by John Lees
John Lees is a UK-based career strategist. He is the author of, among other titles, How to Get a Job You’ll Love and The Interview Expert.
“I want to be out of this job tomorrow” is a statement I’ve heard all too often as a career coach. We’re bombarded every day by the idea of overnight transformation, instant career gratification. The media loves the A to Z candidate — you know, the guy who left his job as an accountant on a Friday and started work as a zookeeper on the Monday. We’re fuelled by stories of people who suddenly made it, who unexpectedly broke through. We see only the slightly shocked expression on the face of the emerging star, and even if we’re told that it took a decade of rejection before they hit top billing, the story we want to hear is the great entrepreneurial narrative — that career dreams can come true.
And, of course, they can, but rarely overnight, and rarely without a great deal of exploring and probing. Herminia Ibarra’s seminal book Working Identity argued that most career change is incremental and gradual. While a small proportion of people will give up their day job and risk everything, for most people the strategy most likely to succeed is a step by step approach.
For some this means trying on new modes of working to see if they fit. So someone thinking of setting up a new business will not only interview people who have done this before, but also work in someone else’s business on days off. Others use secondment experiences or internships to find out what other roles and sectors feel like. For busy people working long hours this can be a challenge, but compared with the cost of not looking the investment in time is small, even if all you can do is undertake informational interviews.
In practical terms, moving ahead on a “small steps” basis means adopting a new mindset around two areas of behavior.
The first is that we should explore career options for a great deal longer than we do before attempting to make decisions. In fact, most career choices are relatively passive — something happens to be advertised or comes along. We also need to be realistic about what actually happens when we think we are making career choices — a great deal of the time we just think in circles moving swiftly from “what if?” to “yes, but.”
For some clients I recommend an avoidance of decision making. This isn’t procrastination, but keeping an eye on the mental function which Richard Bolles, author of What Color Is Your Parachute, calls “the safekeeping self.” This is the ancient part of your brain that snatches at early opportunities to dismiss new ideas and opportunities before any proper investigation.
The second, but equally important, bit of reframing is that we should learn to explore as if we were doing it for someone else. If someone offered you $5,000 to go out there and find useful connections and identify potential areas for investigation, you wouldn’t go back after 48 hours and say “I looked at a few things but you won’t like them.” That, however, is exactly how many of us play the game when the client is ourselves. Imagine for a moment putting the energy that your safekeeping brain puts into saying “no” or even “yes, but” into open-minded discovery.
That means challenging, even undermining, the current market wisdom that there aren’t good jobs out there. Taking small steps might be about developing interests, learning, spending time with people who are doing the job you’d love to do. It may mean exploring the options of portfolio working.
The biggest challenge, however, is this: Do you really need to do something totally different? Naming an unattainable, fantasy career goal is often a roundabout way of accepting zero change. A to Z in one leap is often impossible. But perhaps A to D isn’t — moving across into a sector or opportunity which is close to where you are now, but the beginning of a new direction. The toughest part of the journey for career explorers isn’t the last ten yards, but that small first step.