A Guide On Leaving Your Sucky Job For A Dream Career

Photo via Harvard Business Review 

Photo via Harvard Business Review 

Its the second half of your life. If you get a do-over, how are you going to play it now that you know what works for you? 

"The great thing about careers in the 21st century is that you get to decide what you want to do. And if you don’t like what you’re doing, you can change. While this is liberating, it’s also scary and confusing. The complexity of today’s employment landscape is overwhelming. Managing your career requires coping with ambiguity and uncertainty and learning some basic navigation skills. After years of research and coaching people on career transitions, here’s what I recommend:

Follow your energy and interest. This is the most fundamental part of your strategy. Energy and interest are to your career path what the North Star is to celestial navigators. Paying attention to what engages and excites you, what lights you up, and what stimulates your intellect points you toward the tasks and situations that enable you to be your best self. That’s where you will thrive.

Try out the work by taking on projects or consulting. Noah’s first challenge was 'to convince my coworkers that I was an account planner now, even though my official job was still copywriter/creative director. I learned to formulate and present my ideas, to explain the research and the thought process so that my colleagues understood why I was recommending a particular course of action.' Some account managers agreed to work with Noah, and together, they were able to sell a few strategy projects to clients. 'For a couple of the bigger projects, the partners brought in more senior freelancers to meet with me from time to time and offer direction. That was so valuable. I remember particularly being stuck one day and the senior planner saying, ‘You need to start writing this all out. Get these voices out of your head.’ I started writing random scraps of ideas and eventually it ended up being my strategy deck—I didn’t know that I’d learned enough, but he could see that I had.'

Take Noah Tannen, who used to work as a copywriter and creative director at an advertising and design firm. Over time, he grew bored and unhappy at his job, which required less creativity than he’d expected from a job with the word 'creative' in its title. One evening while talking with a friend, an experienced account planner and strategist, he asked the question that initiated his career shift: 'What is an account planner?' His friend explained that it was about understanding the audience, who they are and what really matters to them, doing research, and then distilling it into a brief that articulates the underlying strategy for the creative team to design from. 'After that conversation, I was so excited I couldn’t sleep,' says Noah.

Learn about the work by researching and networking. When Noah told his bosses that he wanted to do account planning, they said he’d have to learn it himself. He started by meeting with every account planner or strategist he could find to pick their brains. 'That was incredibly helpful, and those people became a valuable professional network.' On the advice of the friend who’d piqued his interest, he also paid his own way to a conference. 'The conference was just as inspiring as our first conversation had been, and I still use some of the techniques I learned there.'

Find or create a job that lets you do exciting work. Noah’s firm never appointed him to a full-time account planning position. He figured that if he was going to have to keep writing copy, he might as well just freelance and see if he could do account planning as well. 'I quit in December 2008. Thanks to the network of account planners I’d built up, I got a freelance gig for 35 hours a week at a global firm by February (even with the economy in free-fall). After doing that for about eight months, I’d learned that there are many different kinds of strategy jobs and that the one I wanted was both rare and not the one I had. So I started my own branding and design firm, Rupert, where I do most of the strategy and account planning.'

Keep learning. The work of managing your career never stops. Noah is currently training himself to be an account director. 'It’s a new role for me, but I need to be better at it for the firm to keep growing. I just contacted a friend today to get her advice on a tricky client. Last week I spoke with a friend in technology sales to learn how he manages his client relationships.'

Chris’s main strategies for ongoing learning are asking questions, listening, and being present. 'Academics are not used to listening; they are used to giving answers. The learning takes place for me when I shut up and listen. I try to understand every little aspect of what we’re doing. And I try to be physically present in every part of it. I walk around and poke my head in. I ask to be copied on e-mails so I can see everything that goes on in the business. That has been very instructive for me. Then I have to ask questions, because there are plenty of times when I don’t understand what’s going on.'" - Monique Valcour via Harvard Business Review