Fifteen years ago, I was a twenty-something living in New York, who had narrowly survived my first two jobs in the professional world. I’d been a high-achieving college student who was almost fired twice before a manager took pity on me and sent me to leadership training. Inspired to teach other clueless entry-level workers what I had to learn the hard way, I wrote a book called They Don’t Teach Corporate in College.
Now that the book will be published in a new edition this month, I’ve reflected on the work-related lessons I’ve learned since 2004. I’ve concluded that advancing your career while remaining sane and happy requires a great deal of creativity. Not the sort involved with painting at Picasso’s level, but rather something like this.
Own your professional development
I never earned an MBA. Since I’m a consultant who works with C-suite executives—most of whom have MBAs—this takes people by surprise. The reason I didn’t spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and two years away from my business is simple. I didn’t need to. Through creative professional development, I’ve learned (and continue to learn) everything I need to know to exceed client expectations from one primary source: other business owners.
People go to business school for networking and professional development purposes. But you don’t have to be in a long-term program with the same people in order to meet individuals from whom you can learn. In fact, many business owners go out of their way to interact with one another, applying what’s known as a “pay it forward” approach. In other words, we aim to help others learn whenever we can because we know that the good karma will come back around.
Given this attitude, it makes sense that groups of entrepreneurs and solopreneurs in similar lines of work would formalize group relationships to make it easy to help and be helped, teach and be taught. In the near future, as more people enter the contract workforce, we will see the rise of human collectives. In medieval times, human collectives were called guilds, and they encompassed craftsmen or merchants who played similar roles within a community and banded together to pursue common goals and multiply the power of their knowledge and skills.
Today, my professional development occurs mostly within the context of two collectives. I’ve mastered new skills like meeting facilitation, change management, and client relations from those who have more experience than I do. In return, I teach other members about writing, speaking, research, and trend analysis. Interacting with these collectives so frequently solves one of the problems of being a solo business owner: I often don’t know what I don’t know. Just by reading and listening to what other collective members are saying, I pick up knowledge and ideas I wouldn’t have been exposed to otherwise. The professional development is passive as well as active, and it’s very creative.
Change your focus early and often
Considering today’s pace of change, the idea of choosing a career in college and sticking with it for decades seems absurd. In reality, the college major selection is merely the first intelligent step in a journey that will be far windier and indirect than your parents’ career paths. This kind of constant pivoting does, however, require creativity.
The agile learner is open to new information and has the ability to gain and apply insights derived from it. People with this trait often follow a nontraditional path and can develop professionally from an array of diverse experiences. These people aren’t perturbed by shifts in direction. They take risks and often receive commensurate rewards.
Fortunately, it’s getting easier to gain a specific skill without a lengthy degree-seeking process. Thanks to the rise of MOOCs (massive open online courses), you may not even need to leave your desk, and some of the best MOOCs are free. An example: Computer scientist Sebastian Thrun taught an AI course to Stanford students while also offering it as a free MOOC to more than 150,000 people.
It’s wise to work with your boss to devise a learning and development plan that makes the most sense for your current role and anything it’s possible to plan for down the line. Your plan should be updated routinely to keep pace with changing goals and new skill requirements.
You can do what you love without making a career out of it
In the last few decades, many have pursued the elusive “dream job” that allows them to earn money from treasured hobbies. As my old friend Tim Ferris once advised, “Converting passions into work is the fastest way to kill those passions.”
I’ve made similar observations in my career and those of people I know. A person who is fortunate enough to start making money at her dream career often finds that the situation isn’t so dreamy after all. She begins to expect that her job will fulfill her personally and professionally at all times, and when she experiences the stress that’s inevitably associated with working, she may sour on the very thing she’s loved all her life.
For instance, a gifted musician who manages her successful band may find herself so overwhelmed with administering bookings that she prefers to spend any leisure time she has watching TV rather than practicing her instrument. And the more pressure she feels to keep the band afloat so that it can pay her mortgage, the more she may long to escape from music and do something else entirely.
Also, a major problem with “Do what you love, and the money will follow” is that often the things we genuinely love to do don’t involve solid compensation. These activities start off as hobbies, and in this era of better work/life balance, you can keep them while earning a living doing something else. This requires acknowledging that because there is no specific market demand for the products or services that arise from many hobbies, businesses associated with these hobbies tend to be unprofitable.
It also requires the creativity and time management to focus on two meaningful pursuits simultaneously: the one that pays and the one that doesn’t. For example, my neighbor creates brilliant collages from different types of paper every weekend, but because she knows that few people would spend the money to hang a collage in the living room, she maintains a stable career as a restaurant manager during the week.
You can literally build any career you want. But in a way, that makes your decision-making process more challenging. By employing creativity, you can identify and pursue the right path for your interests and lifestyle.
Alexandra Levit is the author of the international bestseller They Don’t Teach Corporate in College: A Twenty-Something’s Guide to the Business World.