill explains that the experience of being lost involves two components: a sense of disorientation and a lack of means to reorient yourself. Hill’s work focused on people who had become lost in a literal sense, such as hikers and travelers, but you’ll likely find parallels in your career and personal life.
Just as climbers at base camp would create space to map their journey ahead, you too should create your own “transitional learning space” where you can explore your options before you make a move. This exploration could involve journaling or plotting out ideas on a whiteboard, for example. During transitional moments, when you explore new possible roles and feel shifts in your sense of identity, your learning will occur in “liminal space” – the uncertain space between two defined things or phases. To embrace these periods of liminality, you might find it helpful to take photos, record a video or create a drawing to commemorate who you are now as you welcome new possibilities.
Develop self-awareness to pursue a more aligned “self-world fit.”
Organizational psychologist Tasha Eurich views self-awareness as a 21st-century “meta skill,” defining it as “the ability to see ourselves clearly – to understand who we are, how others see us and how we fit into the world around us.” As you navigate uncertain terrain, take time to engage in rigorous self-awareness by “zooming in.”
“How we identify ourselves and how we are viewed by others can play a big part in how we make sense of the world and place ourselves in it.”
Reflect on how you perceive your environment, and assess the cultural norms that influence your actions. Combine these insights with your understanding of your identity to determine your “self-world fit.” To improve your alignment with your environment, be honest with yourself. Do you find the environment where you work toxic and unaligned with your values? Or do you feel in sync with your environment? The answers can help you decide what direction you want to go.
Developing self-awareness is an individual process, and there’s no “right” way to do it, but you might find it useful to create a visual map of your skills, your daily activities, your influences, your desired impact, your resources and any barriers between you and your goals.
Map your own career trajectory.
When navigating a transitional period of uncertainty, you engage in “wayfinding.” If you’re pursuing a career in the military or government, for example, you will wayfind in an aided manner – that is, with the help of existing structures – as these work environments continue to embrace established 20th-century models that offer clearly determined steps toward advancement. You can look to your predecessors’ career paths to help you plan your own.
By contrast, many 21st-century careers lack a clear trajectory. If you’re working in the gig economy, for example, you can’t simply mimic another person’s journey when considering what to do next. You must engage in “unaided wayfinding.” You have the choice between using “directed wayfinding” – seeking a specific end goal – or “undirected wayfinding” – exploring new areas or ideas, much like a wanderer who travels without a specific destination in mind.
“Sensemaking begins with creating space to get disparate thoughts, ideas and concerns out of our heads and into a place where we can visualize them, move them around and consider different, possibly surprising, combinations and configurations.”
As you explore possibilities, connect with your own hopes as a form of orientation to help you keep moving forward. Reflect on your current situation and on the past events that led you toward this period of uncertainty. What future do you hope to experience?
When engaging in unaided wayfinding, visually lay out – for example, by using an online whiteboard tool or paper sticky notes – all the information you possess relating to your future possibilities. Don’t categorize this information in any way. Just jot down ideas you don’t want to forget. Presenting information in this way helps you “zoom out,” freeing yourself from preconceived notions about what your career path ought to look like, so you can observe your situation more objectively. Move all your different ideas around like puzzle pieces to uncover a pathway forward unique to you.
Give yourself time for exploration and experimentation.
As you consider your next move, take time to explore your opportunities through experimentation to make a better-informed next step. You might find a “wandering” approach doesn’t work for you, and you desire more structure. If so, take inspiration from the participatory action research approach, which entails learning collaboratively through engaging with others. Just as people who want to build houses learn best by working alongside other builders – and not by simply reading books about building – you too need to carve out time to explore the potential of your ideas by taking aligned action with others. Overcome the impatience to find quick solutions.
“Suspending our impulse to figure things out and making space for discovery before we make firm decisions can remove pressure to choose while opening space for new opportunities and insights to emerge.”
To explore, you can design time-boxed experiments by using the “Experiment Design Canvas” approach. Make notes of what you already know about the problem you face. Then clearly identify what you hope to learn, and specify the steps you need to take to learn it, defining the number of days or months you’ll allot to each step. Before you embark on the exploration period, identify your own analysis and accountability tools. Will you keep audio notes, or write about your observations? Also, identify strategies that could help you gain perspective. For example, if you’re trying to build trust among your team through team-building activities, perhaps invite a peer observer to monitor the group and give feedback.
Align your priorities with your values, needs and desires, and then take action.
After you’ve explored your ideas, identify and implement a new way forward. First, learn: Reflect on the insights you’ve gathered during your experimentation. What excites you or sparks frustration or fear? Second, discern: You need discernment to move from the divergent thinking you relied on in the exploratory phase to the logical, convergent thinking necessary for execution. Reflect on how your priorities might have changed as a result of your new insights. Do you have enough information to make an informed choice about how to move forward in your life or career?
“Regardless of the particulars, even the most educated, talented and experienced people can (and often do) get stuck when they stand on the threshold of an uncertain professional or personal transition.”
Third, choose: You might see a clear action plan to prioritize, or you might need to weigh your options before you select the best one. Consider what you need, value and desire most. For example, what gives you the greatest sense of freedom or happiness? Fourth, confirm: Create your own system to help you recognize when you’ve made a choice that doesn’t work for you. For example, you might choose to measure your success in terms of outcomes and plan to switch course if you don’t achieve the results you hope for within a certain time frame.
Draw on courage, humility and passion to help you “wayfind” during uncertain times.
Your wayfinding journey helps you connect with what matters most to you, so you can align your actions with your passions – but only after you’ve learned to control your passions to ensure they don’t interfere with your decision-making process. When incendiary emotions overwhelm you, following your passions can lead to disaster, but after you’ve dispassionately chosen a new life or career plan, your passions can provide intrinsic motivation and perseverance. To keep up your motivation and prevent getting stuck, choose the scale on which you hope to make an impact on those around you: a local or individual level, a regional or group level, or a global or cultural level. Clarify where your motivations truly lie, and pursue them with passion.
Remember that What now? moments are inevitable. Learn to live with uncertainty by embracing the fact that your life will always be in flux. Humanity stands on the brink of experiencing fundamental shifts relating to the way people perceive reality, due to technological advancements in areas such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing. Task yourself with mustering the confidence and humility to act as a wayfinder during times of uncertainty. Embrace an ethos of lifelong learning.
Joan P. Ball is the founder of the WOMB Service Design Lab consultancy and an associate professor of marketing at St. John’s University in New York.
“Stop, Ask, Explore: Learn to Navigate Change in Times of Uncertainty” by Joan P. Ball is a compelling and practical guide that equips readers with the tools and mindset needed to navigate change and uncertainty successfully. Ball draws upon her expertise as a change management consultant and leadership coach to provide insightful strategies and actionable advice for individuals and organizations facing constant change in today’s fast-paced world.
The book centers around three key principles: stopping to assess the situation, asking the right questions, and exploring new possibilities. Ball emphasizes the importance of pausing amidst uncertainty, allowing oneself to reflect and gain clarity before taking action. Through thought-provoking exercises and real-life examples, she guides readers towards developing a growth-oriented mindset and embracing change as an opportunity for personal and professional growth.
Using a practical and step-by-step approach, Ball explores various facets of change, including managing emotions, adapting to new environments, and fostering resilience. She provides practical tools and frameworks for navigating change, such as the Change Navigation Model and the Change Resilience Cycle. These frameworks offer a structured approach to dealing with uncertainty and empower readers to make informed decisions and take purposeful actions.
Throughout the book, Ball emphasizes the importance of self-awareness and continuous learning. She encourages readers to cultivate curiosity, embrace discomfort, and seek out new perspectives. By adopting a growth mindset and viewing change as a catalyst for growth and innovation, readers can develop the resilience and adaptability needed to thrive in times of uncertainty.
“Stop, Ask, Explore” is an exceptional guide that effectively addresses the challenges of navigating change in an ever-evolving world. Joan P. Ball’s expertise and experience shine through as she provides readers with practical strategies and tools for embracing uncertainty and turning it into an opportunity for growth.
One of the book’s greatest strengths is its balance between theory and practical application. Ball presents a solid theoretical framework for understanding change and its impact on individuals and organizations. However, she goes beyond theory by offering concrete exercises, reflection questions, and real-life examples that allow readers to apply the concepts directly to their own lives and circumstances. This combination of theory and application makes the book highly engaging and actionable.
Ball’s emphasis on self-awareness and emotional intelligence is another standout aspect of the book. She acknowledges the emotional impact of change and provides strategies for managing and harnessing these emotions effectively. By promoting self-reflection and empathy, Ball helps readers develop a deeper understanding of themselves and others, fostering stronger relationships and more effective collaboration in times of change.
The practical tools and frameworks presented in the book are particularly valuable. The Change Navigation Model and the Change Resilience Cycle provide a clear and structured approach to navigating uncertainty. These frameworks offer guidance for assessing the current situation, identifying opportunities, and taking purposeful action. By using these frameworks, readers can approach change with confidence and make informed decisions.
While the book covers a wide range of topics related to change, some readers may find certain sections more applicable to their specific situations than others. However, Ball’s writing style is engaging and accessible, making it easy to navigate the content and extract relevant insights.
In summary, “Stop, Ask, Explore” is a comprehensive and practical guide that empowers individuals and organizations to navigate change in times of uncertainty. Joan P. Ball’s expertise, combined with her relatable examples and actionable strategies, makes this book a valuable resource for anyone seeking to thrive amidst constant change. By cultivating self-awareness, embracing curiosity, and applying the practical tools provided, readers can develop the resilience and adaptability needed to navigate change successfully and unlock new opportunities for growth.