How to Be Resilient in an Uncertain Career Marketplace

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John Tarnoff

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As older workers, we face more challenges in maintaining and extending our careers. How can we learn to become more resilient and succeed despite adversity?

I’ve been hearing the word “resilient” increasingly over the past few months as the world grapples with the traumatic effects of the global pandemic and its economic consequences. Indeed, to meet these challenges, older workers will need to develop personal practices that build strength and endurance as well as pliability and adaptability.

Older workers were recovering from the 2009 Recession and benefitting from the full employment jobs market over the past few years. Now, however, we are facing the prospect of not only losing those gains but plunging into a longer and deeper chasm of career uncertainty. There will likely be fewer job prospects for older workers, as well as a resurgence of ageism and ageist hiring policies. The psychic as well as economic damage is going to be significant.

Accordingly, we need to look beyond traditional career development and job search practices to prepare for this uneasy and dangerous time.

Redefining What It Means to Be Resilient

The classic definition of the word “resilient” means being able to bounce back from stress, to spring back into shape, to recover from illness or adversity or setbacks.

Today we are facing multiple crises that seem to be stacked on top of one another. To be resilient, we need to be able to do more than simply recover or bounce back like an inflatable punching bag. We have to think and act multi-dimensionally.

Be more resilient.

Resilience should not only be the ability or capacity to bounce back. It must also be the ability to persist and endure through repeated stresses, setbacks, and losses. We also have to be more pro-active. We can’t wait for the next challenge to knock us down on the assumption that we’ll be able to bounce back because we’re resilient.

We need to be able to observe and anticipate what is heading our way and make course corrections if necessary to ensure our ability to bounce back and then persist – or to circumvent the challenge and preserve our strength for the next time we get knocked down.

If we only accept the classic definition of what it means to be resilient, then sooner or later, after being knocked down, again and again, we’re going to stay down, depleted and exhausted. Without developing a framework or methodology to persist and endure to the end, we run the very real risk of being overwhelmed.

Being Resilient is More Than Being Tough

Being tough, thick-skinned, stubborn, or single-minded is not going to help us through this crisis.

The idea that we can hold our ground or lock ourselves into position and wait for the storm to pass is an outdated concept from a simpler time. We need to use this opportunity to rethink and adjust to the new realities that are emerging from this multi-dimensional crisis.

Pliability, adaptability, agility, recovery, and perspective are the true metrics for success in this new world. With everything changing so fast around us, we have to develop and maintain a set of processes and practices that can carry us through the uncertainties regardless of current conditions. Being tough is only going to render us more isolated, entrenched in old ways, and incapable of discerning, or even creating, other options.

Expanding Our Mindset

Developing this newer, more extensive type of resilience means that we will not only be able to bounce back, but to bounce back continually, and under constantly changing varieties of stresses and challenges.

We will have to think more deeply and more strategically about who we are as older workers, what our goals are, how events and trends are impacting us, and what opportunities we can find or create to circumvent obstacles and stay on course.

We have to think beyond the job descriptions and roles we once enjoyed, reset our expectations around what we can and should expect, and be willing to do whatever it takes to stay in the game. This could include investing time and money in retraining ourselves, expanding our networks to partner with new people in new kinds of businesses, and to take risks we might not have considered previously.

Initial Steps Towards a New Resilience

Many trainings and workshops are being developed and rolled out around building resilience at this time. This is good news for all of us who are interested in taking more control of our career process.

At the same time, it is unlikely that any single program will provide a full 360-degree perspective on the practices necessary to develop beyond becoming classic bounce-back resilient into being persistently resilient. For that to take place I believe we will have to go deeper and challenge ourselves to really change some of our underlying assumptions about ourselves, and what we are capable of doing.

The following practices and concepts are an imperfect starting point. I’m not suggesting that I have the answer or the answers. The following is a set of ideas to get you thinking about this question. From there, you can decide whether to engage in one or more courses of action and see where that takes you.

At the very least, these times call for each of us to think and act differently about our future careers.

Seven Practices to Build A New Resilience

Please don’t stand on the sidelines waiting for the current crisis to pass and for things to “get back to normal.” It’s not going to be that simple.

Instead, start building a conscious resilience methodology and a regular set of practices to go with it.

Experiment with these concepts and apply them to your current career challenges. Track your progress. Over the next months, see if these activities help you anticipate problems, develop a wider and better set of strategies, and ultimately attain the level of success and inner satisfaction you are aiming for.

As older workers, we are particularly vulnerable to discouragement, condescension, and dismissive attitudes from the world around us that wants to see us as “done.” It is incumbent upon us to vigorously push back and claim our seat at the career table.

Building Habits and Consistency

Most resilience training practice starts with the process of building positive, self-honoring habits. Figure out ways to make them consistent and embedded in your consciousness and your daily routine. This includes three main categories: mindfulness training and meditation, productivity and time management, and maintaining your body and your physical health. If you do not yet have a daily or a weekly set of routines around these three headline areas – or if you are struggling to achieve consistency with your routine – this is your first priority before venturing into other areas of focus.

How to know if you need to focus here?

Are you sleeping well? At least 7 hours per night? Do you have an effective task management/project management system? Are you using technology to do more while reducing stress or do you feel overwhelmed with work? Are you taking care of your mind and your body every day through good nutrition, meditation, exercise, close relationships, or being of service to others?

These are just a few challenge prompts. If you find your anxiety level rising as you read the list, this is indeed where you want to focus.

Following Your Own Counsel

As older workers, we are now the sages. This doesn’t mean that we know all, or that we always make the best decisions, but we do (or should) know ourselves by this time. I am continually amazed at how many people our age ignore the value of their wisdom and their intuition. They have spent so much time in their lives working for other people and accepting the directives and prescriptions of others, that they neglect to look inside for the richness that has been developing over the years.

Cultivating a listening practice with yourself is crucial at this stage of your life. While you were otherwise running around managing your career and your family and your social life, there was a part of you inside taking notes and learning lessons. Now is the time to check in with that insightful part of you and harvest the vast amount of life skills, wisdom, and perspective that is at your disposal.

How to do that?

As many of you know, I am tireless about advocating that everyone **keep a daily journal** to develop this dialogue and turn that embedded wisdom into actionable ideas and strategies that you can use to become more resilient.

Unwavering Flexibility

Just by showing up, you have probably nailed one of life’s most imponderable questions: how do I maintain my direction and achieve my goals if I am constantly being thrown off course?

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” John Lennon

At this point, the irony of that statement is no longer a joke. It’s your actual experience.

You understand how to dance this dance. You know that you’re going to be pushed into detours. You know that some of your brilliant ideas turned out to be worthless. You know that some of your greatest successes or achievements happened unexpectedly.

But you kept going. You were ultimately unwavering in your willingness to just show up and try again.

In that sense, much of your resilience is already there. It is already built in.

Your past is indeed prologue. You are actually well-prepared for the uncertain times and the uncertain future that we are all facing. Yes, these are unprecedented times in many ways, but you know what it’s like to arrive at the far shore after navigating through a storm. Keep that in mind as you engage with your current challenges.

As a way of reminding yourself of your proven capability, I would encourage you to write out five examples from your life and career of how you overcame an obstacle. How has something that happened to you in your 20s or 30s or 40s become a defining incident that inspired or informed a path that you took, and persisted on to eventual success?

Appreciate this evidence of your ability to make it through bad times. Acknowledge your track record and recognize that it increases the odds of your succeeding through the current challenge.

Creating a Career Narrative

We all thrive on stories. I’m just one of many people who highlight the power of storytelling, and its importance in career-building. But only now, after 30 or 40 years on the job can you actually chart the progression of that career story that you have written through your actions and decisions.

Crafting your career narrative helps you connect to your sense of purpose and the reason you love doing what you love doing. Understanding this “why” aspect of your professional life can help you become more resilient.

Here’s a quick exercise to help you capture the essence of that career narrative. I use this with clients to help them fill in the About section in a LinkedIn profile.

Write three short paragraphs.

The first paragraph is your origin story. Describe in 2-3 sentences the early experience or incident that put you on the path to your career. Looking back, was it about the people, the challenges, learning new things? What inspired you to launch, and to keep going?

The second paragraph is another 2-3 sentences that reflect the highlights of what you’ve achieved. What have been the high points of your work life? What are the most memorable experiences, projects, people you worked with, results that you’ve achieved, or ways in which you affected people’s lives?

The third paragraph is your aspirational statement of where you’re going. How do you want to put what you’ve shared in the first two paragraphs to work now and in the future. Set some general goals for yourself. Define the legacy that you want to leave.

Building a Career Portfolio

You are more than an expert in your field. You are more than your resume. Your value, especially at this time in your life, lies at the intersection of your professional profile combined with your personal growth and experience.

Just as an artist builds a portfolio of different and evolving styles and subjects over time, your career is a reflection of you as a whole person.

Many clients come to me feeling awkward about how to include all of the things they do into their resume and profile. They worry that they’re going to come across as scattered and unfocused.

In fact, the reverse is true. Identify the themes behind your accomplishments (your “why”). This can help people connect the dots between the multiple dimensions of your life that make you a unique and more effective professional.

As an example, don’t think that something like coaching your kids’ soccer team was just some add-on that you put on your resume because you’re supposed to fill out the “Additional Activities” category. Talk about, for example, how building and managing that team taught you how to be a better manager of your team at work – and vice versa.

Integrate your life and career stories, finding the themes that are most meaningful to you. This holistic understanding prepares you to see and master opportunities that come your way. It helps you to be more resilient, and to understand the ways in which seemingly disparate events or information actually connect.

The portfolio approach represents you as a mult-dimensional thinker who has the critical thinking and EQ to be a leader or to assume significant responsibility.

Expressing Curiosity

Media mogul Barry Diller, former Chair of Paramount Pictures and the man who built and launched Fox Broadcasting for Rupert Murdoch has said:

“We’re in a world now where it’s not enough to be smart. You have to be curious.”

Dare to be curious about the world around you, including the threats that could upset your status quo.

Question everything, especially what you think you know about yourself, your business, your community, and the way the world works. It is likely that what worked for you in the past will no longer work for you in the future. This includes everything from performing your job, to navigating the process of finding a new job or exploring the opportunity to start a new business.

Being curious means you’re going to have to reach out to people for more information. You probably have a few questions pop up every time you read a news article. Do you ever spend a couple of extra minutes googling those questions?

Do you engage with others on social media, especially on LinkedIn? Participating in serious discussions with smart people can be illuminating and can expand your network. (But don’t get drawn into culture wars, partisanship or other no-win conversations).

Being curious gets you into the “what-if” habit. Strategic speculation can be a valuable mental exercise that improves your ability to detect trends and effectively plan for differing future scenarios.

If you want to spike your curiosity quotient, read more books. Reserve 20-30 minutes every day to immerse yourself in someone else’s mindset and world view. It can be a novel, a biography, a business book, a history book – whatever! A constant flow of new information and points of view will make you more resilient. It will stimulate your curiosity and exercise your mind about thinking differently.

Embracing Discomfort

Being uncomfortable is perhaps one of the hardest things for us to handle in our culture.

Since World War II, we have been incredibly fortunate to enjoy unparalleled peace and prosperity in the West, and especially in the U.S.. Despite our engagement in many global conflicts, those conflicts have occurred far away. Ironically, we have been openly encouraged to live our lives as if they were not a concern.

And now we find ourselves facing truly existential and long term uncertainty.

My prescription may sound wacky and counter-intuitive. But bear with me.

Forgive yourself. It’s not your fault.

When things go south, we tend to blame ourselves. If only we had done something differently or made a different decision… This often happens when we get fired from a job, or suffer a similar big loss. Blaming ourselves is one way of processing the pain of the loss and attributing a reason for it and the ensuing uncertainty.

I know it sounds strange, but it is actually less stressful for us to blame ourselves and believe that it is somehow our fault, than to accept that life is random and uncertain and that it could have nothing to do with us. Blaming ourselves at least gives us the illusion that we have, or had, some control over the situation.

So imagine this tendency in the context of the global pandemic. Of course you know consciously that you had nothing to do with it. But do you ever find yourself wondering if you could have been better prepared? Do you beat yourself up for not having enough money in the bank? Do you feel bad for having avoided making a decision that could have helped you better prepare for this uncertainty?

I’m a big fan of the Buddhist writer Pema Chodron. When I left my job at DreamWorks Animation in 2009 I knew that it was time to embark on a consulting and education-focused career. I was terrified and felt anything but resilient. I had all the career transition skills I needed, but I woke up every morning in a panic about starting a new career with no income and no clients. Chodron’s book Comfortable With Uncertainty helped me get on track.

Compassion Builds Resilience

Focusing on your forgiveness and compassion for yourself short-circuits the illusory negativity that wants to tear you down. Having compassion for yourself is actually a resilience-building process. Surrender the negative future fantasies that your mind creates in the face of the external uncertainty. Be a parent to yourself in the moment of fear and stress.

Through this process, you re-balance your outlook and adopt a more neutral attitude towards the uncertainty and your own discomfort. You can even begin to understand the discomfort as something of gift. It can be the proverbial pebble in your shoe that reminds you that you are on the way to your destination. You can be mindful of every step you take.

Each day that you actually survive in the midst of the uncertainty and the discomfort is a sign that you are stronger, undefeated – and more resilient

Over time, you might even find yourself invigorated by the discomfort. You come to see it as part of the pathway to the goals you want to achieve. You get used to the fact that it’s there every day, but that you are mastering it by the actions you take to advance towards your goals.

Share the Road

As with everything we study, we never truly know how much we’ve learned until we try to share it with someone else.

If you’ve read this far, you’re one of those people who is willing to entertain new ideas and expend significant time and energy towards mastering your future. Pay your experience forward by engaging in these practices, and then sharing your experience with others. You will learn to personalize and make your practice more effective for your own needs and aspirations. And you will inspire and guide others to do the same for their goals and to improve their own lives and careers.


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  • John, reading this encouraging and compassionate article is like drinking a cool glass of water on a hot summer day with a good friend. I can think of 3 people to share this with immediately. Thank you.

  • This is a fantastic and insightful article. Thank you for timely reminders!

    I regard myself as being highly resilient due to past experience, but am finding it harder to get up and brush myself off again, especially with each new report of virus spread. I like the ideas you have offered up here and will add more to the structure of my days. The failure to do so, is highly unappealing!

    Thank you!

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