117. Building Career Resilience with Dr. Nayla Bahri

January 2, 2020

“There are things we can do to build our resilience. And we should be doing these when times are good, not just when we’ve been kicked to the curb.”

Dr. Nayla Bahri is a leadership and career development coach. She works with individuals and teams to help them unleash their professional greatness and do their best work.

A key piece of Nayla’s practice today comes from her research work on career resilience. She studied a group of professionals who were negatively impacted by the 2008 recession and examined how they fared in their careers five years later. Out of that research, Nayla developed her observations around how people move forward (or remained stuck) and behaviors that can help us bounce back from a setback.

In this episode, Nayla and I dove into the practical habits that we can incorporate in our day-to-day activities to strengthen our resilience muscle. We talked about what’s even more important than being optimistic or having a positive attitude. And we dove into the importance of experimentation – and the long-held beliefs and messages that we’ve got to overcome first to truly embrace experimentation.

Highlights of Episode 117

  • The three situations that the people Nayla studied fell into post-recession
  • The behaviors that differentiated people who remained stuck from those who were able to move forward and thrived
  • Why resilience isn’t all about being positive or optimistic
  • The inner and outer work that we can do strengthen our resilience muscle
  • Why changing careers isn’t a requirement to bouncing back
  • How experimentation helps and how we can benefit


Mentioned in this episode

Here are a few highlights from this conversation:

I think there’s a lie that we’re told. “It’s just work. It’s just a job. Don’t let it drag you down.” I don’t think that serves us. That’s not how I experience work, it’s not how we experience work. I think of work as one of the ways we express our humanity in the world. On average, we are going to spend 90,000 hours at work. That’s more than we’re going to do anything else except for sleep. So don’t tell me that I should discount or disregard or depersonalize something that impacts the largest amount of my conscious time in the world.

I found that there were people who were stuck who had historically defined themselves as very positive and optimistic. And there were people who were transformed who were like, “Generally I’m kind of a naysayer but I just put like one foot in front of the other and did things, tried things.” The good news about this is that it turns out those behaviors are available to everybody. And sometimes we need support and scaffolding, coaching, career groups, networks. But the things that these people did are not highly scientific. They’re just activities.

Most of us think of networking as transactional. If you do this for me, then I’ll do something for you later. If you invite me to that conference I want to go to, I’ll make sure that you get to meet my manager who you think is an interesting person. The people who were using networking were doing it differently. They were using networking as a source of data about themselves, their own performance, the times in which they’ve been the most vibrant and productive and effective at work. This does require that you’re talking to people who know you, who you’ve worked with or gone to school with or who are part of your activity level. But the whole purpose of that networking is different. It was to ask. “So tell me what I don’t see this moment, this opportunity to rebuild, to do things differently. What do I need to know? What are my blind spots? What do you differently than me? What do you think I do that’s really wonderful and value-added and worth me digging deeper into.”

What I found was so interesting about the people who were experiencing that transformation, that healing, is that they were doing things they loved that had nothing to do with work. Getting back to sports or arts or cooking for their families. Or traveling. Doing things that just reminded them of themselves at their best. They were doing things that reminded them that they are joyful, they are creative, they are resourceful. That they are good people to be around. So by the time they show up to an interview, or to network, or to have those conversations, they’re not a shell of a human. They’re not broken, they’re just, “I’m myself, I’m just trying to find the right work for myself.”

I found that the more attached I was to my title, the harder it was for me to imagine myself doing something else. So when people said, “I was the VP of marketing and I was laid off, or I was the director of accounting and I’m looking for a role that would have me be the director of accounting or the VP of marketing.” It’s very limiting, right? First of all, we know those things mean different things in different organizations. But secondly – and probably more importantly – we become very hooked to the title and we stop really thinking about the ways that we contribute, the ways that we solve problems, the way that we see opportunities and make things happen. The people who were thriving were really getting into that. They got into the work of figuring out what do I actually do every day? What do I actually offer that this company or this organization or this school needs? And how do I demonstrate my track record of having accomplished that?

There’s a lot of lip service paid to experimentation. Be bold, Be innovative. But I think there’s a lot of rewards given to safety. The other thing is you layer on the way your family signals all the other things about being right, which are so heavily rewarded. We’re used to being measured along lines of A’s are acceptable, B’s are acceptable occasionally. We’re a performance culture, especially now. Like, I think LinkedIn, even as generous as that makes the world in terms of professional growth and opportunity. If you look at my feed, a lot of it is like, “I got promoted, I got this, I got that.” And it’s like, well, we’re all rewarded for always doing it right.

I wonder if I were to go back to the first 15-18 years of my career, I don’t think I had to wrestle with that kind of context. Things felt much more — and it might be that I was naive — but things felt a little bit templated. Like if you spent a couple of years doing one thing, you’re going to get promoted. Then someone’s going to see how amazing you are and they’re going to give you more responsibility. It felt very linear. I think we are in a time where we know that’s not the case anymore. And I think that’s why all this work that I did in this research, I’m still talking about it. Because the lessons are relevant now and they’re going to be relevant in the next several years. So I hope that we can get the word out, that there are things we can do to build our resilience.

A Couple More Things

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