Building a Career

I mentor young adults and I’ve seen it’s hard for young people to get out there and be proactive in getting the careers they want. As a consultant who is able to go from industry to industry and see what the working world looks like, I know now that I didn’t start out with the right head on my shoulders. I was just thinking about getting jobs or gigs that reflect my wants. On top of that, our community doesn’t really know how coach young people to work. We just get told to get the highest possible paying job, or the most prestigious job we can. But not everybody is meant to be a doctor, a lawyer, or teacher. In fact, many folks would probably be more successful as a dancer, a coach, or a rock climbing instructor; if they were only supported in finding a way to work like that. Unfortunately, as lots of young folks in our community are left to figure it out themselves, I’d like to share my thoughts. Although it might feel complicated, there are a lot of basic things you can do to start on the path of finding a career you enjoy.

1. Build a relationship with working

As I write this, I understand that some people purely work just for money and prefer to invest their time and energy elsewhere in life, like family, travel, or education. Folks who have that figured out have a developed relationship with working and I respect their decisions. However, those who are interested in career building have to think about work very differently. A career is a commitment, much like a college major. You learn and work at it for years until you become an expert at it. To be able to become an expert, you generally have to wake up in the morning looking forward to work and enjoying how it challenges you.

For example, it’s an interesting experience for me as a consultant who can control my fees. There is no scale by which to measure my value in the organizations I work for. Sometimes I work for free, other times I charge them my highest hourly rates. But regardless of what I get paid, I want to work. It makes me happy to accomplish things that impact my community. It makes me happy to learn things that help me become more effective at creating solutions. And that’s what makes me able to be a consultant, is that I am constantly growing and engaged with the clients that I have. But how I got here was that I took the time to figure myself out, which brings me to the point,

2. Find out what you’re passionate about and your working style

Having passion in work is elusive and difficult to find for one main reason: it’s not about liking a certain kind of work, it’s about understanding what makes your life meaningful and enjoyable. Anyone in a very successful career actually enjoys the life it brings them. The politicians like having to do public speaking and the huge network of people they have to know. The head librarians like the quiet and the clear organization of the libraries. The mechanics and shop owners like the mystery of finding out what’s wrong with a car and then working with their hands to fix it. Expert rock climbing teachers like being outdoors and exercising.

The reality is that a career is not just something you do for money; it is something you do for forty or more hours a week, every week of your life. It is part of how you live, eat, and breathe. More importantly, it is part of how you grow as a person. Finding out what you’re passionate about is taking the time to learn who you are and what kind of lifestyle excites you or makes you feel rewarded. I myself like working for the community, but can’t work for anyone. I’m just too stubborn and I run with my own ideas instead of following directions. So after some soul searching, nonprofit consulting became my thing. It was difficult to come up with the idea and harder to implement it, but I eventually was able to work in a way that reflected who I was. Although I consider myself lucky, it was the experiences that I had that helped me get to where I am.

3. Getting experiences

So let’s pretend you’re thinking that you might like nonprofit work. Let’s say you become an intern at one. When you’re in there, what should you be paying attention to? Pretty much everything, but more importantly, how you feel about it. The reality is that every industry has values and cultures unique to them. Businesses are competitive and profit driven. Nonprofits are collaborative and more flexible. Politics are policy and image driven. It’s very important to pay attention to the culture you are immersed in, and whether it reflects your values, aspirations, and working style. It is important that you vibe with the attitudes and culture of your workplace if you’re going to be effective in it.

Internships, volunteering, or small gigs help you get a sense of the work-life of each field. You get to learn what the people, activities, and culture are like and learn whether or not you can see yourself doing this for at least a few years. If it feels right, jump in and start getting to know people and understanding how everything works! If it doesn’t, you can always opt out and keep looking. That’s exactly what internships are all about, to give you the opportunity to get a taste of that company or organization without committing to a full time position. Think of them as dates, no commitment but an experience. I often do pro-bono work for organizations starting out to see if we have alignment. If we do, I start charging. If we don’t, the work was free and it was a good experience. But regardless of whether you’re starting out or if you’ve picked a career and industry to work in, you should always still:

4. Reflect on your thoughts and experiences with others

Reflecting on your experiences is the only way to concretely grow in life, whether professional or personal. This is best done with mentor, or at least some peers who can guide you in what you’re going through. Reflecting helps you see the value of your experiences, whether they are good or bad. As you reflect, you should think about how it felt, what fit, what didn’t, and what your next steps might be.

For example, let’s say you’ve taken on a sales job, but you hate the competition between you and your fellow salesmen at your company and how no one supports each other. You should talk to a mentor or peers about whether that job is a good fit for you. By understanding that competition is a big part of how sales are and that you don’t like it, you can come to the conclusion that you’re not meant to be a salesman and that you need to find someplace where you can support others and be supported yourself. It would be very easy to just hate the job and just try to forget the experience, but there are always valuable lessons that come with any experience IF you know how to use it. And lastly, for this reason you should:

5. Do points 1-4 over and over and over and over again

Even if you’ve found a job you love and can see yourself doing for the rest of your life, there’s no reason to stop growing and reflecting, or even projecting forward. The world changes faster and faster every day. Having a mentor or peers to talk about changes in the industry, in technology, or whatever is influencing the working world is absolutely essential. In addition, you yourself will change through life as you get married, have children, grow older, gain different responsibilities, develop new interests, etc. More than likely, all of us will have to go through this list over and over again throughout our lives to keep up with ourselves and with the world in order to keep our working lives rewarding and healthy.

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