Lessons to Share on Beginning a New Career Path
Making a major life-changing decision such as hitting the reset button on your career is both an exciting and stressful experience. As a working professional for 20+ years who is doing just that, I feel uniquely situated to share some of the lessons I’ve learned about the following: decision making, choosing a path in college, job searching, interviewing, and starting a new career. Recently I went back to school for my Master’s degree in the Instructional Design field. It took me a few years to choose that path but ultimately I chose the right degree, and landed a wonderful job. My new position as an Instructional Design intern with the Department of the Interior University, is rewarding, valued, interesting, challenging, and a joy to have. I am happy to share with you some lessons I have learned along the way.
Choosing a Path
The most important lesson that I have learned on making a major career change is to do your research. Don’t rush your decision or settle on what looks to be the path of least resistance. Really look into your own soul and figure out what’s truly important to you. If you are one of the lucky ones that can do just about anything and be happy, then congrats (and you probably aren’t reading this). For the rest of us, spending the majority of our waking hours in a place that makes us feel unfulfilled is a slow moving tragedy.
“How do I research?” you might ask. There are many free ways to research about careers, personalities, specific companies, etc. I’m partial to Meyers-Briggs profiles, to find out a little bit about yourself and how you interact with others. There are free online quizzes, paid professionally-led trainings, and a wonderful book called Please Understand Me II1. Another popular workplace/career personality assessment is the DISC method.
Spend some time online and/or in libraries/bookstores in the career development section. Ask yourself questions, such as the following:
- How does the new career work with my personality?
- Does it pay enough?
- Can I find meaning in it?
- What does the long term career growth/stability look like?
- Is the field I’m interested in soon to be automated?
- Are there opportunities locally?
- What steps do I have to take to get there?
There were three things I considered to be non-negotiable priorities in choosing my new career and position: (1) To be able to make a difference in the world, (2) To be valued within the organization, and (3) To be able to learn new things, and grow as a person. The other things that I considered were: pay, commute time, work schedule flexibility, and benefits. At my job, I get to make a difference by designing learning materials and courses, my contributions to the team, and my opinions are valued, and I get to learn something new every day. It has been a long time since I have felt this fulfilled and happy at a job. You will likely never find a position that satisfies all of your wishes, but as long as you have your non-negotiable priorities in place, you have a great chance at job satisfaction.
Once you are getting the field narrowed down, find someone who actually does it for a living and interview them. This is probably the most crucial step. Be prepared to ask tough questions, take notes, and job shadow them if possible. During my search I interviewed several people by taking them to lunch, having prepared questions, taking diligent notes, and following up with them on my decision. One note of advice on choosing who to interview: do not ask anyone that would have a financial benefit if you were hired on. You will not get the raw truth if so.
For too long we have been dreaming a dream from which we are now waking up; the dream that if we improve the socioeconomic situation of people, everything will be okay, people will become happy. The truth is that as the struggle for survival has subsided, the question has emerged: Survival for what? -Man’s Search for Meaning2
Society tells us that the only thing that matters is matter- the only things that count are the things that can be counted. We start counting with toys, then grades, then friends, then bank accounts, then years to retirement. – Zen and the Art of Making a Living3
Choosing your path can be a lifelong process. For a few lucky ones, their path is clear, and effortless: they know what they want to do, and have crafted their life in that direction. For the rest of us, it can be a confusing labyrinth full of dead ends and missteps.
- The average college student changes majors at least 3 times.
- According to the Washington Post, only 27% of college graduates have a job related to their major.
- The average student debt has tripled in the last two decades.
There are a plethora of books and articles with conflicting advice on how to choose a major, and/or career. The two main themes being polar opposites: 1) if you choose a job you love then it won’t feel like work, or 2) choose a job based on what you will earn, and explore your passions as a hobby. I propose you marry the two. People spend approximately 30% of their life at work. While making enough money is crucial, if it’s your only consideration, you will likely be unsatisfied with your job.
The Importance of Internships
In my opinion, the most important reason to do an internship is so that you can put into practice what you have been learning. You’ll figure out very quickly if you’ve chosen the right field. It’s like being able to test drive your career. It’s likely that the employer will offer you a paid position after completion, and you will be gaining the experience that employers are looking for. You’ll earn credit in your program, it will make you a stronger candidate on interviews, improve your resume, and you will be deserving of a higher salary. And finally, you’ll be building your network of professional contacts. When I got my Bachelor’s in Graphic Design, I only did one internship project. While it was a fun and interesting project, I didn’t really get the chance to experience what a real creative team was like to work with. If I could do it all over again, I would have tried every internship opportunity available to me. I suggest you do the same. My current position is a paid internship, and I got it after only one term into my Master’s program, and without assistance from the college. I found it on my own, via an online job search. Be proactive, and look for opportunities on your own. Do not wait for your program of study to provide you with the chance.
Searching for a job (and the application process) can be an extremely humbling experience. It’s difficult to predict how long it will take to find the right job. There are a lot of factors to consider: the market, economic conditions, geographic location, how specific the search is, etc.
- Online Job Boards: Online job postings are a double edged sword. While the majority of jobs today are posted online; conversely a huge amount of people apply to them because they are so visible. Due to the overwhelming number of applicants, it can be extremely difficult to get an interview. When applying for a job online, you need to make sure that your cover letter and resume have the same words in it as the job posting. Most HR departments use software that weeds out applicants that are not qualified (you may in fact be qualified, but you won’t be seen if the words don’t match). There are many online job boards to choose from: your college, specific interest/field, Indeed.com, GlassDoor.com, the unemployment center, etc. I found my position online, but I was lucky because they only had it posted for 24 hours. They were extremely specific about what they wanted/needed in a candidate. They had posted the position before, and not a single applicant was qualified for the position.
- Colleagues: It’s important to make meaningful connections both in school and work. Stay in touch with people after you have left a company. Continue nurturing the relationships you valued while there. LinkedIn can be an easy way to stay in touch with professional contacts. Ask people to write you a recommendation on your profile, and return the favor.
- Specific Companies: Sometimes the best way to find a job, is to choose the company first. You can follow companies on LinkedIn, to see what news they are sharing, and how their organization is changing/growing.
There are a plethora of books on this, so here’s just a few things to remember:
- You are interviewing them just as much as they are interviewing you.
- Come prepared: research the company and position as much as you can beforehand.
- Bring questions: any employer worth their salt will give you an opportunity to ask questions. Being prepared with questions demonstrates that you are informed, professional and interested.
- Know your resume, and be able to speak confidently of your skills.
- Dress professionally, arrive to the location early, make eye contact, have a confident handshake, be an active listener, and send a thank you note afterwards.
Starting a New Career
It can take considerable time between searching for a job, submitting an application, interviewing, to your first day on the job. At my position, it took 2 months before my first day, and that was after hours of applications, background checks, and privacy training. So much importance has been placed on finding the right job, and then landing it, that how you act once you’ve begun is often overlooked. The first few months and first year is the most crucial for starting at a new company. How you act really sets the tone for how things are going to go for you in the future. In general, try to keep an open mind, be respectful and friendly to everyone, and put in your full honest effort in your actions.
There are many articles/books on starting a new position, such as this article from Glassdoor (which is a great place to research companies as well).
These are the things that I’ve found to be productive and successful:
- Take notes on everything, when you start out there will be too much information to keep in your head.
- Ask questions, never assume you know what to do until after you’ve been fully trained.
- Be personable, and treat EVERYONE with respect.
- Offer assistance when you see an opportunity to help.
- Look for opportunities to apply what you’ve learned in school.
- Know your responsibilities and embrace them happily, have pride of ownership.
- Plan out your day if you can. If there are things you couldn’t complete, write yourself a note at the end of the day, so that you don’t have to think about it all night.
- Look for mentorship moments/opportunities.
- Try to check your emails at set times, rather than all day. This will allow you to be more productive, as you won’t be interrupted throughout the day. No one is good at multi-tasking (no matter what they tell you).
Conquering Fear of Failure
Most of us are afraid of failing, and are risk averse because of it. We can remember, painfully clearly, a mistake in our past that led to remorse or self-loathing. You are bound to make mistakes; it’s part of growing as a person. There are several ways that people demonstrate a fear of failure: avoiding trying new things and challenges, procrastinating, not following through with goals, low self-confidence, and perfectionism to name a few. I used to think that being a perfectionist was a badge of honor. As it turns out, I was just really afraid of criticism and being wrong. Be easier on yourself; no one is perfect, and pretending to be will only alienate you from others, and place unrealistic expectations upon yourself. The real problem with avoiding failure, is that you aren’t really growing if you’re not making mistakes, and learning from them.
Many of us get stuck in an approval-seeking cycle, especially at work. We feel nervous to take even small steps, without a stamp of approval from our supervisors. Sometimes (when you are fully trained, and comfortable with your job responsibilities) it can benefit an organization for its employees to go out on a limb, take a calculated risk, and approach a problem in an unconventional manner.
Even as approval motivates, disapproval has tremendous power to limit or correct our behavior. Because we associate winning approval with survival, signs of disapproval are experienced as threats to our survival and become effective tools for social conditioning. While efficacious in our youth, remaining locked in the psychology of approval-seeking is a positive drag on our development as mature adults. Traditional cultures helped individuals through this transition or transformation of consciousness with rites of initiation. In the modern world, we are left to work this out for ourselves. –Zen and the Art of Making a Living3
Being Positive and Proactive
When I mention the word “work” what immediately pops up in your mind? Long hours in front of a computer, having to be around people you can barely tolerate, the dreaded performance review, commuting, taking notes, customer service calls, the everyday drudge of completing meaningless tasks?
What if you flipped that concept completely? What if you visualized a peaceful environment, your coworkers feel like friends and family, you are respected, your job has meaning, a place where you are excited to go each day. That’s the power of a positive mindset. At every workplace there are opportunities for you to make an impact, make connections, help others, and express your creativity. Having a positive mindset is a choice that you make, it’s not a natural or accidental occurrence.
There have been several times that I’ve let other people’s negativity get me down. I took the stress home with me, and let it ruin my nights and weekend. It took a while before I asked myself, “Why are you doing that to yourself?” When you are feeling stuck in a negative thought pattern try to recognize it as such. Ask yourself, “Is thinking about this other person’s attitude really worth my time? Is there anything that I can even do about it?” Resolve to let it go, and start the next day fresh. After reading The Orange Frog, I bought a little figurine I found at the craft store, of a gnome riding a frog, and a bouquet of orange flowers. When I start to feel that heavy negative weight, I just take a peek at the frog and flowers, and it resets my inner dialogue. There are many benefits to having a positive attitude about work:
- Healthier life through less stress: A wide range of health benefits including better sleep, lower blood pressure, healthier digestive system…your whole body will thank you.
- Less stress for your peers: Stress is palpable, your coworkers (and family) can sense it when you are stressed out. Why not have a positive attitude and make everyone around you breathe a bit easier?
- Job security: If you can develop a more positive mindset, your boss and coworkers will notice (as will customers).
- A sense of empowerment and control: When you decide to be positive, you take control of your day and your emotional reactions. You will be ready to deal with the normal bumps in the road that come with any job, take them in stride, and use them as learning opportunities.
If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, go out and sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures. Sweep streets like Handel and Beethoven composed music. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well. – Martin Luther King, Jr.
Recently I’ve read several really great books on having a positive mindset and redefining work/careers:
- The Orange Frog, by Shawn Achor4
- Zen and the Art of Making a Living, by Laurence G. Boldt3
- The Artist’s Way at Work, by Mark Bryan with Julia Cameron and Catherine Allen5
- Mind Gym, by Sebastian Bailey, Ph.D., and Octavius Black6
The Orange Frog is a short read, written like a story book for adults, complete with illustrations. As you read it, you can identify the personality types of the frogs with people in your life and workplace. The author has broken down the frog pond communities into 4 types of mindsets: Pond 1: What I do does Matter and What I think doesn’t matter, Pond 2: What I think does matter and What I do doesn’t matter, Pond 3: Nothing Matters, Pond 4: What I think and what I do both matter. As the main frog character adopts a positive mindset (what he thinks and his actions both matter) he turns more and more orange. At one of my previous positions, I was definitely from pond 1. I worked myself crazy, trying to do everything just right. No matter how hard I worked, how much more work I did than the previous year, it was never enough. To make matters worse, my opinions were never valued within the organization. I can’t even begin to describe how miserable that made me feel as a person. I am so grateful for my current job, as an instructional designer with the Department of the Interior University. I finally am in “pond 4” where both what I think and do matter. I will never do that to myself again; go back to working in a negative environment that seems bent on stealing my joy, and rewards bullying and other ugly behaviors.
There are two main teachings in this parable: 1. Being positive (Orange) is contagious – so is green (negative) as it turns out. 2. Being positive (Orange) is adaptive – By this I mean it can help us innovate to be more effective in our current environment and adapt positively to new environments.4 -The Orange Frog
Life is too short for you to waste your time at a dead-end job, where you are not appreciated, and where you aren’t actively improving your life. Strive to find something more meaningful to focus your efforts on. None of us know what the future holds for us. Illness, accidents, layoffs, downsizing, restructuring, economic factors…all these outside events are outside of our control. If you cannot change your situation, look for ways to improve it. Learn to make time for yourself, both at home and at work. Find opportunities to learn and grow as a person. Share your learning with others and improve your workplace from the inside out. If you do decide to start over fresh, do so intentionally and with an arsenal of self-reflection. I am so happy that I took the major step of starting over. I only wish I had done it 10 years ago.
- Keirsey, D. (1998). Please Understand Me II: Temperament, Character, Intelligence. Del Mar, CA: Prometheus Nemesis Book Company
- Frankl, V. E. (1959), Man’s Search for Meaning. Boston, MA: Beacon Press
- Boldt, L. G. (1991). Zen and the Art of Making a Living: A Practical Guide to Creative Career Design. New York, NY: Penguin Books
- Achor, S. (2013). The Orange Frog: A Parable Based on Positive Psychology. Apex, NC: International Thought Leader Network
- Bryan, M., & Cameron, J., & Allen, C. (1998). The Artist’s Way at Work: Riding the Dragon. New York, NY: William Morrow and Company
- Bailey, S, & Black, O. (2014), Mind Gym: Achieve More by Thinking Differently. New York, NY: HarperCollins