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Your Next Big Career Move Should Be Smaller Than You Think

Small experiments are better than big leaps when you're not sure exactly what the future holds.

Your Next Big Career Move Should Be Smaller Than You Think

[Photo: Flickr user Rory MacLeod; App Photo: Universal Pictures ("E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial", 1982)]

You’re feeling stuck at work. You know you should figure out what you want to be doing with your life, but the idea of changing jobs—let alone careers—seems so overwhelming that it’s hard to start.

The solution? Think smaller. Much smaller. It’s time to try some career pilot projects.

That’s the advice from Jenny Blake, who cocreated Google’s Career Guru coaching program when she worked there from 2006 to 2011. Blake is also author of the new book Pivot. "A lot of people think of career moves as these big jumps from one rung on the ladder to the next," she tells Fast Company. Just as television networks order pilot episodes of multiple new shows before they commit to a lineup, you can test small "pilots" in your life to see how they go.

Small Experiments

The first step, she says, is to ask yourself: "What are small experiments I can run right now that will not drastically shift my day-to-day life, but involve skills, or test a new hypothesis of something I’m interested in?"

Perhaps you’ve occasionally had visions of writing a book on a favorite topic. Before you quit your job and spend the next two years researching it, you could test out the main idea by writing a guest post for a friend’s blog. You could write an article for a more serious industry publication. You could give a speech on the topic at a local networking event. You could lead a series of brown-bag lunch seminars at your workplace on the topic and ask what people think.

You should then repeat all these steps with other ideas you’re interested in, too. The volume of bets is key. "By running several small pilots concurrently, you can see which are going to emerge in the lead," says Blake. "The whole point is to take the pressure off any one having to work."

Put Something Out There

You can think small, but avoid the trap of engaging in what Blake calls "fauxspiration." These are activities such as research and analysis that are helpful as part of pilot projects, but aren’t pilot projects by themselves. "Piloting is not reading, thinking, curating, organizing, outlining, filing, shuffling, emailing, hoping, making coffee, drinking coffee, or drinking another cup of coffee," as Blake puts it in her book. "Some of these may very well be part of the creative process, but they do not count for output." You need to put something out there that the world can give you feedback on.

Not everything will work. That’s the nature of pilot projects. As Blake has been promoting Pivot, she’s tried several things, including starting a podcast, and training multiple "Pivot Method" coaches. She’s also been experimenting with more out-of-the-box career pilots. She has been learning Spanish, for instance, so she can try working in Argentina for a while next year, and see what comes of that.

If one pilot project appears to be a major winner, you can double down on it with more time and resources. After all, if your guest blog post goes viral and turns you into an internet star, you’ll be able to make a good case to a publisher that you should write a book on that topic.

Even if nothing takes off, "I can’t imagine a scenario in which a career pilot is a complete waste of time," Blake says. You’ll learn new things, and find out more about what you like and what you don’t. That self-knowledge can inform your next pilot projects. Even within your current job, says Blake, "An experimental mind-set keeps things challenging and interesting."

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