PENELOPE TRUNK | CLIMB

The key is to embrace instability

Lecturer, author, and writing coach Marci Alboher speaks as a guest to a Bentley College career-management class last month.
Lecturer, author, and writing coach Marci Alboher speaks as a guest to a Bentley College career-management class last month. (Lisa Poole for the Boston Globe)

The old paths through adult life don't work anymore. Graduate school is no longer a ticket to a stable career, and in some cases, it's not even a ticket to a job. Student debt makes it difficult for people to expect to have what their parents have. Technology opens many new types of unstable careers, but slams the door on many stable ones.

Workers today will likely have no fewer than three careers in their lives, and they will change jobs frequently when young. After that, they will cut back when they have kids, ramp up when they need money, and switch when their learning curve flattens.

The good news is that a large consensus of experts says that this kind of living will not necessarily hurt your career. In fact, changing positions frequently makes you a better candidate . Says Jason Davis, a blogger at recruiting.com, "If a candidate has been at the same company for 10 years or more, you should take a red marker, draw a big x through [the resume], and throw it in the garbage."

Today's worker focuses -- all the time -- on finding positions that are fulfilling, engaging, and accommodating of personal time. It's a nice goal, but it's hard to imagine it's a stable life. And, for the most part, people do not like instability. Even the people who you'd think would be risk-takers -- entrepreneurs -- are not, really. Most people are thinking of ways to mitigate the risks they are taking, according to research by Saras Sarasvathy of the University of Virginia Darden School of Business.

So what can people do today to mitigate risk in the face of an inherently high-risk workplace? Get good at dealing with transition, because today's workplace is full of it. The people who are most adept at dealing with transition are the people who will do best in their careers and in their lives.

1. Have two jobs at the same time. The easiest way to make a transition is to do it slowly. The old way to change careers is to quit one, leave everything behind, and start everything over new. This is extremely difficult, and extremely risky. An easier transition is to start a new career while you're doing the old one.

In some cases, you will end up doing the new career most of the time; in some cases, you will find out you don't like the new idea and you'll try something else. Recently, though, some people find they like doing both. Two careers makes sense to a lot of people, especially if one is fulfilling and the other pays the bills. Or one is very unstable and one is stable.

Marci Alboher describes the nuts and bolts of having two careers in a way that works in her new book, "One Person/Multiple Careers: A New Model for Work/Life Success." She moves among her own set of careers as author, lecturer, and writing coach as she tells a wide variety of stories of how people maintain multiple careers successfully.

"It used to be that the only way to transition was to leave your prior career behind. Today's strivers are learning how to take what comes before and overlay new experiences on top of that. Today a career can be a mosaic."

Alboher shows this is a path people can use not only to create more stability as they change, but also to follow their dreams as they're going.

2. Be comfortable with uncertainty. Eve Ensler, author of the play "The Vagina Monologues" and more recently the book "Necessary Targets," thinks one cause of insecurity in our lives is the expectation of being secure. "If you think you'll get to the point that you'll be secure, then you'll be chronically depressed," says Ensler.

Since we can never really be secure, we should instead learn to be comfortable with that. Getting good at dealing with a world that does not provide security is actually a more healthy way to live than trying to find that one, perfect path through life that leads to mythical security.

Ensler's ideas suggest that today's career paths, which wind and stop and turn and surprise us along the way, may be better for us once we get used to not knowing what's ahead. "When you start working with ambiguity and living with it initially, it's scary because there are no signposts. But eventually it seems to be a much more interesting way of living."

3. Take time to explore. It used to be people started exploring when they turned 40 and we called it a midlife crisis. It seems clear, now, that exploration and self-discovery is something to do throughout life, not just when you get sick of your mortgage or your marriage.

But this process requires that we take time to check in with ourselves during transitions. Jumping quickly from one thing to another is not as effective as taking time to figure out how we're feeling, and what we enjoy, each step of the way.

Mike Marriner was planning to go to medical school but realized he wasn't passionate about biology. He decided to take time to figure out what he should do next.

During this process, he started Roadtrip Nation, which sends teams of students around the country to interview people about their lives and careers. The idea is to provide inspiration or cautions for people as they consider making a transition. "Today there is no transition period," says Marriner. "Everything is very quick and we are trying to put the spirit of exploration back into American culture."

Roadtrip Nation has become a book, a summer program for college students, and a PBS television series, all addressing the idea that transition is serious business, and part of moving into adult life is getting good at figuring out where to go next.

To many people, the continually shifting workplace is disorienting and discouraging, but really, you just need to reorient yourself and develop personal tools for a new workplace. Transition is an opportunity, and today life is more full of opportunity than ever before.

Penelope Trunk writes the Brazen Careerist blog at blog.penelopetrunk.com