The Episodic Career: How to Thrive at Work in the Age of Disruption
By Farai Chideya
Atria Books, 2016
Book Review by Alyson Nyiri
No one gets a free ride in life or work writes Chideya. Whether you call it resilience, grit or optimism, in the world of jobs we must learn to evolve into a different form, tapping into what we have done, finding a new focus, and leveraging aspects of ourselves previously dormant.
The Great Recession of 2007-2009 took the guts out of many of us. Employers too. Jobs were lost, benefits cut to the bone, as employers started to realize the savings and benefits of moving employees to contract status. In 2017, it seems little has changed. Many employers still favour contract work and lean benefit packages leaving workers with much less security. For some, this new “gig” economy has created new opportunities while for others, it has not.
Despite the temptation to favour candidates with steady employment histories, Chideya argues that candidates with episodic careers, including breaks, transitions and repositions are becoming the norm, often bringing with them a greater variety of skills. Writing reflectively on the devastating effects of unemployment, Chideya looks for solutions. Central to her book is the focus on integrating our work within the larger framework of our lives.
A successful episodic career, writes Chideya, stands on three pillars:
- Self-knowledge. Start with your heart, and you will find which kinds of workplaces and workstyles give you the best shot at success.
- Understanding the job market. Know your field(s) and how the market is locally, nationally, and globally – as well as how it’s evolving.
- Emotional resilience. No one, not even billionaires, has lived a life without setbacks. And no one, not even the long-term unemployed or people with life, family, or health challenges, is shut out of meaningful life.
Mastering and integrating these three pillars allows us to “work freely” to be aware of our belief systems and what we want from life.
Based on results from a large national survey that her company conducted, she developed the Work/Life Matrix to help individuals formulate career goals, lifestyle and personality into one of 16 archetypes. The difference in this archetypical matrix is that each archetype gauges how flexible individuals are to ups and downs of the labour market rather than to personality preferences. The promise of the Work/Life Matrix is to help individuals set their trajectory in the era of episodic careers and understand the power of intention we bring to our work.
The Matrix centres around four core questions designed to help move past uncertainty and stress. The first question asks whether you build your career with care and caution (C) or take significant risks (R). The second question asks whether you want to have a high impact (H) with your work or a sense of accomplishment (P). The third question asks if you are happiest as an innovator (I) or an executor (E). The final question asks whether you are mainly a solo decision-maker (S) or a team-oriented decision-maker (T).
Using four letters, not unlike MBTI, the Life/Work Matrix has 16 archetypes.
The CH types are cautious careerists who do high-social-impact work. RH types combine risk taking and high social impact, creating change with high autonomy but within existing systems. CP types are cautious careerists who don’t see their work as having inherently high social impact, but who make social impact through volunteering or other methods. RP types are higher risk-taking individuals who choose passive social impact work.
While the Matrix isn’t grounded in a specific career development theory nor is it a psychometric instrument by definition, it does provide another way for both counsellors and clients to view their work style and preferences. Chideya provides details about each of the 16 “types” and brings each to life through the descriptions of individual work/life stories.
In succeeding chapters, Chideya provides tips and suggestions on how to find work in this new landscape, including helpful advice on tackling the impact of race, gender and religion on job search. One of the points she makes that has significant impact is “knowing your own value, not just monetarily, but also emotionally, spiritually, or in terms of self-worth, is key to surviving hostile or indifferent workplaces.”
Resilience, simply stated, is the ability to bounce back after adversity. Dr Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian psychologist, is best known for his work on flow, the psychology of optimal experience. His work examined the critical aspects of what is needed in work and play for us to fully engage. Flow occurs when our skill level is matched in incremental and increasing order, with challenge. The more time we spend in flow, the more time we learn how to have good experiences. Bad experiences are opportunities for growth. In collaboration with Dr Martin Seligman, positive psychology blossomed. Our capacity for resilience is a key feature of positive psychology and helped to build optimism. Their work is the foundation of much of the recent writing on resilience.
Chideya’s chapter on resilience is no exception. She writes that recovering from layoffs, termination, and other career disasters requires resilience. No one gets a free ride in life or work, writes Chideya. The survivors and thrivers in the current marketplace will be those who can recover from setbacks big and small; learn from their mistakes; and not become bitter when they lose a job through no fault of their own. Resilience will enable a client to build allies critical to their job search, improvise when things get tough, and build a narrative that positively reflects their episodic career.
The Episodic Career is a good read, filled with sharp-eyed analysis and tender and tragic stories of individuals reflecting on their work lives. Chideya offers career practitioners an easy to use matrix to assist clients with their ongoing efforts of building a personal and work life.
Alyson Nyiri, BA, CDP, CHRL, is a freelance writer and researcher specializing in the areas of women’s career development, human resources, leadership and community economic development. She spent over 12 years as a career counsellor followed by the last 12 years in human resources and community economic development. She is a regular contributor to HRPA’s HR Professional magazine where she has reviewed hundreds of books in the past six years. You can reach her at email@example.com or through her blog.