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My Quarter-Life Career Crisis Didn’t Kill Me—It Taught Me How To Pivot

Whether you’re ditching law a degree right after earning it or leaving politics for a job in TV, don’t be afraid to pivot early.

My Quarter-Life Career Crisis Didn’t Kill Me—It Taught Me How To Pivot
[Photo: Filipe Dos Santos Mendes via Unsplash]

Growing up, my girl crushes swung between Judy Blume and Eleanor Roosevelt. I gravitated toward irreverent women who had stories to tell and history to make. Maybe because of this, I felt destined for a career in politics. As a campus activist at Northwestern University, I geeked out to all things political. I volunteered on Chicago congressional campaigns and Bill Clinton’s first presidential run. I even ran as a delegate for the Democratic National Convention in 1992. Capitol Hill was my Hollywood, where wonky, earnest do-gooders who wanted to change the world were celebrated. Or so I imagined.

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After college, I landed a coveted position as a Capitol Hill press secretary, working for a brash, ambitious freshman congressman from South Florida. At 21 years old, I was not only the youngest press secretary on the Hill but also the lowest paid, making a paltry $15,000 a year. I could barely afford a Metro ticket, but in my costume pearls and hand-me-down skirt suits, I felt drunk with importance as I strode purposefully through the Capitol’s corridors, kitten heels clicking against the marble floor.

Two years on the Hill was all it took to realize I needed a career change–at the ripe age of 23. I decided I’d rather be covering the news than pitching stories to news people. Many new grads are advised not to agonize about having to course-correct when you first start out. After all, your 20s are about taking chances and moving in different directions. That may work for some, but for others, it can mean starting back at the bottom of each new industry. Before long, you’ll be hovering around 30 and still hoping to find an industry you love.

But for me, a few pivots actually made sense, and when I look back, I see a through-line to my career. It’s not random; it makes sense–and ultimately made me a more interesting and appealing job candidate. Here’s how I pulled it off.

Follow Your Instincts

After quitting D.C., I moved to New York and hustled to get a job–any job–in TV. My first position was as an assistant producer on the investigative team at Fox’s The New ‘A Current Affair,’ a tabloid show with a clunky name. When I interviewed, I sold myself as someone who knew how to pitch, package, and craft a story. I was on the other side of media now, but many of the skills I’d used on the Hill felt similar.

A year later, I jumped again, this time getting a gig at Dateline. At NBC, my Capitol Hill experience was valued. It gave me a certain gravitas and credibility. Once again, my experience in a different industry held currency.

Millennials are expected to have six jobs before they turn 30. And pivoting in your career, especially in the early years, is getting even more common; by one recent estimate, around half of global workers are expected to change jobs before 2018 rolls around.

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But because switching jobs has become the new normal, it may be easier to pivot than ever before. One rule of thumb that’s useful to follow is to stick with your gut. Assessing what you’re really good at can help direct your move, even if it doesn’t feel “strategic.” It’s not that you shouldn’t be thoughtful about your pivot, but zeroing in on your strengths and with what gets you juiced is the first step to figuring out what to do next.

From Courtrooms To House Parties

After graduating from the University of Michigan Law School, Debra Feinberg began her career in real estate law. Two years later, she was bored. Uninspired by her work, Feinberg was itching for something else. It was the summer of 2008, and she’d heard that the Obama campaign was hiring fellows to run field operations. This was exactly the change Feinberg needed. The position paid a small stipend to move to western Michigan and work as a grassroots organizer, setting up house parties and growing a network of dedicated volunteers.

“The day I got the Obama fellowship, I quit my job,” Feinberg says. “It was a big risk. I sublet my apartment in New York and moved to western Michigan, which was a big shock–it wasn’t Ann Arbor or Detroit. But it opened up an entire new world for me,” she recalls. Realizing she was good at her campaign job, Feinberg decided, “when I come home I need to find a job that lets me do this kind of work. I’m not sure what that job is yet, but I have to find it.”

After the Obama fellowship ended, Feinberg moved back to New York and answered a political job ad on Craigslist. The ad turned out to be for Vito Lopez, one of the most influential people in New York state politics, who was looking for a legislative assistant in his Brooklyn office. Some of the work involved real estate issues. Feinberg’s background in real estate law, plus her campaign experience, made her a strong candidate. Feinberg got the job and ended up staying with Lopez for four years, ultimately becoming his chief of staff.

“It’s crazy when I look back and think that having worked on the campaign and then answering that ad completely changed the course of my life,” Feinberg says. “Having a J.D. from the University of Michigan is not what defined my career path, it’s the other, untraditional moves that I have made.”

Lean Into Your Skills

When you’re looking to pivot into a new industry but only have a few short years of job experience, there’s a bit of old-fashioned career advice that still holds true: Pinpoint those “transferrable skills.” These days, though, a lot can count as transferrable. Any areas of overlap from what you do now to where you want to go is the part of your resume you’ll really want to dial up–especially if you can’t afford to start out again at the bottom.

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Yes, you will need to develop other skill sets, but what do you have now? For instance, you can spin “event planning,” whether it’s for a nonprofit or for weddings, into “project management.” Marketing and writing skills are attractive to many industries. And in today’s niche workforce, where companies from startups to digital agencies specialize more and more, having an expertise in finance, law, design, or even fashion can make you stand out.

Talk To People You Only Sort Of Know

Early in your career, you won’t have an extensive network to lean on. But you have more connections than you realize. Back in 1973, Johns Hopkins sociologist Mark Granovetter found that the best job leads came from distant acquaintances–which he called “weak ties”–not close friends or family. That’s because the closely knit groups you belong to are filled with people who know roughly the same things that you do. You need to get outside of that space, pushing beyond your core group. The weak tie is essentially the bridge to getting information.

In 2017, that theory is still sound. Fast Company recently spoke with a 26-year-old graphic designer who’s less than a year into her job at Taco Bell, which she landed through a college acquaintance. The two weren’t even “keeping in touch” in a one-on-one sense, Charlene Chand pointed out; they were Facebook friends, and when her former classmate posted the job opening on the platform, Chand dropped her a message saying she was interested. The rest is history.

Read more: What It Takes To Start Your Career At Facebook, BuzzFeed, Nike, And Refinery29

Finally, a word of comfort: Mid-20s career crises are nothing new, but the rates at which young people are doing something about it are increasing. That means you’re much less likely to face an automatic penalty for changing careers–even repeatedly–early on. Staying current and doing work that gives us purpose and fulfillment is why so many of us switch things up, and it can continue deep into our careers.

You don’t have to reach a certain age or level of experience before that’s “allowed.” Take the risk. Don’t let fear hold you back. You’ll wind up someplace better, even if it takes awhile to get there.

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