Coping with career anxiety

In this brave new world of finance, those who adapt can reach greater fulfilment.
Coping with career anxiety

Long gone are the days of preordained career paths, when many finance professionals got a job at a company and gradually ascended the ranks until a comfortable retirement. Now it is far more likely that a person will shift and pivot to a variety of roles and companies, perhaps even switching career paths entirely. While this has increased levels of anxiety for many, for those who learn to work with and overcome that career anxiety, it may mean greater fulfilment than previous generations could have dreamed of.

“Anxiety is not uncommon and ought to be a catalyst for expansion,” said Marika Messager, CEO and founder of the Conscious Leadership Collective, based in London, who worked in the financial markets for 14 years before she made her big shift. “I have a lot of people who ask, ‘Am I crazy?’ No, the first step is to accept that it’s there — you overcome it by working with it.”

Even the most prepared, career-focused finance professionals can become unsettled by the dizzying pace of technological change and global uncertainty. While there is much that can be done to practically prepare for workplace changes, emotional jitters can still creep in. Here are five tips for overcoming career anxiety and getting yourself to a place of greater fulfilment.

Assess your strengths and gaps. Outsourcing, career plateaus, volatile market forces, and technology can all cause anxiety for finance professionals. Having doubts about where you are in your career is the first step in making your life better. Take several moments to reflect on what you’ve done and what you like and dislike about your current job, and consider where you can improve.

“I think self-awareness is an important thing,” said Jonathan Knee, professor at Columbia Business School in New York City and author of The Accidental Investment Banker: Inside the Decade That Transformed Wall Street. “It may be the case you’re not made out for it, and if that’s the case, the sooner you realise it the better. Or it may be that there’s some area you require that’s not allowing you to be the full package, and knowing which it is is the key to success and happiness, either by filling the gap or making the switch.”

For those who don’t know what’s next, Messager recommended doing what she calls a “validation of past experiences”, where you look at all the things you’ve done throughout your career, all the different jobs and companies, and extract the qualities you’ve displayed or learned throughout, so you identify and own your unique strengths and distinctive talents and explore which environment would suit you best.

“I think the most important thing is to be honest with yourself about what skills and capabilities you have and what kinds of environments you thrive in,” Knee said. “If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll end up in the best place you can, and if you’re not, and you end up in a good place, it will be by accident.”

Confront your fears. As the finance industry changes exponentially and new technology becomes part of day-to-day operations, it’s natural that people will become anxious about their lack of proficiency in unfamiliar areas.

“I think people are frequently afraid to show weakness and afraid to show there’s something they don’t know or understand, and that’s a dangerous path to go down because, by not asking and getting help to learn, it only gets worse and worse and you feel more and more like you’re living a lie and going to be caught some day,” Knee said.

Find a support system. If you’re having trouble with introspection, it may help to get an outside perspective from a career coach or therapist.

“Most of the time, the anxiety comes from two elements: there’s the absence of clarity and then there is the fear, the sense of not being in control,” Messager said. “With career anxiety, there is no quick fix; it’s more about giving ourselves permission to explore what is really meaningful for us and regain personal authority in our lives.”

Keep it fresh. Once you realise what it is you enjoy, Knee recommended having a steady flow of external stimuli so things don’t get boring.

Knee keeps things fresh by teaching on the side and, at various points in his career, writing books and articles and getting involved in not-for-profit activities. While none of these things are directly related to his core business of banking, he said it forces him to think about things and interact with the world in different ways.

“Now for some people, it might do the opposite,” he said. “They might say, ‘I love teaching and hate being a banker — I’m going to stop banking,’ but for me, I think if I had not started teaching, I would have left banking. I found teaching gave me a real second wind on advising; it gave me new ways to interact with my clients and gave me new ideas I could offer and share that might be valuable to them.”

Learn to pivot. When Messager was 35, she was already head of equity for Europe at Newedge Group, a global brokerage company, but she realised the next rung on the ladder held no interest for her.

“The next step would have been global head of equity, and I thought that would be more of the same,” she said. “I was confused and, as I was investing more time in my personal development, I realised this fascinates me, the human being fascinates me, and I realised I knew a lot about making and spending money, but I didn’t know much about what it meant to be human.”

While Messager made a leap from finance to coaching and advising finance professionals and organisations, Knee made a pivot from a full-service firm to a boutique firm.

“For me it was the realisation that the part of the job that I really enjoyed was providing advice to corporate decision-makers about things that were really important to them,” he said. “I realised a small minority of my time was spent doing the part of the job I liked. It occurred to me, if I went to a place that only did what I enjoyed most, I would be able to switch that from a minority to a majority, and that indeed did come to pass.”

Hannah Pitstick is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at