By Sarah Goldberg, Undergraduate Career Development

Can you tell me about a time you had to rise to a challenge?

Back in March, one of my students, a senior, emailed me a meme her friends had shared with her, with the note that “it felt relevant.”

You might have seen it, too:

A stock-image photo of a generic Class of 2020 guy in a suit, the bemused look on his face evidence of his reaction to an interviewer asking him, “Can you tell me about a time you had to adapt to a difficult challenge?”

Though each person’s experience of the past six months has been unique, what binds these experiences is the challenge of having to navigate situations in which there are many uncertainties and circumstances outside of our control.

We know that this heightened sense of uncertainty can make career planning and the job search more challenging.

Luckily, one of our favorite podcasts, The Happiness Lab, has been sharing lots of tips this spring about how to find calm amidst the storm. Below, you can find three of our favorite tips from the show that you can use when it comes to career.

Tip #1: (Re)focus on what you care about.

“What the science suggests is that … when you’re experiencing a big existential crisis, double down on the things that you find important, that you find meaningful, that give you purpose in life.” 

—Dr. Laurie Santos, “Helping the Helpers,” The Happiness Lab

One way to apply this idea to your career planning is by carving out some time to reflect on what it is that you care about, and why. If you’re not sure where to start, our values list may jog your mind—and, of course, we’re also happy to talk about this with you in career counseling.

This process of reflection can help you feel more energized about the things you’re already doing that align with your values and sense of purpose. Why do you care about doing these things? When have you felt proud of your work? What did that feel like? 

This reflection can also spark ideas for other ways you might like to invest time and energy into the things you care about. Is there a cause you’d like to volunteer for? Something you’d really like to learn? People you’d like to deepen relationships with?

This ties nicely into our next tip … 

Tip #2: Think about what you can control.

“You are right now experiencing a number of obstacles that you’ve never had to experience before in your life. And the question is, how do you respond to them.”

—Dr. Bill Irvine, “Rising to a Challenge,” The Happiness Lab

In recent episodes of her podcast, Dr. Santos has spoken with experts on a variety of science-informed strategies for regulating our emotional reactions to situations in which there are a lot of frustrating realities outside of our control. Though we’ve found value in many of these strategies, there is one in particular we’d like to pass along that we find especially relevant when it comes to career.

Santos’ guest Dr. Bill Irvine, who has written several books about Stoic philosophy, refers to this strategy as a future storytelling frame: a mental framing technique that you can use when you’re faced with an unexpected obstacle or challenge.

What does this look like?

As Irvine puts it: “Another thing you can do as you go about your days is imagine yourself in the future … in terms of the story you’re going to tell in the future about this.”

When you apply this frame of mind to what you’re experiencing in the present, you allow yourself to experience some degree of psychological distance from the challenge you’re facing. It also helps you think of yourself as “somebody who kind of cleverly addressed those challenges, smiled their way through those challenges, found workarounds for those challenges.”

You can use this framing technique if, for instance, you learn that an internship you’d secured is canceled due to COVID, or that it won’t be possible to continue your previous research experience in the fall semester. 

Faced with these real disappointments, you can ask yourself: What could I do instead? How can I find an alternative path forward? And what story could I tell down the road, maybe even to a future employer, about how I overcame this challenge? 

This strategy will, we know, never be a one-size-fits-all solution, and may not be appropriate for every situation. Nevertheless, it can be a helpful way to remind yourself that what you’re experiencing right now probably won’t be permanent, and that you have the ingenuity to devise a solution. Journey competency of resilience, anyone?

Tip #3: Be thoughtful about your screentime.

“Because we’re having such huge exposure to screen time right now, it’s becoming easier to see the difference in how off-screen things make us feel.”

—Catherine Price, author of How to Break Up with Your Phone, in “Good Screens and Bad Screens,” The Happiness Lab

Finally, in your process of exploring careers or searching for jobs, it’s inevitable that you’re going to spend a certain amount of time in front of a screen.

We appreciated science journalist Catherine Price’s reflections on screen time not as inherently bad, but rather as something that may have different “nutritional value” for each individual. Price, for instance, looks at her own screen time in terms of whether she is consuming information, creating something, or connecting with others, where her own balanced diet would include very little of the first, a lot of the second, and some of the third.

Applying this advice to your own experience, reflect on how the screen time you’re investing into your career makes you feel. Then, ask yourself what strategies you can use to limit the screen time that’s undermining, rather than contributing to, your sense of well being.

For instance, if you find that scouring job boards before bed makes you feel icky, can you limit doing that work to an hour in the morning? Can you turn off pop-up notifications for any job-search–related apps you have, or limit your exposure to them during certain times of day using a Do Not Disturb?

Consider, as well, strategies that you can use to cut down on your screen time overall, so that you can use your screen time judiciously. Are any of the things you’re currently doing on a screen ones that you can limit time-wise? Can you do any of those things off-line, and away from the computer?

For instance, could you have some of your informational interviews on the phone instead, or on a socially distant walk? Could you brainstorm and outline that cover letter longhand? Could you print out your cover letter to mark up red-pen–style?

Finally, we love Price’s tip of finding greater screen-life balance by creating a list of the off-screen things you feel good doing. Then, in those moments when your instinct is to reach for your phone, you’ll have this list handy for ideas of other ways you could spend your time.

These activities might even connect back to the things you brainstormed above, that you find particularly meaningful!