When the Familiar Becomes Unfamiliar

We’re currently in what I’ve been referring to as the “messy middle” of the pandemic return-to-office experience.

Many people planned to return in September, but COVID cases trended back up and our plans were upended again. We expected things to have changed for the better by now; instead, we’re left with no clear end in sight. Living with this much uncertainty can make even the most familiar things feel alien to us.

That’s certainly been the case for me.

Before COVID hit, I had lived in New York City for 20 years. During the worst of the crisis, my family and I moved into a rental house in northwest Connecticut. It was a safe and comforting place to be during so much upheaval.

But we always knew we wanted to return, and with schools reopening this fall, we felt the time was right.

We’ve been overjoyed to be back: We missed our friends, family and community. We missed my daughter Chloe’s favorite playground. We missed good bagels. We missed random city encounters. (Yesterday, my husband and Chloe walked past someone walking a turtle on a leash.)

And yet, things aren’t quite the same here, as they aren’t anywhere right now. My new neighbors are wearing masks, some of my favorite shops and restaurants have closed, and there are now written and unwritten rules about interacting in public spaces.

Those differences have taken the most familiar aspects of our daily lives and made them feel unfamiliar.

The city is the same… but different.

Here are a few ways I’m working through this uncomfortable, messy middle stage. Perhaps they’ll be helpful to you through your own experiences this fall.

Take One Small Step, and Then Another

I’m a very organized person (#Virgo). Not being able to control and arrange my surroundings fuels my anxiety. But even as I write this, I have stacks of clothes and books and office supplies behind me that aren’t yet in their place.

My moving boxes feel like metaphors. Everything in the world is still in flux and yet to find a resting place. We could reach herd immunity this year, or we could see yet another variant of the virus rear its ugly head. We could have in person conferences, or we might continue staring at Zoom.

I know you’re feeling that anxiety, too.

The most common question I’ve received as I’m out promoting my latest book, Recalculating, is, “How do I move forward in my career when things are so uncertain?”

I feel that so deeply. And the only answer I have is to take the smallest possible step you can to move forward. Any movement is progress.

Apply for one job a day. Send one business development email. Do one push-up.

I’ll unpack one small box. We’ll do it together.

Take a Chance on Yourself

On the flip side, now could also be a great time to make a big leap. Because so much is still in flux, you can make moves without causing too many noticeable ripples. Research a career change. Launch a side gig. Write a book proposal.

If you try something new and it doesn’t work out, you have the cover of the pandemic. Maybe you take steps towards starting your own business, but then realize it’s not for you. Nobody will look sideways at you for not successfully launching a business given the events of the past two years.

And if it does work out, you have more time to plan your big move and ramp up slowly as the “new normal” becomes clearer.

Find Ways to Help

Important note: You don’t have to do any of this alone.

It’s critical to recognize and use your resources, personal and professional. I’ve asked a friend to help me unpack and arrange furniture. And you know what? With two of us working towards a shared goal, we’ve been able to bring order to the chaos a little more quickly.

You don’t have to ask for free favors if that makes you uncomfortable. Find something to offer in return. It’s like the Buy Nothing Project on Facebook. You might have a skill set that you can share with someone who really needs it.

Maybe you can offer someone interview tips, for example, in exchange for their review of your resume. Even in the middle of constant change and uncertainty, building relationships by helping each other will bring us out the other side stronger.

As you come to terms with the unfamiliar, remember that one thing is certain: you can take control of your life even when the world is unpredictable. Don’t let uncertainty smother you. Keep moving forward, a little bit every day. Now and always.

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Lindsey is a globally recognized career and workplace expert and the leading voice on generational diversity. She has spoken for more than 300 audiences including Google, Goldman Sachs, Estee Lauder, Stanford and Wharton. Lindsey is the author of four career and workplace advice books, and her insights have appeared in media outlets including The TODAY Show, CNBC, NPR, the Harvard Business Review and the Wall Street Journal.


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