Back in 2017, I held a senior director leadership position running talent management in a large company. The man in the role before me had a VP title, but I was not promoted to the same level after taking over, even though I was doing the same work, and even after the company began adding new responsibilities to my plate.
I led two international teams, and we launched an ambitious public project with the support of the Board of Directors. I spent a year advocating for myself and building a formal business case to show that my results deserved a VP title. The company denied my request, making it clear to me that my gender was the issue.
My work revolves around inclusion at the workplace, especially gender equality, and to have my performance overlooked made me realize it was time to move on. I was able to prioritize my principles over my income and resigned. Fortunately for me, we were working through transition details, and my boss did not immediately announce my resignation.
Three days later, Hurricane Harvey swept into town, dumping 51 inches of rain over Houston, Texas in just three days. It destroyed homes and businesses, causing billions of dollars in damage. My house was flooded with 7 feet of water.
With the speed of a hurricane, my priorities slid from my high-level pursuit of principles and career growth to basic survival. As the sole financial provider for our family, I had quit my job right when we most needed an income, health insurance, and stability. The day we waded out of our house, I stood in my parent’s spare bedroom — still wet from the flood water — and texted my boss. I asked to rescind my resignation and keep my job.
What happened to me three years ago isn’t so different from what a lot of us are facing during this pandemic. Some of us are worried about losing a job or internship, anxious about the limited opportunities in our industry or track, or experiencing a loss of income, bonus, or promotion.
I can tell you from experience, when a crisis hits, accepting your current circumstances is not a sign of weakness. For some of us, it might mean putting big career dreams on hold — though I got my job back, I never did get the title I deserved. But what you need to do to move forward will not always be what you want to do in the moment. That job helped me and my family get through some really tough waters.
From it, I learned that sometimes it’s enough to know that you are stabilizing your situation and putting yourself in a position to pursue a bigger, better opportunity down the line.
One tool that helped me then, and still helps me accept the situation at hand — no matter how challenging — is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Let me explain.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
In 1943, Abraham Maslow proposed a theory of needs that states that people must fulfill their basic needs before they can pursue higher-level ones, such as seeking happiness and purpose. Once basic needs are met, people are more equipped to strive to meet their full potential. Often represented in a pyramid, Maslow’s hierarchy has five levels. At the bottom of the pyramid are our most basic physiological needs: Think food, water, clothing, and warmth. At the pinnacle sits self-actualization, where people can pursue their life’s purpose and live by their highest principles.
Times like this pandemic can pull energy from higher-level needs back to the basics of survival. This can make us feel like we are moving backward. I call this feeling “the priority slide.” It happens as we speed down the hierarchy of needs from the top to the bottom, and it feels frustrating and a bit like a failure.
But in reality, it is not a failure. No one can pursue self-actualization — like getting their dream job or gaining financial freedom — when their priority is finding a job in a very competitive market, making enough money to meet loan payments, and pay for food and rent.
The priority slide starts when a crisis unexpectedly hits. It will not always be a shared global event like the pandemic. Sometimes, it is a personal crisis, like getting laid off or being involved in an accident. In moments like these, it’s normal to feel disoriented and wobbly.
How to Deal with the Priority Slide
To manage the priority slide, you need to learn how to re-group, focus on basics, and pause higher-level aspirations. It may sound counterintuitive, but “pausing” can actually be the best way to move forward.
Practice resilience. An outside crisis (the pandemic) may have shifted your career and life plans. Remember that you are not the cause of this crisis, and it is not your fault. At the same time, you are not powerless. I find that having a mantra helps. My favorite mantra is: “When things get tough, I like to remind myself that my track record for getting through bad days is 100%. And that’s pretty good.” In other words, you need to understand your new reality, take a deep breath, and start pulling yourself back up the slide.
Prioritize the basics. In the near term, you might have to choose practical goals (safety and security) over aspirational ones. And that’s okay. To pay your bills, you might need to find a short-term job, even if that job is stocking shelves in a grocery store, doing deliveries, or taking up freelance work. Get creative with your finances — take on a roommate, move in with your parents, and reduce expenses. Remember, this situation, albeit difficult, is a temporary one.
Don’t catastrophize. When forced to shift priorities, it may feel like you’ll get stuck at this lower level of the hierarchy and that all is lost. But this is a hiccup. Future employers will not judge you for taking a detour in your career progression. Finding short-term work to pay your bills shows resourcefulness and can provide interesting examples for future interview questions. Employers value resilient people who can adapt and thrive under tough circumstances.
Reset your career timeline. Don’t give up on your career dreams. Evaluate the likely timeline of this slide, so you can reset your career goals and expectations. For example, if you are currently employed, it might take you a couple of years to get a promotion due to the economic downturn. The climb back up could take longer than the fast slide down, but focus on what you can control and take it one day at a time.
Stay optimistic. I realize this won’t be possible every day. But, remind yourself that emotions are often transient. The sadness and angst you’re feeling occur in moments. Things might look bleak right now, but you’ll make it through this. On the other side, you will be tougher, wiser, and ready to face anything.
Take a deep breath and keep on going. Hurricane Harvey was my priority slide. I climbed back up, and I know you can too.