When a person is laid off, the common reaction is an anguished, ''Where am I going to find my next job?''
But a better question is, ''What am I going to be?'' two University of Southern California career planning experts suggest.
A job loss doesn't have to be total disaster. It can provide just the push someone needs to explore new career options.
''People get so locked into specific jobs and skills, they're not conscious of all the choices around them,'' says David Tiedeman, executive director of the National Institute for the Advancement of Career Education, headquartered at USC's School of Education. ''But if you're alert to the choices, and trust in your intelligence, you'll be amazed at the possibilities you can open up.''
''Many people enter a profession or occupation thinking it's going to last forever,'' adds Anna Miller-Tiedeman, a research associate at the institute. ''But with today's unemployment, with displacement by new technologies, with companies moving their operations overseas, you're not set for life anymore.
''Changing careers may have been considered a luxury at one time,'' she says. ''Now it's often a necessity.''
The Tiedemans believe that people who carefully attend to their lifework allow their career paths to unfold into new areas. Along the way, they increase their skills and sharpen their intellects. So they're better prepared for the future.
Some people are forced to consider new work careers because of job loss. Others are prompted by boredom or burnout. Regardless of the motivation, the decision to pursue a second step along your career path -- or, as Mr. Tiedeman puts it, ''a second manifestation of you'' -- is part of a major journey into self-discovery and self-development.
The Tiedemans contend that too much career planning and education is focused on getting a job. The effort would be better spent in empowering individuals to make their own lifework.
''A lot of education is dedicated to filling people's memories with somebody else's facts,'' Mr. Tiedeman says. ''That may prepare you for what worked before , but not for what works today or tomorrow.
''Very little attention is given to developing your own ideas or to achieving self-sufficiency.
''As a result, people are trained to be reactive. They learn what teachers tell them to learn, and they do the work a job requires. They're not using their own intelligence very much that way. They're not encouraged to acquire knowledge through their own tested and proven experiences.''
''Unfortunately, we're not encouraged to explore the unfolding of our lifework,'' says Mrs. Miller-Tiedeman. ''We're told it's bad to move around. Executives can change jobs many times without censure, but common people are supposed to stay put.
''But trying new jobs is a wonderful exploratory experience. Research indicates that we do what we know. And if we don't have many experiences, we don't have much to choose from. We wall ourselves in,'' she says.
The thought of changing jobs or careers can strike terror in the hearts of many, because it conjures up images of abandoning one whole set of skills for another.
''Rarely is the break so absolute,'' Mr. Tiedeman says. ''Skills can cut across many fields. Sometimes the difference is just a matter of jargon.
''Interpersonal skills, for example, are needed in a vast number of jobs -- by the counselor, social worker, supervisor, or manager, and so on.''
Furthermore, changing jobs or careers is often a gradual, evolutionary process, in which a person takes the best parts of previous jobs and applies them to new endeavors in more comprehensive mixes.
''Fundamentally, it's all a continuing search for who you are,'' Mr. Tiedeman says. ''You determine the course of your career. Don't base the decision on what others think you should do, or on whatever field is 'hot' at a particular time.''
''The secret of preparing for one's lifework,'' Mrs. Tiedeman-Miller adds, ''is determining who you are and who you want to be -- not necessarily what you want to do.
''If you know the answer to that fundamental question, then the jobs tend to work themselves out.''