How To Avoid Comparing And Despairing Over Your Career Right Now

If your first thought is "I didn't really do anything during the pandemic," think again. There are many ways to measure growth.
Avoid being trapped by other people's definitions of success, especially in a year like 2020.
francescoch via Getty Images
Avoid being trapped by other people's definitions of success, especially in a year like 2020.

The end of the year is typically a time to reflect on what you’ve accomplished in your career over the past 365 days.

But it’s likely the goals and plans you set at the beginning of January have been completely upended by the coronavirus pandemic, which has left millions of people unemployed and forced others to work from home and otherwise abandon normal ways of doing business.

During a strange, hard year like this, what does a healthy reflection on your career progress even look like?

Don’t compare and despair based on pre-COVID-19 goals.

Before you start evaluating how your plague year went, recognize how weird and difficult it has been for many of us.

“We are in, for most of us, a once-in-a-lifetime situation,” said Cicely Horsham-Brathwaite, a psychologist and executive coach. “Can you relieve some pressure to perform, given the circumstances? And can you offer yourself some compassion, given this reality?”

Yesel Yoon, a psychologist who specializes in career transitions and job uncertainty, said that one mistake people make is comparing who they were before the pandemic to now. “That’s comparing apples to oranges. It isn’t a fair thing to do to ourselves,” she said.

“Accomplishment is really based on what you value and how aligned your actions and outcomes are to your values.”

- Cicely Horsham-Brathwaite, a psychologist and executive coach

Instead, Yoon recommended creating more specific benchmarks that start after COVID-19 hit.

With these benchmarks, keep in mind that professional progress does not need to follow extrinsic markers of accomplishment, like a promotion to a bigger title or whether you achieved your OKRs. “Accomplishment is really based on what you value and how aligned your actions and outcomes are to your values,” said Horsham-Brathwaite.

On top of that, you should be careful not to discount the interpersonal relationships you gained and maintained this year as signs of progress. “During a time where there was a lot of disconnection, a lot of sense of isolation, we can’t take it for granted,” Yoon said. She suggested some questions to prompt reflection on this: Who are the people you maintained connections with? Even if you lost your job, how many people have you formed networking-type relationships with? Have you met new people in 2020 with whom you discussed your career?

Yoon said another mistake people make is focusing too much on whether they got the outcome they wanted. Instead, she said, reflect on whether you showed growth by looking at your original goal and asking yourself, “What was the underlying need or value that motivated this?”

Take the goal of writing a book. If the reason behind that was to achieve creative fulfillment, you can still honor the ways you upheld that value, even if you didn’t finish your manuscript. “You didn’t write the book, but you became really awesome at baking sourdough bread,” Yoon offered as an example of the different forms that creative achievement can take.

Use these techniques to prompt healthy reflection.

Recording positive moments by handwriting helps us process them more deeply, so formalize your reflections with pen and paper. Horsham-Brathwaite said you can write out the goals you wanted to accomplish, note what you ended up achieving, and keep track of what factors helped or hindered you in this process.

If your work year has been one stressful blur, pull up outside evidence ― like positive emails from clients and colleagues ― so that you can see the difference you have made in or for others. Or if you’re stumped, you can ask close colleagues what they’ve noticed about your career progress, Horsham-Brathwaite suggested.

If you’re having trouble remembering what you did this year, Yoon said to grab the calendar where you jotted down events and pick out one thing per month that you accomplished.

Don’t take a goal that wasn’t met as a personal failing.

Not achieving a career goal this year doesn’t mean you should quit and decide that goal can never be reached.

Use the setback as an opportunity to reevaluate. “In the face of not performing in the way that you had hoped, what can you do now to increase the likelihood that you will moving forward?” Horsham-Brathwaite said.

Don’t get caught up in self-blame. Attribute the reasons why you didn’t achieve your goals to the appropriate factors. During the pandemic, a lot of setbacks were likely circumstantial. Instead of thinking, “That didn’t happen, which means I suck,” examine what really occurred so you can move forward without endlessly ruminating on what you didn’t do.

“Is that still something that you want to do going forward?” Yoon suggested asking yourself. “If so, then what do you feel got in the way of those things happening? Are you interested in finding a workaround?”

Recognize that you, like many people, may have made tradeoffs in your personal and professional life this year. Sometimes, not achieving a goal can be a helpful wake-up call on the values that are most important to you.

“COVID has led people to really evaluate what’s most important,” Horsham-Brathwaite said, and many learned “that the thing they were driving towards doesn’t actually matter to them the way that they thought it would.”