I have long been a firm believer that everyone has their own path in life, to walk (or run, or fly, or swim) as they see fit. These paths overlap often, and all of us can provide plenty of anecdotes, advice and assistance based on our experiences. But no two people end up with the exact same experiences, even if their expectations were the same.
This is especially true for millennials and their careers. My peers and I have taken all manner of jobs, whether to make ends meet while we practice our true passions, or to forge on into our futures. We have willingly embraced (or been nudged by) circumstance into fields one never dreams of visiting in the cloistered halls of college or teenage imaginations. In this world of online environments and economies, volatile, vibrant, and constantly evolving people tend to drift far from their original goals and degrees.
But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing: the rapid pace of technology is due to the fact that it makes the impossible possible! Flying far from your experience and expertise can open up new opportunities, force you to learn new skills or exercise the long-disused and give any task you put your mind to a well-rounded approach. It can also show you how to leverage your original skillset in unexpected ways. While everyone’s paths overlap, stepping outside of your comfort zone can help you blaze a trail into wild new territory. To that end, here are some things to keep in mind on your trip into the unknown.
Make the metaphorical journey a real one.
All that stuff I said about walking your path? It helps if you’re walking, flying or driving around the globe too! And you don’t have to set your sights that high: taking a few weeks or months in another city or state is enough to get a much-needed injection of inspiration and perspective, and there are a multitude of ways to travel cheaply. There’s a reason so many who have journeyed to other countries call it “transformative” or “eye-opening”. Living in a different environment with its own culture and history is a lot like going into a field outside your training: it helps you learn how to think on your feet. If you’ve ever had to get directions from someone who doesn’t speak your language, you may find that what at first seems impossible becomes easy if you’re willing to add time, patience and a bit of creativity.
Years ago, when I was between jobs, I backpacked through Turkey for a few months. I immersed myself in an historic culture whose street signs I could barely read. I came to love every minute of it, and to this day consider it one of my best spur-of-the-moment decisions. It taught me that I was able to hit the ground running, to adapt to changing circumstances and to find knowledge in unexpected places. I’ve taken those lessons and applied them to the business world countless times since.
Recognize hidden strengths.
I snagged a few pieces of paper in college that declared me well-versed in English and history. I’m proud of the body of knowledge I amassed from those years, but it doesn’t scream “ecommerce” to most people. Yet my current profession has revealed unexpected applications of those years in academia: ones that I’m glad I explored, as they’ve served me well ever since. Communication is an important aspect of any job that deals with people, and this has never been truer than today. These days textual information pervades our every waking moment, and being able to turn a phrase or communicate a concept (like this very blog post) has allowed me to see how valuable a skill it can be outside of “traditional” formats. So too is history. Knowing how to explore my company’s past decisions, products and path — to think critically on them and determine what led where — this has been invaluable when I attempt to improve on things now.
The reverse is also true: going outside prior experience can teach you abilities even more valuable than what came before. Fresh out of university, I would never have suspected I’d be working in the tech sector years down the line. But here I am, assisting people in mastering software that would’ve spun my head around then. It’s given me greater confidence in my abilities and inspired me to push the envelope when setting goals, both personal and professional — like building my own computer from scratch, or bucking for a promotion. These successes further compound and build on one another. In doing so, I have a more complete picture of what I am worth, to myself and to others.
Make something your own.
Archimedes. Clara Barton. Ben Franklin. Ada Lovelace. The Beatles. The first Homo Sapien to chip away at a rock to make tools. There is no denying that we as a species love to create and innovate. We build upon and master. And there is no greater feeling than when you have built something from the ground up, whether it be a new mathematical theorem, a work of art, your own house or an online business.
I’ve been lucky enough to help create many things over the course of my life: clubs, meetups, homes, books, plays, legislation and businesses. And just as I have made them and changed the world around me, in the process have they also changed me. In the truest sense we are all entrepreneurs, looking for our great work, our core idea. And when our work expands and incorporates the dreams of others, perpetuating itself: that emotion is grand and hard to describe.
I say all this because it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking we have no impact. It’s easy to say it has all been done, that there’s nothing original. But this is disproven every day, and I suspect it is often due to people going outside their comfort zones, taking risks and learning from a new angle. Whether you’re discovering the cure for cancer, inventing the next smartphone giant or figuring out how you can parlay your SCUBA diving skills into being an accountant, you are coming up with connections and concepts that may not have existed before, and certainly not for you! You can’t always change your circumstances, but you can change how you look at them and act on them. Be an entrepreneur of You, Inc. — invest in yourself and in those who do likewise, and the rest will follow.
Do you have any advice for people looking to switch careers?
Let us know in the comments!