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Everyone Has A Career Plan Until They Get (Metaphorically) Punched In The Face

fist punch

About two years ago in Wellington, I met Paul at a show in which I was performing. Backstage, we got to chatting. He was a man in his twenties with a job that perhaps many in their twenties might consider a snoozefest but a good job with prospects – a Government job. He’d just taken a step up and seemed settled in putting his artistic endeavours on the backburner into the hobbyist dilettante category and knuckling down to focus on his increasingly adult responsibilities. I was twice his age or thereabouts but could still vividly recall being in that situation myself and making similar decisions. Not that these things are one definitive decisions they’re more a series of decisions every day that you don’t make.

One day not long after (and I hope that I in no way influenced him), he made one definitive decision. He quit that job, disconnected his connections, sold everything he couldn’t carry and moved to Germany – a country where he knew no one and did not speak the language.

I’m prompted to write about Paul because today on FaceBook, he posted that his mission for 2018 was to do one new thing a day and he was asking the online hive mind for ideas. He sees this as a way to push himself into challenges and extend his personal growth beyond his comfort zone. I’m writing a book on much the same topic at the moment and have just developed a presentation on doing two dangerous things a year. Not so much Paul’s version of lots of little things but regular significant things with potential risks.

In this article as a provocative thought for my readers, I’m trying to contrast two distinctive approaches to proactive change. Most of the change we experience is probably happening to us rather than being initiated by us. That’s reactive change. We have our plans and we truck on until life sticks out a leg and trips us up or thrusts out a helping hand and gives us an assist. Plans are great but, as boxer Mike Tyson said, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face. Plans are like the deadlines that author Douglas Adams wrote about, “I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by”.

A thin slice of the population make proactive choices to change their employment situations. Brave souls. Do they make little continuous choices – like attending nightschool or starting a sideline online business? Or, do they pack it all in, quit the day job with no next gig in sight and see what happens? It’s certainly a wide spectrum. Where have you sat on that scale? Where do you sit on that scale? Where will you sit on that scale?

Marvin Zuckerman created a scale where we can complete an assessment and it’ll categorise our ‘type’ when it comes to sensation seeking – effectively our comfort and behaviour around change and risk. Whether this aspect of our character is genetic or learned is debated. Like everything else, it’s probably a bit of both. I chose to believe it can be a choice. Are you a thrill seeker, experience seeker, disinhibitor, or a boredom susceptible?

These questions are tough to answer off the top of your head and we’re often very poor assessors of ourselves. Track down those best friends of yours and ask them. Real best friends – ones who’ll tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear. I send out an assessment to people after my presentation if they ask for it. (Everyone asks for it).

There’s a quick ‘n’ dirty way to know. Three questions. When going with a group to an exotic restaurant that wasn’t your choice, what do you consider when ordering? When arriving at 5pm on a business trip for which you’re fully prepared for a single night stay by yourself in a town you’ve never been to, what do you do that night? At a large gathering of staff, many of whom you don’t know well, what do you do during the scheduled break / networking time? See if you spot a pattern in your answers.

Or, you can look back on the changes you reacted to and initiated in your career to date and analyse those. The best predictor of your future is your past behaviour. And our past behaviour is exactly what got us to wherever we are today. If you’d like something different in your career, then proactively reviewing and adapting that past behaviour of yours is a necessary step.

I quoted Mike Tyson and Douglas Adams earlier in this article. Now, I’m going to quote myself. I have convinced myself I thought of this and I steadfastly refuse to google it in case 17,912 other people already did. So, at the time of writing, author speaker and trainer Terry Williams said, “People don’t resist change; they resist being changed”.

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Career 2.0

volcano lightning

Taking photos of volcanos in action must be scary. That’s probably part of why they do it. Changing careers for many of us might be the scariest thing we ever do, or, more likely, contemplate doing but never actually do.

I threw myself into the internet to glean a bit of inspiration for this post. Not literally, we can’t actually throw ourselves into the internet… yet. Online research is fine but some sort of Tron-like immersion within the ethereal plains of the worldwide web seems impractical and risk-prone. If you think you have a problem now spending a lot of time ON the internet, just wait until you can spend a lot of time IN the internet.

I found one article about career transition and it used the metaphor of the software upgrade: Career 2.0. I think that’s part of the problem. Going from career 1.0 to 2.0 is blunt and quite a leap. Why not take an incremental leaf from Apple’s upgrade strategy and have career 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, etc rather than one substantive chasm-leaping transition straight to 2.0 when it’s thrust upon you? I know it’s a freakin’ pain every three days when those upgrade messages splash themselves across your screen or interrupt your other activities. Maybe this software upgrade imagery doesn’t stretch too far with career upgrades? For a start software can “live in the cloud,” whereas your job cannot. That said, I do have a guy on who does all my illustrations for me.

The term seems to have a bit of baggage and mixed perceptions too. One Forbes article seemed in favour of transitioning to something more in line with your values after slaving away for a while, having built up your CV, garnered some experience and contacts, and built up some reserves just in case it all goes south. (I don’t know why “in case it all goes south” is an expression for something going horribly wrong? I’m from the south. It’s awesome. If you want horrible, I’d go west). With a positive outlook, Forbes proffered some tips that I’ll share shortly.

The Harvard Business Review (HBR), on the other hand, took a dim view of career transitions. Their first article was about having to explain it when someone called you out on it, as if it would be an embarrassing blip. I know we could all use some tips on explaining gaps in the timelines of our CVs when potential employers ask about our unrevealed years in prison or that time we faked our own death. Any employer who claims to want to employ someone with problem solving skills, initiative and learning flexibility should realise that career transitioning is an absolute finishing school for that sort of thing. So, I wouldn’t worry too much about this, unless you ever get interviewed for a job as a reporter for the Harvard Business Review, in which case, you have been warned.

Let’s get back to those tips from Forbes. If anyone knows about career transition tips for mere employees, it’s the media outlet that relies on their listings of the 500 richest people on the planet in the same voyeuristic way that Sports Illustrated relies on their swimsuit issue. Now, I was primarily drawn to the Forbes article as their first example was that of a Navy Captain who became a circus manager. Possibly not that much of a lateral shift but definitely the adult version of running away to join the circus. Their key tips: know the underlying reason why, get fit, do it in stages, find a mentor, prepare for setbacks, volunteer or moonlight first, have some ‘rainy day’ money set aside, and do something every day to move towards what you’re after.

I MC’d an HR conference a while back where one of the speakers demonstrated a very useful technique I’ll call ‘Timelining’. You scribble an X/Y axis on a sheet of landscape paper – the bigger the better. The horizontal axis (X – c’mon team) is time, so mark out the years of your career. The vertical axis (Y) is satisfaction on a scale you’ll have to imagine yourself. You then mark out the various highs and lows and milestones on three timelines – career, personal and relationships. The second part is self-analysis – when were the sweet spots of mutually-intersecting highs and, vice versa, the lows? Then you ask yourself for both, why, what was happening in each type of scenario? I was coaching a forty year old man once with this activity and he had the epiphany that he hated working indoors. It had never occurred to him, then he transitioned on a dime and now he never met a grapevine he didn’t like. It’s a great technique – google a book called ‘Taking Charge’ by Chris Johnson.

I’m not going to completely dismiss HBR’s advice. How can I ignore phrases like “compelling narrative” or “professional reinventors”? If working for a living doesn’t pan out for me and I end up a crazy old guy in a shed, I’ll be an inventor working on my compelling narrative. And a time machine.


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