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2 years ago, I made the career pivot I’d thought about for years, from my Silicon Valley enterprise software job, to finally working on solving climate change full-time. Since then, my friends and their friends would often ask how they, too, can make purpose-driven impact work their day job. In the midst of the covid-19 pandemic, these requests now come up weekly. It’s a crazy 2020: with a pandemic, fast-approaching climate disaster, and continuing systemic racism towards Black people front and center, it seems that for many, it feels harder every day to continue life as normal, and go back to just “a job”.

2020 has shaken up our realities and is pushing us to really think about how we’re spending our time and energy. I love that I’m hearing people ask:

What I want to see in my lifetime is a radical workforce shift to meaningful work for humanity — that means everyone from the construction workers, to the designers, inventors, and operators — and my hope is that this piece can help inspire people to accelerate that change. In particular, if you identify as a womxn, Black, Indigenous, Latinx, POC, or LGBT, there is opportunity for you to lead in these spaces. In my current role at Opus 12, I’ve had the opportunity to get on stages to speak about our work. I am almost always the only woman of color on that stage, if not the only womxn at all. WE are what is needed to build a better future. If you are considering a pivot, please reach out to me — I’d love to help you come work on this side.

And because I live in San Francisco, I have a special message for my techies out there: I urge you to put your energy towards innovating on real world challenges. I cringe every time I hear the common saying in tech that people want to work on “hard problems”. But how about “meaningful hard problems with impact on the social and physical world”? Those are the hardest but most rewarding problems to solve of all. Derek Thompson’s piece, “The Real Trouble With Silicon Valley” hit me hard with this:

My personal journey led me to work on climate change, so I’m compelled to tell you why. Climate change is THE greatest challenge of our generation and our actions in the next decade will shift the course of history. We are in a critical inflection point in the history of humankind and that also means there is a massive opportunity to actually make an impact, particularly on environmental justice. If we don’t act, we will see the worst of climate disaster (e.g. widespread climate migration, international conflict, extreme gender inequity, food/water scarcity, increased threat of terrorism, mobility of tropical diseases). Indeed, we’re already starting to see it today (e.g. the Syrian civil war and the forced climate migration and international tensions that followed, increasing wildfires). The covid analogue is: we could either be Taiwan or South Korea and act fast, or we can be the US. It really is that simple.

Edit (Sept. 21, 2020): As I type we’re in the midst of an early and devastating wildfire season across the western US. I know it can feel overwhelming at times to think about climate change and other big issues. What I’ve heard from friends is that they feel helpless in the face of it all — I can tell you from experience that acting, in whatever way you can, is empowering and a way to combat this helplessness. When I woke up to an orange sky in SF on September 9th, I had this weird awareness that I was working on what I needed to, and in that I found comfort.

The Roadmap

Roughly, the steps towards making “the pivot” will look like this (not necessarily in this order):

  • Figure out what matters to you and what you can offer
  • Leave your current job, if it’s right for you
  • Give yourself space to reset and figure things out, if you can
  • Purposefully find your next role

Note: If you want TL;DR of these sections, scroll all the way to the bottom.

The journey itself may take months or years, but getting started on your path is the first step and the rest will follow as you keep walking.

1 — Figure out what to do and what you can offer

The first step is figuring out what direction to go. Here are some strategies to help:

Observe yourself

Take the time to listen to yourself. What do you find yourself reading or talking about? You can even ask your closest friends to tell you what you seem to gravitate towards. One way to just get started on digging is to subscribe to newsletters or follow people on social media in your space of interest. That way, you will have information coming to your feed passively — you’ll naturally start learning more as you scroll. These small actions are low effort, but very high reward, and most importantly a regular reminder that you have options and goals. You’ll be able to build momentum fast.

My friends offered helpful questions they’ve asked themselves:

  • What world do you want to live in and what are the barriers between that world and today’s world? Which of those barriers do you want to help break down?
  • What are you pretty sure you’ll still care about in the next 50 years?

In my case, I already knew that I would work on climate change — my degree was in environmental engineering. Further learning post-college only reinforced that, and as I dug more, I discovered that carbon removal was the specific issue I wanted to tackle. I also love helping others learn, so I posted plenty of climate-related stories on my Instagram.

Identify your “job values”

Make a list of what you want and don’t want in your next job. For instance, I knew I wanted to join a young start-up with a strong team I could learn from. I did not want to work at a company that was not aligned to climate change specifically. Do you want more time with your family? Do you want to work on a certain social issue? Everyone wants a role that fits their needs, and it’s good to surface these needs before pivoting so you can find your next role purposefully.

Talk to people who are on paths that you may want to take

The best investment you can make is buying someone a cup of coffee or tea. Search on Linkedin for people who have a role or path that you find interesting, send an InMail (a premium account is also a good investment), tweet, or email, or ask a mutual connection for a warm intro. Send them a short blurb about yourself, why you’re reaching out, and that you’d like to ask for their expertise over a quick 20 minute phone call. You may get a 10% response rate, but those who do respond will make it worth it. And if you feel weird about cold-messaging, keep in mind that people generally like to know their advice is valued. A few tips:

  1. Learn about the person and their background before you meet them.
  2. Explain why you’re interested, what you have in common, what you’re looking for.
  3. Ask them about what the day-to-day work looks like. This will help you understand if it’s a good fit. A lot of jobs sound really appealing because of the outcome (e.g. develop cutting edge technology) but the work itself is what you’ll experience every day.
  4. Ask what they would recommend to anyone trying to enter the field (e.g. books to read, skills to acquire, people to follow, areas to look into).
  5. Ask if there’s anyone else they’d recommend you talk to, and if they could make an intro.
  6. SEND A THANK YOU AFTER

Not only can you learn more about your potential path, you may even make connections with new friends, mentors, and colleagues. You may even find yourself a new job.

Embed yourself into relevant spaces/communities

Get to know new people, and give back to the groups that are centered around your area of interest. During this pandemic, these meetings and events are happening online via Slack and Zoom — I encourage you to check out communities beyond your physical region. You may also find that a lot of chatter happens on social media, which is a great way to learn and interact. I spent a lot of time with the carbon removal online community AirMiners — I met new friends, hosted a panel, and even landed a contract role that helped me get my first taste of the space. I also got involved in environmental justice work with a queer-trans Asian and Pacific Islander lens with APIENC in the Bay Area. The more time I spent with people who were on a path I wanted to be on, the more random conversations helped surface new opportunities.

Hanging out with fellow AirMiners in 2019. We’re still very much active online.

Find a mentor

Mentors can help you learn about a new space, provide perspective, and allow you to stay accountable to your goals. I was fortunate to have a mentor (hi, Ben!) in the clean tech space for years while I was at my last job, who I met through an alumni mentorship program. We’d meet once a month for coffee before work, and I would usually come prepared with what was top of mind. Together, we set goals for each other and he helped me stay accountable to my job search and gave me a monthly space to reflect. Note that finding the right mentor may require some trial and error, but finding the right person can be a huge help.

Poke around and see what jobs and paths are out there

Change is hard, and changing jobs is even harder if you don’t know what else is out there. Don’t just respond to inbound recruiting requests or apply to the companies you happen to know about already. Start researching and show yourself that there’s a bigger world out there. During my last months at work, I realized I was feeling really checked out and scarce. Many of us operate in that feeling of scarcity and fear. In many cases, when you are telling yourself you don’t see options it’s because you’re operating in that mode.

Looking around will give you an actual picture of what those jobs look like (e.g. salaries, work flexibility, etc.). Lastly, the bonus of starting your job search is that, if you’re checked out at your work, you will feel more checked in when you know you’re making real moves to leave. Start slow: take just an hour to set up your job site alerts (Climatebase is awesome for climate change jobs). Look around on Linkedin. Just get started.

Figure out what you can offer and how you can fit into this new space

Knowing your skillset and talents can guide your job search and help you present yourself to others during your search. Here are some ways to define what you can offer:

  1. Understand your current skillset, and any other skills/training you might want to get your ideal role. You may even want to go back to school or attend a bootcamp.
  2. I can’t understate how powerful it is to ask your friends what you are good at. Ask 5 friends, or even people you worked with once years ago, what stands out as your strengths. You’d be surprised what patterns emerge.
  3. If you haven’t already learned about scarce vs. abundant thinking, read this article The Remarkable Advantage of Abundant Thinking. It blew my mind — one chart in particular helped me really understand how checked out I really was and how I could feel instead. It’s a way of thinking I revisit daily and try to apply to all aspects of life — for my burnt out friends out there, take a look and figure out which side you’re on.

2 — Take the leap and leave your job

I’m grateful I had the opportunity and means to take time in between jobs. I know that’s not possible for everyone, but I hope there’s some useful wisdom in here for anyone to use.

Stay true to why you’re leaving

Knowing your values/ideals and identifying exactly why you are leaving will help you stay the right course for you. In 2018 when I quit my job without having a next role, I felt very uneasy — I looked at my own “golden handcuffs”, my income, benefits, work perks, and realized I was going to be jumping into a void. But I was so convinced that spending ⅓ of my waking hours on climate change was worth it.

Make the next move for the “right reasons”

Similarly, resist the urge to jump right into another job immediately because it’s accessible to you. There will be many opportunities and staying true to your job values and knowing you’ll only pick your next role for the (for The Bachelor fans) “right reasons” is important. I’ve seen many people give into the temptation to jump to version 2 of the same type of company, only to wonder why they made that choice in the first place. One of my good friends says her personal standard for leaving a job is that she has to know she is “running to” a more exciting thing, not “running from” her current situation.

Timing is everything

Lastly, be honest with yourself about timing. I spent a year preparing for my exit, saving up money, and making sure I was ready for the move and stable in other areas of my life before taking this leap. With the current situation and its uncertainty, there are new considerations. All in good time.

3 — If you decide to take time off after leaving your job

Of course now that we’re in this particular time, taking time off brings new considerations so I want to be mindful of that. I’m writing this piece to last throughout time, beyond the pandemic, so I hope this wisdom can help for years to come.

I had a lot of reasons for taking time off after leaving my job:

  1. I knew I was not in the headspace to do thorough personal reflection, learning, and job searching that I needed to do. I wanted to deeply understand what to solve in climate, and wanted space to do concerted research.
  2. I had the means to take that time
  3. I wanted to experience not knowing what was next
  4. I wanted a chance to really observe myself and see what I gravitated toward

I thought leaving my job would create immediate freedom and happiness, but it was surprisingly hard.

I’ve had friends share the same experience and it’s quite a shock. I’ll say it again: CHANGE IS HARD. Leaving a job means releasing something that you’ve attached your ego to, and you’ll have to figure out who you are separate from that job. You will likely feel like going back to work immediately. Again, being mindful of my values helped here — I knew this was the right move for me and there was no way to turn back. Keeping this perspective helped me throughout my time being unemployed — during this period I had really high highs and really low lows, a real roller coaster. It was a major time of growth for me.

Do something totally new (deeply learn a new skill, pick up a new hobby, go on a trip)

This is a great way to do a hard reset and will distract you from the urge of going back to comfort (i.e. jumping right back into work). I took a 2 month (mostly solo) trip and gave myself permission to not think about looking for a job for a while until after the trip. This greatly reduced my worries about finding my next job.

It was the first time in my life I was actually just able to focus my time and energy on something that I gravitated to. I picked up meditation, learned the guitar, and got back in touch with my photography. This period helped me to pick up habits that will help me the rest of my life (meditating has been a major part of my self-care during the pandemic). It was easier to pick up these new habits because I could dedicate time to them.

You don’t have to go far or anywhere at all to immerse yourself in something completely new. Maybe there’s a hobby you’ve always wanted to try, or a skill you’ve wanted to learn. The point is, separate from your current life and explore what new things await.

Tan, mosquito-bitten, full and growing in Penang, Malaysia during my time off.

Be objective about your money

Take a look at your funds and figure out your runway so you have peace of mind when spending. I actually cut spending by about 60% and realized that while I was working, I was spending money on things that were quick and convenient because I wasn’t wealthy in time. I was eating out more instead of cooking meals in, taking Lyfts instead of walking or taking public transport, etc. You might also consider a part-time role, freelancing, or other ways of making side money if you need to supplement yourself during this time.

Learn, learn, learn

Learning more helps guide your decisions about what to work on next and who is doing the real work in those spaces. By the time I had returned from my trip, I knew I wanted to work on carbon removal and after reading about it online constantly. Once I identified what area I wanted to work in, it was time to chase my next job with purpose.

4. Purposefully find your next role

Understand the new space/challenge you are looking into

Deep understanding of your area of interest can help you figure out where and how to make a real impact, and who was doing that work. And of course, you may even see an opportunity to fill a gap that no one else is and start your own thing.

See how big the field really is

When I was ready to truly search for my next job, I started a big spreadsheet of the organizations and companies in the space and tracked my touchpoints/judgements. Every time I read an article or talked to someone and a new name popped up, I’d put them on my list. Another great place to look was incubators/accelerators/venture portfolios to see who was getting traction. When the time came to accept a new job, I knew I was well-equipped to make an informed decision because I really knew what was out there. By the time I landed my current job, I felt I knew of 95% of the players in the field.

Consider providing value even before finding a job

After reading hundreds of articles on carbon removal, I realized there wasn’t yet a very simple breakdown of what carbon removal was and who was working on solutions. At this point, I had done all of that research already, and spoken to almost every company on my list, so I found the perfect opportunity to write this carbon removal 101. It’s the gift that keeps on giving — I still share it all the time and colleagues often tell me they do the same with folks learning about the space. Writing this piece had many benefits:

  • It helped me to show my growing expertise publicly
  • It let me have something to offer when I met people in the field. Whenever I had coffee with a company I found interesting, I’d ask if they’d be open to mentioning them (i.e. free, organic marketing)
  • It solidified my learning and understanding because I had to teach it to others
  • It was nice to have something to work towards while I was unemployed
  • It gave me a good excuse to shoutout companies I found interesting so I could circle back to them after publication. This second touchpoint actually helped me land my current job at Opus 12 (more on that below).

Your version of this could be an article, volunteering, taking a leadership role in the community, doing graphic design freelancing for companies, etc. Just getting started and providing unique value can be a major boost.

Job searching isn’t just responding to job postings anymore

Remember, job searching isn’t just about searching through existing posts. It’s about finding the right opportunity, and that could mean meeting the right person or even creating your own role. So be creative and open your mind to many possibilities.

Plant many seeds

Finding that dream role isn’t just about resume dropping. It’s more about planting seeds and putting “feelers” out in the world. During my search, I purposely reached out to every company and organization that looked interesting — I saw it as planting seeds. There are many ways to do this: reaching out on LinkedIn, asking for a warm intro from folks whom you’ve met, going to community events and meeting people, having informational calls with companies who are interesting, offering your services to companies who may need them. You’d be surprised what doors you can open.

Identify what you’re looking for, and what you have to offer

When you make a touchpoint, know your story, and what you are looking for. This will help you anchor your conversations and help you pitch yourself and also find jobs that align with your goals. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, it’s ok to ask “how do you think X skillset fits into Y field?”. Again, it’s also worth considering acquiring new skills (through online classes, volunteerwork, YouTube, etc.). Identifying what you’re looking for could be as simple as figuring out the location you prefer, or the type of work culture you would thrive in. Maybe you won’t find a perfect fit but it’s good to know what your target is. Be aware that you don’t have to fit 100% of a job description to be the right fit, so just go for it and see what sticks!

Resist the urge to jump on the first jobs that come to you

It will be tempting to go back to a job immediately, or jump on the first opportunity that comes to you. The more you know yourself the easier it will be to stay the course, and know if taking a role is truly right for you or if you’re making a decision out of scarcity, uncertainty, or fear. Remember, the ideal is to run “to” a job not “from” the alternative.

A few notes in this search period:

  • If you’re unemployed and need structure, you can structure your time like an actual job and put time boundaries on the work you do. I needed a routine and I’d start every morning with reading, making breakfast and then playing guitar for half an hour before starting writing or researching.
  • Learn to love the hustle — I found that looking for jobs, while stressful, was also rewarding. I would get really excited every time someone responded to an InMail or was open to grabbing coffee and telling me what they do. I knew that every small win was based on my own efforts, and that was very rewarding.
  • Ask yourself “what’s the worst that can happen?” There was a point of my unemployment where it was down to the wire — I had been searching for roles for a while but hadn’t found my next role, and I had eaten up a good amount of my savings. At dinner with one of my old coworkers, he put things into perspective for me and asked “what’s the worst that can happen?” I was fortunate that for me, the “worst” wasn’t that bad — that helped me feel way less scarce.
  • Don’t worry about getting it perfect, and keep iterating. Your next role may not be your forever job — the tools I laid out here are to help you get as close as you can every time, and continue to check in and make changes when necessary. Speaking from experience, being in the right field will make your learning and connecting with the right people, way easier because it will be part of your job. It will no longer be extra work outside of a misaligned job. This part can’t be understated.
  • It helps to surround yourself with people who support your greater vision. Pay attention to the perspective of anyone who might be naysaying. This is where grounding in your values and beliefs helps in a time of change and uncertainty — talking to people who are constructive and supportive helps root you even more.
  • Consider a part-time job, internship, or contract — Sometimes a full-time role doesn’t show up but you can try out a job. If it’s in your target field, this can be a great way to get a foot in the door and get some real valuable experience. It can also help buy time and have some income while you search.

Final nugget of advice: you never know when a seed will sprout

After a 10 month search, I finally landed my current role as Chief of Staff at Opus 12 (CO2 recycling!). They had been one of the top companies on my spreadsheet, and I had actually planted a seed 4 months prior. At that time, I got connected with the CEO through a friend of a friend, after trying to connect with them through other avenues over the course of a year. At that time, they hadn’t been posting roles that fit my skillset, so I wanted to let them know what I could offer and see if there was a fit. During that first call, the CEO told me he wouldn’t be looking for a hire like me for another year. Four months later, after I published my article, I emailed him and let him know I mentioned them, and a few weeks later, he reached back out and said he actually needed help sooner than he anticipated. Truly, my experience shows that planting seeds is critical to landing the next role.

This journey isn’t going to be easy, but remember that just being on the right path is a worthy step. Sometimes it takes months or years. But when you reach the end of your journey you’ll know that you’ve made the right decision because you purposefully figured it out. I wish you all the best of luck and fruitful planting.

A quick cheat sheet of what we covered

Figure out what to do and what you can offer by:

  • Observing yourself
  • Identifying your “job values”
  • Talking to people on the paths you may want to take
  • Embedding yourself into relevant spaces/communities
  • Finding a mentor
  • Doing a little bit of research to see what’s out there
  • Figuring out what you can offer in the space

When you take the leap and leave your job keep in mind:

  • Why you are leaving
  • Making the next move only for the “right reasons”
  • Making sure it’s the right time

If you decide to take time off in between:

  • Give yourself space and time to adapt, remembering that any change has challenges
  • Do something totally new
  • Be objective about your money
  • Learn!

Purposefully find your next role by:

  • Understanding the space/challenge you’re looking into
  • Providing value even during your search
  • Understanding how wide the field is
  • Being aware of how you can fit into the space
  • Resisting the urge to jump on just any job
  • Planting a lot of seeds

And always remember, you never know when a seed will sprout!

I want to thank all my friends who helped me edit this piece, everyone who asked for my advice or encouraged me to share my experience, and those who helped me figure things out especially when things got hard. I can’t understate how grateful I am to have the support of you all!

Lover of the environment and tech. Harvard '14, SF-based, queer Chinese-American, listens to way too much music. IG pics and Tweet enviro stuff: @HeidiHeidiLim