09/12/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

What Is Work? Mastering the Art of Change

Julie Child never said this, but hopefully someone French sorta did:

The more we try to keep our work world from changing these days, the more it changes. (Take a deep drag on your mental Gauloise here.)

If you've been laid off, are looking for work or worrying about the job you have, you know how it is:

One day you're the Junior Senior Manager of Widgets for a pan-national concern. The next day, you're unemployed. Or re-employed. Or running a start-up at night so you can quit your day job. Before it quits you. Maybe. Or maybe not.

As we've seen earlier in this series, humans were built to avoid change. Which makes the current world of work stressful to us in psychological -- and often, physiological -- ways.

The average person has two options when it comes to dealing with unwanted changes in life, or work:

  1. Freak out.
  2. Learn to deal.
Author and career coach MJ Ryan has some ideas on that second response to change.

The book reveals the common characteristics of the people Ryan has named, "Change Masters."

This happy, if unusual, sub-strata of the human population has learned to respond to life's twists and turns by strapping on their mental skis, thereby turning fate's bumps into positive jumps.

Speaking from LA, MJ described the common characteristics of people who are able to master life's changes in a positive fashion.

1) Upgrade your attitude.

Accept the fact that whatever has happened (the layoff, the no-show, the cancelled contract) has happened. And -- this is equally vital -- it isn't going to unhappen.

It's tempting to rehash the "Why me's?" "What did I do wrong's?" and "They're such (%**$(9!s" of fate's fickle behavior.

But while you're doing the shoulds of your "wish-it-hadn't", Change Masters are making their next move and finding their next happy step.

2) Expand Your Thinking

MJ uses the example of a client who was a magazine journalist to illustrate this step. Her client done very well as a magazine writer; thought of herself as one, in fact. And then, her client's magazine work went away, leaving her as an ex-magazine writer. Which was doing some funky stuff to her self-image, and esteem.

"If the writing-for-magazines market has is drying up," MJ told her client to ask herself, "What else can I do with my gifts?"

The answer was: web-content writing.

Which is a great fix for now. And raises a key secondary characteristic of Ryan's Change Masters:

They are who they are.

They do what they're doing...for now. Changes Masters are open to redefining their careers with minimal tsuris as markets/their desires change.

3) Look for the Opportunity Embedded In the Challenge

Call them optimists. Call them irksome in their forward-mo. But when the rest of would prefer to lick our wounds, Change Masters are reframing their last kick-in-the-pants.

Ask yourself these questions and listen to what your change-emboldened brain tells you:

"What could be right about this turn of events?

"What opportunities has this change created?"

Great new ideas may strike you as weird at first. But that's normal. Think of yourself as a sailor approaching the New World. Okay, Mr./Ms. Columbus, are you going to look behind you or check out what's ahead?

"If you keep looking for the things you've always done, it's going to be hard" to move forward, MJ notes.

4) Pick positive-minded peeps

Misery loves company. But if you're spending your time bitching with a bunch of whiners, you're reinforcing your stasis.

This lack of motion may feel comforting to us, culturally, MJ notes. That's because the U.S. is "a deficit-focused culture."

This was news to me.

But the more MJ outlined the idea of modern Americans as lack-masters, I began to see the light.

"We all know what's wrong with us."

And by and large, we see this as a positive, responsible attitude to life. But here's the twist, per MJ:

"We think that focusing on the problem will lead to solutions."

We have World War II psychotherapy to thank for that. This model of post-traumatic focus and healing was designed for soldiers who needed to unpack some truly horrific memories.

Modern advertising is another "deficit culture" enabler, MJ notes. Its common message, "There's something wrong with you. You need this."

The problem with this mode? It focuses on...our problems. And lowers of mojo into a kind of ongoing no-jo.

Neuroscience has shown that our brains tend to "Velcro" to a negative idea and "Teflon," past the positive.

Which leads me to MJ's easiest -- and hardest tools to Master.

1) Gratitude -- sure, you've heard this one before. But I love this twist:

Write down 3 things you are grateful for at the start and end of each day.

And now? Write down the role you had in making each of them happen.

At times when life seems to be controlling us, it can do wonders for our mood -- and endorphin levels -- to realize that we are, in fact, in control.

2) Do one thing you can control every day -- cut your hair, arrange some flowers. Wear sexy underwear. Take any one positive action, MJ says, and your brain will come up with several more.

2) Realize -- really really! -- that you are looking for the path of least resistance between today and where you want to go.

This step is huge -- it merges Buddhism (be unattached to a specific outcome) with Quaker thought (there is a "way open" to your next step and a way closed. If things are flowin' you're on the open way. If not, it's time to move on) with a poetic take on quantum physics (energy wants to move along the simplest path to a stable state) and a truly revolutionary idea:

Achieving career happiness does not have to be hard.

This may be the greatest lesson that Change Masters can offer those of us seeking change.

Change Masters use their talents and tools to rule the day.

Victims of change decry their fate.

Now is an endless opportunity to be one, or the other.

Which one will we choose?