I made a big career change recently and received quite a few emails asking how & why I did it. I also get a regular flow of inquiries from people new to the health/tech field who ask how I navigated my path up to this point.
First of all, pretty much everyone tells a good story in retrospect, including me. So take other people’s career advice for what it is: highly subjective interpretations of personal history.
But, in case it’s useful, here’s the advice I share with people who ask:
1) Every day is a job interview.
Do your best on every task you take on, whether it is for pay or not. Some of the breaks I’ve received (or given) came about thanks to volunteering within my community, both online and offline. It goes without saying (but I’ll say it): If every day is a job interview, you must treat everyone with respect. That intern may be on your hiring committee some day and she’ll remember how you made her feel, for good or for ill, 10 years prior.
- Related: Peter Shankman on how preparation for a 10-minute meeting is a sign of respect.
2) Do the work that you see needs to be done, even if it’s not in your job description.
Roni Zeiger offered this as a refinement to “every day is a job interview” — that is, not only do you never know who is watching (so do your best) but also be mission-driven. Do the job you want to do and, if you’re lucky, people will recognize it and encourage you — even hire you! — to continue.
For example, I started blogging and using Twitter to amplify my research findings years before the Pew Research Center recognized the potential of those tools. To me, it was the work that needed to be done: connecting the dots, breaking our findings down into bite-size pieces, introducing data into the public conversation. Kudos to Lee Rainie, who encouraged me to rewrite my job description to account for the time I spent on it.
3) Have a 5-year goal in mind.
It can be unrealistic! But it’s a compass point. When opportunities arise, you can better recognize whether this choice is getting you closer to your goal or further away.
- Related: Vic Strecher on how having a life purpose can help you focus.
4) Work with people you want to learn from.
They might be above you, beside you, or below you on the org chart. Don’t compromise on this. My colleagues have always been a huge reason for my success and happiness on projects.
5) Find your pit crew.
Look for people who share your interests, goals, purpose. Form a study group about the work you all do. Trade ideas and tips, encourage each other, review each other’s cover letters, contracts, etc. My peer mentors (most of whom live 500+ miles away and with whom I have never formally worked) are my main support system and the reason I can feel confident about making bold choices in my career.
- Related: Seth Godin on finding your peer group.
6) Join and serve your communities.
You may find it useful to check out conferences, meet-ups, blogs, LinkedIn groups, and other places where communities form around the topics you care about. Join in the conversation. Reply to people whose ideas intrigue you. I find that the best connections happen when I participate in the public conversation. But don’t be greedy — give as much as you get. Promote other people’s ideas as often as you promote your own.
- Related: #17 of Mike Nelson’s career nuggets: “Learning is a lot more fun — and a lot more effective — when it’s social.”
7) Don’t leave before you leave.
Yes, that’s a Sheryl Sandberg quote, from her TED talk and her book, Lean In. It applies to the choices you make about family planning (i.e., don’t turn down responsibilities in anticipation of some day taking time off to care for a child) but I think it applies more generally, too. People who are in “exit mode,” who are anticipating the day they give notice, telegraph that they don’t care about the work they are doing. Not smart. Take advantage of every day, even if that means taking copious, specific notes about what is wrong about your current job so you can recognize and avoid similar situations in the future.
What are your career maxims? How about some war stories? When people ask you for advice, what do you say?