How to Adapt to Changes in Your Career Plans

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Startup of You" by Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What are the benefits of being flexible with your career? How do you adapt to change in the work world?

When you prioritize adaptability, you can not only survive unpredictable challenges but also seize unexpected opportunities. The Startup of You by Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha says that to fashion a flexible career, you must follow three steps.

Check out these three steps so you know how to adapt to change.

1. Create Multiple Career Plans

To navigate the ever-changing job landscape and learn how to adapt to change quickly, plan out three possible career paths instead of a single one. The authors explain that many startup companies became successful not because they had a brilliant idea from the start but because they could pivot quickly when their idea failed or when a better direction opened up. Like these successful startups, make plans so that you’re prepared to switch paths easily, take risks, and be resilient to setbacks. Here are the three plans you should have in place:

Your Current Path (“Plan A”): This is the path that you’re currently on or the field that you’re working in. For example, you might be working full-time as a software engineer.

Your Alternative (“Plan B”): Your alternative plan should be in a field related to Plan A, one that you can turn to if you run into problems with your current path or if a promising opportunity suddenly appears. For example, if you’re a software engineer, your Plan B might be related to game development. If you suddenly notice an exciting opportunity, such as promising advances in virtual reality, you can pivot quickly to seize it. The authors advise you to shift to Plan B before you think you should or consider starting it up on the side.

Your Last Resort (“Plan Z”): Your last resort plan is where you go to regroup if opportunities fall through or if the risks you take don’t work out. This could mean moving back in with your parents or working temporary gigs like driving for rideshare services. When you have a Plan Z, you feel more comfortable taking risks and acting quickly on potential life-changing opportunities.

2. Attract Opportunities

Plans can help you maneuver through the unpredictable work world, but success often comes in the form of unexpected opportunities that you must quickly adapt to. While you might not be able to predict which opportunities will be truly transformative, you can increase the odds by learning to attract more of them. 

(Shortform note: Being able to seize unexpected opportunities is a factor that makes you “lucky,” according to one study. The study found that it’s not so much that some people are lucky and others are unlucky when it comes to chance opportunities—it’s that “lucky people” are better at noticing opportunities than “unlucky people.” This is because they have a broader and more open focus—rather than looking for what they want, they remain open to what’s possible. Similarly, they actively vary their routines, which increases the chances of encountering opportunities.)

Hoffman and Casnocha write that to expose yourself to more opportunities, you must develop your curiosity and get involved with different groups of people. The more information and people you encounter, the more you increase the chances that you’ll encounter a breakthrough idea, a favorable opportunity, or a new passion. Specifically, the authors recommend you find small, informal groups of people who share similar interests or goals. Whether it’s a club or an alumni association, tight-knit and niche networks often circulate the richest ideas—each individual has their own ideas and connections that can benefit you.

(Shortform note: Joining groups isn’t always easy, especially if you’re introverted. To become a better “joiner,” experts recommend you practice by talking more with your coworkers or reconnecting with an old friend. Then, join a casual networking event with people that have shared interests or hobbies since it’s easier to find topics to discuss. If you don’t know anyone, approach others who are alone or groups of people standing in an open formation rather than a closed circle as they tend to be more open to others joining the conversation.)

3. Take Calculated Risks

Once you’re attracting more opportunities into your life, how do you know which ones to pursue? To be adaptive in your career, you must take smart risks—those with benefits that outweigh any possible negative outcomes. To assess whether a risk is worth taking, ask yourself if you can handle the worst-case scenario.

For example, you might be working on a project that requires you to invest some personal funds to launch it on a new platform. If some extra money could make your project more successful, and losing that money wouldn’t hurt you, the risk might be a smart one to take.

An Exercise for Assessing Risk

In Tools of Titans, Tim Ferriss says that people often let opportunities pass them by because of fear, and he provides an exercise you can do to overcome fear and determine whether a risk is worth taking. Like Hoffman and Casnocha, he recommends you consider the worst case scenario but suggests you additionally ask yourself how likely it is to occur and how you could bounce back from it. Then, Ferriss suggests you consider what the best case scenario would be and reflect on how it would improve your life. You can further imagine how your life would be if you don’t take the risk and consider whether you’d have any regrets.

Once you’ve run through these imaginary scenarios, you’ll get a clearer picture of how each outcome will affect your life, and you might realize that the risk isn’t as dangerous as you first considered it to be.

According to Hoffman and Casnocha, people tend to overestimate risk, which holds them back from pursuing opportunities that could lead to rapid career growth. There’s an evolutionary reason behind this aversion to risk: Our ancestors were more likely to survive by playing it safe. Today, we no longer face life-threatening dangers, but our heightened sensitivity to risky situations remains.

(Shortform note: Other experts note that, in certain situations, people also have a tendency to underestimate risk because of the optimism bias—the belief that we’re more likely to experience positive events and less likely to experience negative events. For example, you might neglect to wear a helmet while riding a bike because you assume that you will never crash. Psychologists explain that our optimism bias, like risk aversion, is an evolutionary adaptation—one that improves your happiness and well-being since you worry less and feel more hopeful about the future.)

Taking the occasional risk, the authors argue, actually prepares you for more long-term success than pure stability. That’s because when things go wrong in your career, you’ve had practice overcoming uncertainties and setbacks.

(Shortform note: Taking the occasional risk not only helps you with career success but allows you to live a life with fewer regrets. In Who Will Cry When You Die, Robin Sharma says that taking risks allows you to experience more than someone who avoids adventurous experiences out of caution.)

How to Adapt to Changes in Your Career Plans

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Startup of You summary:

  • Why you must approach your career as if it's a startup company
  • How to overcome unexpected career obstacles
  • The three entrepreneurship principles you should adopt

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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