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Career Resilience - a Protean approach

Updated: Feb 8, 2021

A Protean Career for STEM Professionals – what is it and why you may need one?

At the rate work-life is changing and boundaries are blurring, our career plans can feel ‘all at sea’. Quite aside from any virus, the topography was shifting with reduced need for some traditionally ‘safe’ jobs (even industries) and new forms of employment emergent. The question is how do we respond – do we skill-up, change tack or fundamentally reinvent careers as a concept? Climbing a pre-determined career ladder is an anchoring ‘ideal’ we will soon be cutting loose from. It appears the freedom to grow along horizontal and diagonal (rather than vertical) paths is beckoning.

Could our future careers be ‘Protean’?

Proteus was a figure in Greek mythology and a God of “elusive sea change”. The adjective ‘protean’ means versatile and ‘capable of assuming many forms’. Prototypes and prototypical models are needed when we face dynamic 'environments requiring unique solutions. If this sounds like heavy lifting, when we resist then it certainly can be but it can also feel quite natural with the right rules to ground us. A Protean approach requires us to be self-driven by our own values that don’t as much anchor but act as a rudder to steer us on our (hopefully) long journey. Proteus inspires us to adapt, pivot and multi-track without losing our direction. For a start, we can plot two adjacent routes, changing tack when the wind dies down in any one direction and resuming studies or lines of work depending on which serve us best in changing conditions.

What is the role of employers in a 'Protean' Career?

A good employer is the sponsor for our voyage but maybe for just one leg. As patron, their role is provide useful resources like basic scaffolding to reinforce harbours and the opportunities to help calibrate our own navigation system. It is up to us though as captains to use these opportunities well and understand how each adds value for what is a shared expedition. Learning to work as a part of a good crew is conducive to learning well – including owning any collective mistakes.

Peers can be our best allies offering a deep pool of knowledge and even testing our commitment. Either being mentored or challenged will serve as a jetty to launch a new learning trip. While individualised professional development plans are great, integrating work with what we learn can take a consortium effort. This is more so the case now than ever in an increasingly ‘wicked’ ecosystem where many elements are interconnected and the next best steps hazy (Hogarth). To progress well, our shared reflection works best, Why not keep a captains log- note down what you learn each week and compare notes with your fellow explorers, asking if they too would arrive at the same conclusions?

Why we don’t always realise how much we know

Careers are best approached as a series of interlinked learning excursions. Progress may not always be steady. Like any expedition, some parts can be circuitous with a few cul-de-sacs for good measure. These can be useful and even optimum for personal growth and resilience. In fact, for many, taking the well-travelled route is equivalent to walking the plank. Our cognitive diversity grows by coming at destinations from unexpected angles. Learning styles differ and taking horizontal steps at times helps gain a systems view. Working in the galley, on the bench or scrubbing the deck early in a journey helps a sailor sample many sensibilities. Staying in familiar waters is more comfortable but we can lose out long term. This is why learning is accelerated in virgin voyages and on small craft as "all hands-on deck" works for us to handle complexity later.

With that said, we sometimes conflate fast-paced with durable learning. Being a quick brief on each new seascape is useful, particularly when visibility is low, but it does not always translate to career value, long-term. In fact, when at sea, lack of self-awareness can prevent us fully digesting what we learn in order to broaden possible behaviours later (Bandura). It takes a complete repertoire of skills to sail a small boat in choppy waters and, likewise, we need to learn to navigate our own work and career choices. It is not just single skills and methods that count but our mindset around uncertainty and change. We fear both less if we practice pausing long enough to consider the thinking behind tools and therefore, pick the right ones. ‘Give a man a hammer’ as they say, and every problem starts to look like nail. Sometimes it is loosening the knotted sail slowly that counts.

Beat the Tide with a Mexican Wave

We learn best not necessarily from seasoned hands or senior commanders but from those who are just slightly ahead of us and understand us well. In fact, each of us (and the experts alike) is in constant flux, bobbing along across four different levels of competence. This is why interviewing can be difficult the MORE and not the less sea miles we have -

In 1. ‘Unconscious Incompetence’ we don’t know what we don’t know e.g. about how to weather a storm. While at 2. ‘Conscious Incompetence’ we at least realise what it is that we need to know (even if we don't yet have the skills). Yet, on another skill e.g. landing ashore safely, we might have reached 3. 'Conscious Competence’, being both competent and fully aware of each single manoeuvre required. Yet in time, we can no longer share that expertise as we reach a level of 4. ‘Unconscious Competence’; we perform really well but are unable to articulate how or why as this is intuitive (Curtiss & Warren). Across different skill sets, therefore, we occupy varying levels of competence and the trick is to recognise which. Again, reflection is key and being open to and receptive to others invaluable. Sometimes it takes a ‘beginners mind’ to ask us 'obvious' questions to realise what we know but has become tacit When we mentor, our ‘unconscious competence’ gets a good airing and someone else also reaps the benefit of our 'sea legs'.

Discover what is most valuable for you

The verb to decide comes from ‘to cut away’ and a key element for a Protean career is making clear distinctions. Matters of degree can matter a great deal. For example, which competencies really count for our own job satisfaction? Do we want to be an SME or make every crew we work with more balanced in stormy seas? if the latter, we may need a few stowaways on board i.e. those who look and sound totally differently to us and if not, we should send out a Mayday signal. We need to be challenged to keep learning and diversify ourselves. We might well ask - what is the last skill people would expect from me? Becoming the cartographer who can also sail, the sailor who can design the flag or even the captain who dances a jig brings more to the team and also helps differentiates us.

if you are captain, selecting crew members from other territories is smart. If you are a colleague, choose those with credentials you've never heard of for an “All you can Ask”. Travel truly broadens both our minds. Even if the opportunity to talk doee not materialise, we expand our collective curiosity by asking good questions. By avoiding comfort zones of knowledge, we will steer clear of a Bermuda Triangle. Shifting thinking gears without being forced e.g. reading outside our own pond, asking someone interesting to recommend a podcast etc. diversifies our 'employee value proposition' and renews our thirst for the journey.

In truth, it is from others that we learn both the most and the most easily. They can serve as a spare compass once we know the career behaviours we most want to model. These are the ones that demonstrate our values best e.g. agility, openness or stealth. Small changes in direction count for a lot when our journey is long and the destination as yet unknown. However, the keys to the engine room of performance are the very ones that can take a little courage to make our own.

Starting to map your Career at interview

There is no quick-fix or secret formula for setting off on or even recalibrating a successful career. We assume a good start is half the battle for ‘success’ but a bad start and lots of (mis)adventures can potentially work just as well. It all depends on whether we take the right lessons from each experience along with us for the next leg. Good captains grasp the power of a rousing sea shanty to keep up morale. Repeated patterns, either of success or failure, are stories worth recounting as many times as it takes for insight to sink in. They are also great material (once well-understood by ourselves) for sharing at interview. Employers will, of course, set out what they stand for too but it is not their mandate to define us. Better to stand back if there is mismatch. It is when both our maps overlap that hidden treasure is revealed i.e, high work satisfaction and performance.

When we fail at interview, it may occasionally be a lucky miss and does not mean that rocks of catastrophe lie ahead. Like any good captain. we won't abandon our ship. We may simply need to change tack. Rather than dreading what questions will come up next time, we can practice telling our tales - but better e.g. ‘what do we stand for?’ and even, ‘what can we not stand’? Sometimes explaining our anti-values speaks volumes e.g. are we hard on poor accuracy or lack of precision (and able to explain the difference). What tried-and-tested methods appeal to us most and how do we use these to avoid mistakes? Most importantly, How do we know when we need new ones?

Time to set sail again

As Proteus would advise, we cannot rely on employers to set our career direction. We can self-define and evolve our routes instead. Good choices require good navigation tools and adjusting to changing times and tides. Our internal GPS will adjust co-ordinates to stay on track and even multi-track once we know what we most want to learn. A pair of binoculars is better than a microscope at sea. Remember those who wrote their maps in the same territory and embarked with us are not necessarily our best guides. We need to reach out to our wider sea communities to compare maps and set off on new trade missions at times. A broadened view will prepare us better. especially for unexpected (if inevitable) tidal waves.

Even a Protean career isn’t always plain sailing but hopefully it will be safe travel and like him, we gain foresight to realise that our resilience is innate despite the ever-changing elements.

Fiona Fennell is an Organisational Behaviourist and a Career/Performance Coach for STEM professionals with Think4Purpose. Sign up for their newsletter and review her career blogs on for more detail. Email me on if you want to discuss how “unconscious competence” can impair your interview performance. Thanks to Limerick artist and systems thinker Hugh McMahon for this illustration of Proteus.


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