This Is How To Change Careers Without Spiraling Into The Unknown

Visionary designer Albert Lee has a method he calls “flooring the downside” to help him navigate the uncertainty of making big changes.

This Is How To Change Careers Without Spiraling Into The Unknown
[Photo: Flickr user William Pearce]

Our careers have a momentum to them that is self-perpetuating. But what happens when we take dramatically different paths? How do you do it without risking it all or starting from zero? The ability to make these dramatic nonlinear moves is a defining characteristic of many careers of Fast Company‘s Most Creative People In Business, from Genevieve Bell (Most Creative 2009), an anthropologist in a room full of technologists, to Albert Lee (Most Creative 2014), an architect and designer in a room full of investors.


The career paths of these individuals can seem out of reach to most of us because when we read about them, we don’t hear the practical not-talked-about ways people deal with the fears of failing, losing security, and spiraling into the unknown when making nonlinear moves–until now.

Lee is a soft-spoken individual who has become a trusted behind-the-scenes adviser for some of the fastest growing startups in Silicon Valley. His nonlinear career has taken him from summers working at Alice Waters’s restaurant Chez Panisse to apprenticing as an architect at Frank Gehry’s Studio. Early in his career, a mentor told him to “always do the other thing in the room,” and he has taken that to heart. When Lee reached a moment of stasis, he would shift. He left the architecture world to become an art director at a design agency, and from there, to business school, where he was the sole designer in a room full of executives. Lee’s actions seem to have a sense of gravity, but he wasn’t always like this. To feel comfortable going against the grain, he uses a technique he calls “flooring his downside.”

“Flooring the downside” means writing a story that explains failing and returning to what you were doing before you even consider making the transition. These stories prevent you from imagining the bottomless failure that awaits if the transition doesn’t go smoothly.

There are three specific types of stories that you can craft that will not only put a “floor underneath your risk,” but will help propel you forward in your career, even if you return from a nonlinear transition within the first few months.

Figure Out What Question You Need To Answer

Before you take a new path, ask yourself, What question you are trying to answer by taking this new path? In your story, explain how you were able to answer that question as a result of your nonlinear experience. How are those new answers going to help you do your old job in a better way? Answering and pursuing a question expresses a directionality to your career trajectory that people respect, envy, and see as a marker of success, regardless of now nonlinear it may be.

Imagine Yourself In The Future Looking Back

The learning story grounds your career in a continual pursuit instead of a series of endpoints that can be compared to each other. Imagine yourself in the future looking back on your experience—what has changed? What have you learned? People spend tens of thousands of dollars on formal educational opportunities and thus understand the value of being paid to learn will be easy to understand. Regrounding your story in terms of learning gives you more power when coming back to renegotiate in your old industry in the same way a person who gets a graduate degree returns to a promotion.


Embrace Being The Other

It takes a certain level of mastery in both fields to confidently embrace being the Other. If your nonlinear stint was too short, don’t fake it; instead, concentrate on telling the other types of stories above. As the Other in the room, you have the opportunity to either be a translator or a synthesizer of ideas.

A translator is responsible for sharing perspectives and views that are a given in one world in a way that is accessible to another, while a synthesizer’s primary goal is to combine perspectives in fresh ways informed by different bodies of knowledge. Being aware of which way of thinking is needed will help you find a unique voice you can confidently own.

Dev Aujla is the creator of and author of the upcoming book 50 Ways to Get a Job: An Unconventional Guide to Finding Work on Your Terms due out in April. He is the director of talent for Juxtapose, an early-stage venture fund based in New York City.