The great thing about careers in the 21st century is that you get to decide what you want to do. And if you don’t like what you’re doing, you can change. While this is liberating, it’s also scary and confusing. The complexity of today’s employment landscape is overwhelming. Managing your career requires coping with ambiguity and uncertainty and learning some basic navigation skills. After years of research and coaching people on career transitions, here’s what I recommend:
Follow your energy and interest. This is the most fundamental part of your strategy. Energy and interest are to your career path what the North Star is to celestial navigators. Paying attention to what engages and excites you, what lights you up, and what stimulates your intellect points you toward the tasks and situations that enable you to be your best self. That’s where you will thrive.
Take Noah Tannen, who used to work as a copywriter and creative director at an advertising and design firm. Over time, he grew bored and unhappy at his job, which required less creativity than he’d expected from a job with the word “creative” in its title. One evening while talking with a friend, an experienced account planner and strategist, he asked the question that initiated his career shift: “What is an account planner?” His friend explained that it was about understanding the audience, who they are and what really matters to them, doing research, and then distilling it into a brief that articulates the underlying strategy for the creative team to design from. “After that conversation, I was so excited I couldn’t sleep,” says Noah.
Or consider Chris Anderson, who was tiring of his job as a political science professor when his wife gave him a copy of the book Moneyball. He was fascinated by its account of using statistics to build a winning baseball team by identifying high-potential players that other teams overlooked. As a quantitative social scientist who’d played semi-professional soccer in his native Germany, the ideas in the book brought together two of his major interests. Chris was captivated by the idea of applying analytic methods to soccer.
Learn about the work by researching and networking. When Noah told his bosses that he wanted to do account planning, they said he’d have to learn it himself. He started by meeting with every account planner or strategist he could find to pick their brains. “That was incredibly helpful, and those people became a valuable professional network.” On the advice of the friend who’d piqued his interest, he also paid his own way to a conference. “The conference was just as inspiring as our first conversation had been, and I still use some of the techniques I learned there.”
Chris started a blog to explore and develop his ideas about soccer analytics. He enjoyed writing it and soon developed a following. People from British soccer clubs began contacting him with questions. Spurred on by the response, he started talking with a friend about writing a book on the topic. When his friend asked why he wanted to write the book Chris admitted, “my dream would be to run a club—to actually play Moneyball. But you wouldn’t leave a tenured academic job to do that, would you?” Ultimately, he would.
Try out the work by taking on projects or consulting. Noah’s first challenge was “to convince my coworkers that I was an account planner now, even though my official job was still copywriter/creative director. I learned to formulate and present my ideas, to explain the research and the thought process so that my colleagues understood why I was recommending a particular course of action.” Some account managers agreed to work with Noah, and together, they were able to sell a few strategy projects to clients. “For a couple of the bigger projects, the partners brought in more senior freelancers to meet with me from time to time and offer direction. That was so valuable. I remember particularly being stuck one day and the senior planner saying, ‘You need to start writing this all out. Get these voices out of your head.’ I started writing random scraps of ideas and eventually it ended up being my strategy deck—I didn’t know that I’d learned enough, but he could see that I had.”
Chris and his coauthor David Sally were learning so much about soccer analytics that they decided to start a consulting firm to provide their services to teams and to investors looking to acquire teams. A sabbatical from teaching gave him the opportunity to spend time in London, an important city for professional soccer, during the months before the book came out. Their research for the book revealed that the decision-making practices in football clubs are often sub-optimal; the analytic methods he and his partner offered were in demand. As Chris explained, “the consulting life was a great way to learn about the industry and a whole lot of things without taking on the commitment that you would have in an internal position. You get in, get out, and soak up what you can. But then I reached a point where I wanted to implement, not just advise.”
Find or create a job that lets you do exciting work. Noah’s firm never appointed him to a full-time account planning position. He figured that if he was going to have to keep writing copy, he might as well just freelance and see if he could do account planning as well. “I quit in December 2008. Thanks to the network of account planners I’d built up, I got a freelance gig for 35 hours a week at a global firm by February (even with the economy in free-fall). After doing that for about eight months, I’d learned that there are many different kinds of strategy jobs and that the one I wanted was both rare and not the one I had. So I started my own branding and design firm, Rupert, where I do most of the strategy and account planning.”
Chris’s original idea was to work with investors who would buy a club, and then he’d manage it. That didn’t happen, but Coventry City Football Club did approach Chris as an advisor and eventually offered him a job as executive vice president and managing director. He now runs the club’s day-to-day operations. It’s a turnaround challenge, much like the team featured inMoneyball.
Keep learning. The work of managing your career never stops. Noah is currently training himself to be an account director. “It’s a new role for me, but I need to be better at it for the firm to keep growing. I just contacted a friend today to get her advice on a tricky client. Last week I spoke with a friend in technology sales to learn how he manages his client relationships.”
Chris’s main strategies for ongoing learning are asking questions, listening, and being present. “Academics are not used to listening; they are used to giving answers. The learning takes place for me when I shut up and listen. I try to understand every little aspect of what we’re doing. And I try to be physically present in every part of it. I walk around and poke my head in. I ask to be copied on e-mails so I can see everything that goes on in the business. That has been very instructive for me. Then I have to ask questions, because there are plenty of times when I don’t understand what’s going on.”
Crafting a fulfilling career doesn’t require a grand plan. As these examples illustrate, it’s an ever-evolving process: follow your interests, research and network, try the work in a low-risk way, find a job that excites you, and repeat. Chris’s lifelong approach boils down to doing what he enjoys. “I say to myself, ‘This is fun, I can do this, I’ll be okay, I enjoy doing this, let’s see where it goes.’ Once you know what you’re passionate about, you’ll invest time in it. Once you invest time in it, you’ll get good at it. Once you get good at it, someone will pay you to do it.” Noah agrees, with one caveat. “If what you have to offer has value, there’s probably a job for you. But the catch is that you might have to make it up yourself.”
This post was originally published on Harvard Business Review.