Late last summer, I learned about what felt like the career opportunity of a lifetime: a chance to help run my company’s media site. The publication had been run by a sharp, brilliant, and remarkably agile team of three people—and one of them had recently taken a new job elsewhere. They needed someone who could handle the editorial responsibilities of the publication: managing our team of freelance writers, recruiting new writers as needed, ideating stories, editing, writing, filling out our monthly editorial calendar, providing feedback, organizing images, creating digital newsletters, etc.—all of which sounded absolutely thrilling to me. While I handled those responsibilities, my manager (who was also a friend of mine) would be by my side, handling the data, analytics, big-picture decision making, and teaming up with me to ideate stories, market the publication, and proof work.
I voiced my interest in the position, and, a few weeks later, landed the gig.
My manager and I became an incredible team. We were in sync, working together to push the site, challenging editorial boundaries together, and using our data and skills to push out stories we could really feel good about. We were seeing great results, our writers were evolving, and no challenge was too great.
We had just finished presenting our lofty goals for 2017 to our senior staff—and we were feeling pretty good about them—when he pulled me into a room one morning and confessed a heavy truth: he had received an offer for an absolutely unbeatable career opportunity, and he couldn’t turn it down. He’d be leaving in two weeks’ time.
As a friend, I was so proud. After all, this was, for him, an incredible opportunity. And you’re always thrilled to see your friends succeed.
But as a colleague, the meeting felt somewhat apocalyptic. How was I going to keep this mammoth growing and evolving without his energy and sharp wit? We were fortunate to also work closely with our director on this project, so I knew I wouldn’t be alone, but, at the time, I hadn’t worked as closely with him. And though I had been in every analytics meeting, looked at the same data, and had an intimate working knowledge of the site and its audience, I had never been called upon to operate completely alone.
Suddenly, I felt like a fraud. Completely unqualified. Weirdly, all the hard work I had put in suddenly felt like his work, and I felt paralyzed by the notion that I couldn’t do my job alone.
Those feelings were totally wrong—and, in retrospect, I know they came from my startled and scared emotions more than anything else. But it took me a while to accept the change, come to terms with my own strengths, and learn to trust other colleagues in the way I had trusted my manager. Today, while I still have a way to go, I’m confident in my role, and I no longer feel like a fraud. Here’s how I got there—and how, if you’re going through a big professional shift, you can get through it, too.
Stage 1: Denial
For a few days after I heard the news, I went into deep denial in spite of myself. While somewhere deep inside I knew the change was coming, I stuffed that knowledge deep down inside my brain and pretended it was business as usual. I carried on with each day, chatted with my colleagues, friends, and family members, and, with the exception of telling my husband what was happening, refused to share the news. In my mind, the longer I could go without saying it out loud, the longer it remained a piece of fiction.
When you’re in denial: If you’re currently in the denial phase of the career change acceptance continuum, do your best to get out as soon as possible. If you can’t, attempt to treat this time as though it was happening to a close friend, and use it. Start thinking about all the things this person does on a daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and yearly basis. Use their job description if you have to. Write those things down, and start checking off the ones you can easily handle. (You’ll be surprised how many you have in your wheelhouse.) Once you know what you need to know, you can talk to your colleague and glean knowledge from them ahead of time.
Stage 2: Reluctant Partial Acceptance
Then, one afternoon, it hit me: my manager was leaving (and soon). Okay, I thought, it’s real. With that knowledge in mind, I started making lists of questions I wanted to ask and things I wanted to learn how to do before he left, and put some time on our shared calendar to walk through everything. My heart wasn’t in it at the time, but I knew if I didn’t create a repository of everything I could learn from him before he left, I’d be lost in no time.
When you’re in reluctant partial acceptance: Getting out of this phase takes that same tired energy that it takes to get out of bed on a Tuesday morning and get to work. You don’t have to like it, you just have to accept it, and make a plan that best equips your future self for success down the line. Remember those lists you made in the denial phase? Now’s the time to use them, and answer all those questions you haven’t figured out.
Stage 3: Panic
There came a moment, somewhere in the midst of asking my questions, where a sudden, distinct feeling of panic set in. The world was collapsing. There was no way I could learn everything I needed to know in the next few days.
When you’re in panic: I’ve always found advice like “calm down” to be frustrating, and I’m sure I’m not alone. If this is where you are, however, you can approach it in a way that allows you to release your frustrations, indulge your mental state, and still come out on top. One approach that can work is allowing yourself timed periods of panic. Once you feel a wave set in, allow yourself to feel it and vent about it for a while. Maybe you can use that time to get up, take a quick walk, grab an herbal tea (note: the less caffeine at this time, the better), and talk to a friend. But once your time is up, it’s back to a solution-oriented approach.
Stage 4: Dread
Two days before my colleague left, I found myself paralyzed by dread. Somehow, the time since he had first announced his plans had flown. I couldn’t move. I feared the worst: that I would be exposed as an imposter who didn’t deserve the career path I had chosen. A part of me was still fighting time, or facts, somehow—like if I continued to be miserable, there was no way the day would come.
When you’re in dread: By definition, I’ve realized, to dread is to “anticipate with great apprehension or fear.” The implication there is the future—or, more specifically, a definite in the future. I can be afraid of things that aren’t real, for example, but I likely only have dread for things I know are certain. The big takeaway there is that if something is definite, it can’t be changed. So you can’t control it. What you can control is yourself, however, and the state in which you’ll be when the thing comes to pass. If you’re in dread, try reangling your perspective to ready yourself as best you can. The thing that comes may still be unpleasant, but you won’t be helpless in the face of it.
Stage 5: Total Acceptance
Unfortunately, on my colleague’s last day, I wasn’t in the office to say an official goodbye. I had come down with the flu—an inevitability in the winter, especially when you work in an open office environment and take the subway to work each day. But, once I got better, I remember thinking that I was finally ready to come to work and own this thing.
When you’re in total acceptance: Congratulations! Overall, things get better from here. I know it doesn’t feel great right now, but you’re going to get through this. At this time, the best thing to do is remember everything that helped you land your gig in the first place—your hard work, your dreams, and your plans for the future. You may have to work a little harder, but you can still achieve all that. You still have your brain, your passion, and your skills. Hang on to those things—don’t discount them.
Stage 6: Curiosity and Organization
Once I got back to work, I got down to business. I went through all my notes and structured them, and I dug deep into the documents my colleague had created to help equip the team for his absence. I firmed up and organized my processes, I came up with a list of publication needs that I communicated with my remaining teammate, and I started collaborating with others around me to get a sense of the support system I would now have. I was lucky to be able to count on my freelance writers, new direct manager, and colleagues to help grow the publication and support me in various ways.
When you’re in curiosity and organization: It’s going to feel like you need to do everything at once when you first start out in this new era. Don’t. Give yourself the time you need to get organized. If things are taking a bit longer than you’d like, communicate a timeline to those affected. Let them know that you are working out a system in the absence of your teammate, but you’ll be in touch with them by ___ date, and they’ll almost always understand. Make sure you set a reasonable time frame so that you don’t have to miss the deadline twice.
Stage 7: Empowerment
I’m still growing into the empowerment phase, but I feel a lot more confident as I take on more tasks in my current role. I don’t feel lost, abandoned, or out of control—and, more importantly, I don’t feel like an imposter. Stepping out into the spotlight a bit has shown me that I am made of tougher stuff, and that between myself and my professional network, I can handle this new challenge.
When you’re in empowerment: You go, lady. Now’s the time to run with it, and not let anything stop you. This is a hard-earned feeling that you deserve as you head in and push yourself and your work each day. Feel proud, and let your light shine!
Linsey J. Morse is the Content Standard Editor and Cofounding Editor-in-Chief of Spry Literary Journal. Past lives include: Poetry Editor for Mason's Road, Student Editor for the Bryant Literary Review. Previously written work has appeared in such publications as Now What: The Creative Writer's Guide to Success After the MFA; future work includes Idle Jive, a poetry collection in progress.