Changing career directions doesn’t mean starting from scratch

The Jump #6

Welcome to The Jump: a monthly newsletter for Millennials shifting career directions. When I was shifting career directions myself, I started this newsletter with one question in mind: what is the relationship between career change and personal growth? 

As you’re a reader of The Jump, you want to crush it in your next opportunity. To crush it, you need skills.

Perhaps you’re a software engineer, but feel like there’s not much value in the features you’re building because they aren’t solving an unaddressed strategic problem with the product. You have ideas for how to address it and want to shift into a Product Management role.

Or perhaps you’re an expert at SEO, but you’re tired of implementing strategies you disagree with. You want to shift into a marketing strategy role so you can help shape its direction.

Or perhaps you’re a brand strategist, but enjoy cooking and want to explore how you can do more of it in your career.

As a transitioner, you have some idea of what you want to do next. And you know you need to gain skills to get there. However, because you’ve invested the last three to five years getting a degree or the last one to three years in a specialized role, you don’t want to feel like your hard-earned skills would be used in your next opportunity.

By working towards a new opportunity, are you abandoning the skills you worked so hard to gain?

The problem with “what do you want to be when you grow up?”

Growing up, we’re told to choose one field to devote our entire career to.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” is what we were asked when we were young. 

“What major are you choosing?” is what we were asked when we were applying to colleges.

“What do you want to do?” is what we’re asked currently.

These questions are reinforced by the idea that we must decide on one thing. One job. One major. One company. 

The problem is that deciding on one thing prevents us from developing our ability to adapt. One survey by the US Bureau of Statistics shared that Baby Boomers have switched jobs an average of twelve times in their lifetime. And this trend remains the same with us Millennials: we switch jobs roughly every three years. If we stuck to one path long-term, we prevent ourselves from becoming adaptive. And when job-switching is as frequent as every three years, it’s more valuable for us to adapt than it is to be certain. We shouldn’t shy away from change—we should welcome it.

What skills would allow me to do needed and fulfilling work?

Though “what do I want to be when I grow up?” isn’t helpful, the intent behind it is. This is the larger question behind it is “what skills would allow me to do needed and fulfilling work?” 

The former is a terrible question because it prescribes an approach that won’t accomplish the outcome it wants (needed and fulfilling work). The latter is a helpful question because it frames the outcome we want and acknowledges our freedom to decide how we accomplish that outcome. 

Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, talks about two ways to accomplish a valuable and fulfilling career:

  1. Become the best at one specific thing.

  2. Become very good (top 25%) at two or more things.

He then shares the downsides of the first approach:

“The first strategy is difficult to the point of near impossibility. Few people will ever play in the NBA or make a platinum album. I don’t recommend anyone even try.

The second strategy is fairly easy. Everyone has at least a few areas in which they could be in the top 25% with some effort. 

In my case, I can draw better than most people, but I’m hardly an artist. And I’m not any funnier than the average standup comedian who never makes it big, but I’m funnier than most people. The magic is that few people can draw well and write jokes. It’s the combination of the two that makes what I do so rare. And when you add in my business background, suddenly I had a topic that few cartoonists could hope to understand without living it.”

Both approaches will lead us to a valuable career. It’s just that the second approach—the approach that’s less talked about—is way more practical.

Career changers have a head start at doing valuable work

When it comes to changing career directions, there are a few cases I can think of where approach #1 would be more practical. Approach #1 may be the better approach if you want to go into E-sports.

But for the career changer not going into E-sports, it’ll take less time for us to make the jump if we focused on being very good at ≥2 skills than being the best at one. 

Think about it. We already have skills cultivated from our previous experience, and there’s a high chance we may be decently good at two skills. This means we have a head start at doing work that is rare and valuable, making us a unique fit for our next opportunity. If you’re the software engineer who wants to go into Product Management, you combine your technical understanding with your product instincts, making you a technically-savvy PM. If you’re the marketing strategist interested in cooking, you can combine your marketing skills with your passion for cooking to host private dinners in your apartment.

As you already have experience, you may already be the top 25% at two (or three) skills. This means your only step is to bring to light skill combinations that will aid you in your shift. And if you aren’t in the top quadrant of two skills, you can be with some effort.

Career changes can feel like you’re starting over. But given the skills you already have, you’re actually 70% there. All you have to do is uncover a combination of skills that is unique, interesting, and valuable.

Credits to Ariana Bautista for feedback on earlier versions of this writing.

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