Odds are, your first (or second or third) career out of school isn’t going to be the right long-term fit. Finding your professional passion is an iterative process. In my case, I thought I’d like PR, but hated making cold calls to reporters; I actually did like being a journalist, but the industry was collapsing and I got laid off; and I mostly liked working in politics, but ultimately burned from the lack of sleep and food that accompanies campaign life. It took me a solid decade after I finished college to find the career I ultimately settled in (running my own marketing strategy firm).
That was the impetus behind my book, Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future, which came out earlier this year. These days, whether you’re just starting out in your career or are a longtime workforce veteran, the ability to adapt and reinvent yourself is key to your professional success. Here are some of the best strategies I learned from interviewees who reinvented their way into great careers in their 20s and 30s.
Look for Hidden Opportunities.
Kevin Roose had just finished his freshman year at Brown University and was spending the summer waiting tables in New York City. He “cold emailed” A.J. Jacobs, a well known author and Esquire editor, and asked if A.J. would be interested in having him work as an unpaid personal assistant. Who can turn that down? A.J. couldn’t, and the relationship gave Kevin amazing connections that led to his getting a major book deal while still in college and ultimately reporting jobs for the New York Times and New York magazine. Kevin didn’t wait for a listing to be posted at Brown Career Services; he went out and invented his own job.
Join a Board.
You might imagine that “board service” is the sole province of wealthy graybeards, people who can write $10,000 checks without blinking and are friends with the governor. That’s certainly true of some boards – the most prominent in the community, such as for hospitals or universities. But thousands of smaller nonprofits are dying for the expertise of up-and-coming professionals who are willing to roll up their sleeves. That was the case for Karin Turer, who – in her 20s – developed an entirely new skill set in fundraising when she joined the board of a nonprofit bicycle advocacy group (which I ran in the mid-2000s). She went on to win a coveted university fundraising post, and ultimately started her own consulting business doing fundraising and event planning.
Don’t Be Afraid to Start at the Bottom.
Joanne Chang landed a prestigious management consulting job out of college – but soon realized she hated it. To her parents’ dismay, after two years, she quit and took a bottom-rung prep cook job at a Boston restaurant. But over a period of years, she learned the trade from the ground up, and today is one of the city’s best-known chefs and the successful proprietor of a restaurant and three bakeries.
Trying new opportunities is key to figuring out what you really want in your professional life. These strategies are a head start toward reinventing yourself into your ideal career.
Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. Learn more about her new book Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press) and follow her on Twitter.