Our resident learning & development and web designer, Denise Bird, takes over the blog today to share her "rules" for designing your dream career and making it a reality. You'll get to hear her story and apply her practical advice to your own career situation.
"No one will care about your career as much as you. So you'd better own it." -Knowledgeable mentor
It is easy to waste a lot of time thinking that a manager (or someone else) is going to help you find and cultivate the right professional development opportunities to grow past a job and into a career. The very best managers will find ways to help you invest in yourself, and support your professional development training—even if that means taking time out of your regular job. They will find ways to make your current role fit within your longer term goals. This ideal manager is not as common as we would all like... and even when you have this manager, you need a vision of where you want to go before they can truly support you. More often than not, we all have to be our own managers and push ourselves out of our comfort zones if we want to make our dream careers our realities.
How do you act as your own manager when you just don’t know what you don’t know? I absolutely hear you! You are talking to a mediator turned non-profit manager turned designer. My career has been anything but a straight line. Having now landed in the right spot where I want to grow and create, I can honestly tell you that there are growing pains, but there are also some rules to follow to help yourself answer your own questions and find your unique path forward.
Before I get into my rules, I want to share a little bit about my story. It was only very recently that I was able to find myself on a career path I was truly excited about. I finished my graduate degree in Conflict Analysis and Resolution and wanted to get some real experience working in communities before I started my career as a mediator. But on the way, I fell in love with social justice work and I really believed that I would be devoting my career to that area.
I spent my first four years at a successful non-profit really sure about the direction I was moving in and highly motivated. At the end of my fourth year, I had to figure out the direction I wanted to keep moving with my career due to some structural changes in my organization. I made a plan for myself based on a pretty rudimentary idea of what I thought I would be successful doing. What I found then was that I had chosen something I was good at, but had no real motivation to do. It was in my wheelhouse, but I didn’t enjoy it. I’m a huge learner and I felt like I couldn’t even enjoy that part of my career. My performance suffered and I felt really lost because the mission wasn’t enough anymore. I needed something to be for me. I needed to see a path forward.
So I made a decision one day: I was going to challenge my manager by requesting permission to take on a creative project. This one simple act was a huge step forward because I started to find other ways to reinvent and revamp things my team and organization needed to update and I got a chance to be more creative. I started to realize that I didn’t necessarily want a job where I was talking to people all the time, even though I’m a big people person. I also realized that the type of learning that made me happy was the type of learning where I could tinker with things and create some kind of product that then took on a life of its own. That was satisfying for me. I took a lot of free online coursework and some training courses (that I paid for out of pocket!), and slowly I carved a new career track for myself.
The rules below come from the hard-earned lessons I learned through my journey. You can’t always choose your manager or even your employer (when times are tough), but you can choose how you approach your situation and how you design your life.
1) Start dreaming
People usually think I’m exaggerating when I say this, but I am absolutely serious. In order to get to your dream career, you have to have an idea of where you are going. My dream job has changed at least four times during the last six years and each change helped me refine the direction I was going in. I started off wanting to focus my career on social justice reform and then when I became a mother, my focus became sustainable creativity. I needed a creative outlet and I needed a flexible job that helped me still be the mom and wife I wanted to be at home. It was a challenging dream to make a reality. There is no silver bullet, but when you start focusing on the path you want to see in front of you, you start putting yourself in line with that path. It may sound hokey, but the first step is getting a journal and starting to envision the life and career you want and need.
2) Outline what your gaps are to living your dream
Now you’ve got a clear picture of your dream life and you are so excited to live it! Well, there’s a reason why it is only a dream right now. For many people (like myself), there is a skill gap to fill in order to qualify for the job you want. For some, there may be an opportunity gap— where you live, the current market, etc. For others, there may be a financial gap—your dream requires more education. I can’t tell you how many times I thought I hit the wall on my journey to my dream. I had financial challenges, the reality of life as a mom and an unstable working environment—but it actually took a position consolidation within a re-organization for me to face all those things at once. Put together a spreadsheet and list out all your gaps: skills, financial, specific experience, etc. Get very honest and real with yourself about what you need to do to work towards your dream.
3) Find mentors who relate to you & build your support network
Before we start talking about how to turn your dream and outline into a plan, you’ve got to work on your support system. Any major life change requires you to have people around you who support you, get what you are dealing with, and are cheering you on—even during the inevitable setbacks. Friends and family are really important during these times, but the people who will have the keys to unlock your questions and push you through the plateaus are your mentors. For me this was a trainer who taught me the basics of web design, an ex-boss, a career coach, my new boss, and fellow dreamers. All these women, other than being female, have specific things in common with me. The biggest thing being that they heard my dream and there was a piece of it they also have in their dreams. It is that piece that keeps us together and allows us to be mentors and cheerleaders for each other. I go to each of them for different things. Most of the time people can’t just hand you a guide on how to get to where you want to go, but what they can do is ask you the right questions, connect you with someone who might hold a piece of the puzzle, and, most importantly, remind you that you are not alone and show you how far you have already come.
4) Hold yourself accountable
Have you ever had a really great plan that you spend a crazy amount of time working on just to give up on it after a week or so? I know I have! Not only is it important to have a plan, get input on it, but also share what you are working on with others in your life. It will prompt people to ask you about it and force you to face it. I’m a big fan of putting my plan everywhere (reminders in my office, reminders on my phone, blocks of time outlined in my calendars, etc.)! If you don’t hold yourself to your plans or at least to some level of progress, your dream is going to keep drifting away from you.
5) Take risks & see failure as opportunity in disguise
I used to hear advice like this and think those people were on something. “What do you mean you want me to be happy about failure and take a risk to boot?” It sounds crazy, especially to people who are cautious planners (like me). The reality is that in order to gain anything, you have to risk something. For me, I had to gamble that the reliable job I had in front of me that wasn’t in the direction of where I wanted to go wasn’t going to be worth it and instead I needed to go off on my own and try freelancing. One of my challenges is that big chunks of my work experience were viewed differently by hiring managers because my previous work environment was very nuanced and yet my roles were always far reaching and complex. While I had the experience for designer roles, I was often not getting very far in the hiring process because people didn’t understand my experience from my resume due to the organization I had worked for. My work experience was literally holding me back. For me, taking risks meant working with a career coach who would hold my hand through it and kick me out the door. And that’s exactly what I needed.
6) Refresh your dream & reflect every 6 months (at least!)
Just like you are never done learning, you are never done dreaming. It is so important to learn from what has and hasn’t worked. I remember feeling so discouraged when I would go to a training and realizing that I wasn’t going in the right direction. I had considered going into recruitment and had a colleague at a recruiting event basically tell me the very tough truth that what I was looking for didn’t actually align with recruitment at all. I was overwhelmed. I had a beautiful plan of how to go from my current role to recruitment and now that plan was useless. However, without having gone through that, I wouldn’t have picked up some great skills and experience on how to quickly read people and cut through people’s motivations and needs. These skills are very hard to pick up and while recruitment was absolutely not the right place for me, I still gained so much from that experience and it pushed me in the right direction. I took a long pause after this switch in plans and spent a year just going to different professional development events and playing around with ideas. This was the hardest time and it was the most beneficial for my growth and for my ability to find the right next steps for my career.
It is true, friends; this process can feel disheartening and overwhelming. However, it is also the greatest gift to finally feel like you are in control of your future. You have all the tools to design your dream career. You just have to take the first steps and keep yourself moving along. It took me two very dedicated years and during that time I wasn't always sure where I was going, but I kept moving forward and learning.
If you'd like some support in designing your dream career, I would highly recommend my career counselor, Jackie. You can reach out to her directly and get to know more about her growing business.