Category Archives: Career Advice

Dealing with the dreaded “what do you do?” question.

what do you do?

Björn Simon via Unsplash

When you were a kid, did you want to be a butcher, baker or candlestick-maker?  Maybe.

Policeman, firefighter or astronaut?  Probably at some point.

Doctor, lawyer or teacher?  Sure.

Accounting specialist, administrative coordinator or client services professional?  Hmmm…maybe not.

But that’s where a lot of us find ourselves.  And it’s hard.  Because we want to be able to talk about our jobs – they take up a big chunk of our life, after all – but it’s not always so easy to explain what we do.

Professional titles are our conversational shorthand.  When someone asks “What do you do?”, a title immediately puts us in a category and tells the listener something about who we are – at least in theory.  And we’re drawn to titles that make it clear how we add value.

Baker?  Done.  We know what that person brings to the table.

Teacher?  Yep.  Clear value proposition.

But if you’re a generalist, it’s not really that easy.  You have to work harder to explain what you do and what you care about.  And you know what?  That’s actually a good thing.

Who are your customers?  What are they struggling with?  What problems do you help them solve?

Do you take something complicated and make it simple?  Do you turn something boring into something fun?

Do you make your team better, stronger, faster?

So many people bemoan the lack of meaning in their jobs, but what if we shift our focus away from title and onto simply how we add value every day?  Beyond making your cocktail party banter less awkward, it may actually provide some career inspiration as well.

So tell me, what do you do?

 

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Six things to do when you don’t know what to do.

Sylwia Bartyzel via Unsplash

Sylwia Bartyzel via Unsplash

Tell me if any of this sounds familiar:  You’re not happy in your current job but aren’t sure what else you’re qualified to do.  You’re not making enough money but you can’t afford to quit.  You want to do something meaningful but you haven’t found your “passion”.

Go back to school?  Start your own business??  Join the circus??? 

If you’ve become paralyzed by indecision, the best strategy may be to stop, take a breath, and come at the problem from a different direction.  Here are some ideas to get you moving:

Dive deep into a new subject.  It doesn’t matter what it is.  Pick something that interests you (work-related or not) and start learning everything you can about it.  Explore it from different perspectives and thru different mediums.  Follow footnotes and interesting asides.  See where it takes you.

Get an activity tracker and start walking.  Feeling aimless drains your energy and you may find yourself in a sedentary rut.  An activity tracker (I like the FitBit) will help you focus on getting up and out.  And walking will clear your mental fog and get you thinking big thoughts.

Declutter.  Our physical space and our mental space are deeply entwined.  Clearing our  material baggage has a magic way of clearing our psyche as well.  Purge ruthlessly and then examine what’s left.  It may hold clues to what really matters in your life.  (Marie Kondo’s book on the magic of tidying up explores this in depth.)

Keep a time log.  “I don’t have time.” is probably the biggest excuse we use for not moving forward.  But you probably have more than you think.  Track everything you do for a week and see where your time is really going.  Then evaluate what you can change to make time for something new.

Start a blog.  Pick something that interests you and start writing about it.  It doesn’t have to be ground breaking stuff, but commit to writing something on the regular.  Explore other blogs and start connecting with people online.  Be open to the process and again, see where it takes you.

Volunteer to work with someone from another country.  Volunteering is good experience in general, but working directly with someone from another culture – tutoring a non-native speaker, for example – is an excellent way to put your own life in perspective.

 

How about you?  Have you ever felt aimless?  How did you deal with it?

 

(This post contains affiliate links to Powell’s Books.)

Ready to quit? I’m not here to stop you…but try these things first.

Boots by Phil Roeder

I’ve quit a lot of jobs.  And not just burger-flipper kind of jobs.  Real, career-level jobs.  With nothing lined up to take their place.  Do I recommend this as a career strategy?  Um…no.  But, my chronic dissatisfaction has taught me to tell the difference between real job issues and me just needing an overhaul, mentally and physically.  If you’re feeling burnt-out and uninspired in your job, try these before you throw in the towel:

Get some exercise.  Doing this is a constant battle for me, even though I know I will feel 10x better if I move my body regularly.  So I get that it’s extra hard when you’re unhappy in your job.  But you’ve just got to do it.  Exercise releases endorphins, which improves your mood.  It improves flexibility, something you’ll appreciate if your desk job is leaving you an aching, contorted mess.  And it gives you the energy and stamina to do other important things, like professional training, strategic volunteering or pounding the pavement for your next gig.

Find a hobby.  Find something outside of work that lights you up.  It doesn’t matter what it is, but you need something to look forward to at the end of the work day.  Having something to think (and talk) about besides your crappy job will make you happier and easier to be around.  And connecting with people who share your personal interests is a non-greasy way to network and can lead to unexpected professional opportunities.

Take stock.  When you’re feeling beat up, the temptation is to jump ship and hope for the best.  But the “anywhere but here” approach often sets you up to be just as unhappy in the next gig.  (Trust me, I know.)  Think hard about what it is that you really dislike about your current job.  It might not be what you first think.  And consider what parts of it you actually enjoy.  These are clues to where you might want to go next.  Then take an honest look at your skill set and decide if it fits a career trajectory you can be happy with over the next 5-10-20 years.  If it doesn’t, you have the starting point for crafting your next move.

 

(Photo by Phil Roeder via Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons)

 

Your job is not about doing your tasks.

construction vehicles

We all know smart, hard-working people who have been individual contributors for years.  And we also all know smart, hard-working people who have quickly jumped from entry-level to management, seemingly overnight.  So, what is it that sets these fast-trackers apart?  They have figured out one of the fundamentals of career momentum:

Your job is not about doing your tasks.

Your job, no matter what level you’re at, is about helping the organization achieve its goals, realize its vision and fulfill its mission.  The tasks on your job description are only important to the extent to which they enhance organizational performance.  Fast-trackers get this.

Now, one of my favorite Secrets of Adulthood is that the opposite of a great truth is also true.  So, yes, your job is about doing your tasks.  The foundation of any career is doing the work and doing it well.  You have to start there.

Then it’s time to explore how your work fits into the bigger picture.  Look for ways to streamline and optimize.  Find synergies between your tasks and the tasks of other team members, work groups or departments.  Share your ideas.

Look up from your task list, shift your thinking from how to why, and prove you have the big-picture vision of a leader.

 

 

How to stand-out on a cross-functional team (and leverage that experience to grow your career).

Odd duck by Don Graham

Most of us build our careers as specialists.  We get really good in one area and then we get promoted to managing other people in that area.  But at some point, growing as a manager requires a shift from being a functional specialist to a organizational generalist – from being a subject-matter expert to a leader who can understand how the business functions as a whole.

Early in your career, being assigned to a cross-functional project team can put you on the fast-track to management.  It introduces you to new people, sets you up as the go-to person in your department and increases your visibility within the organization.  It is also a great way to start making the shift from specialist to generalist.

Here’s how to make the most of the experience:

Do good work.  This should be the foundation of all career advice and directly applies here as well.  Make sure you’re contributing to the success of the project.  Meet deadlines.  Do more than required.  You’re representing your functional area and will be the go-to person, so always deliver.

Learn from other team members.  Respect that the other people on your project team are the experts in their own areas.  Defer to their knowledge.  Ask questions.  Dig into what their jobs are really like and how they impact the company.  Use the opportunity to learn their metrics, process flows and problem areas.

Don’t complain (but be sympathetic when others do).  You’re using this project to build your career capital, so you should see extra work as an investment.  But others on your project team may not feel the same way.  Show them that you understand how busy they are.  Commiserate, and then use your new cross-functional knowledge to alleviate their pain points.

Be a meeting rock star.  Knowing how to manage a meeting is key to a successful project outcome.  Be attentive, take notes and ask smart questions.  Most importantly, don’t get bogged down in the details of your specific task.  Understand the higher level problem the team is trying to solve and stay focused on the company-wide impact.

Project confidence but stay humble.  You want to be seen as smart, capable and well-rounded.  But no one likes a know-it-all.  And no matter how good you are at your job, being liked is important.  You’re building relationships that you will draw on as you move up in the organization, so build them wisely.

 

How about you?  Has working on a project team helped you grow as a manager?

 

(Photo by Don Graham via Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons)

 

5 Ways for Students to Gain Management Experience

First Student #281 (cropped) by ThoseGuys119
You don’t need to be a business major to benefit from gaining management experience.  With a BA in Anthropology, I speak from experience when I say most of us don’t end up using our specific degrees in our careers…at least, not directly.

It’s hard to know what you want to do with your life while you’re still in school.  And who knows what the job market will look like in 10, 20 or 30 years anyway?  So the smart money is on building skills that will open up the widest range of options for yourself in the future.

Whatever industry you eventually choose, the ability to effectively manage a team will put you a step ahead of other entry-level professionals.

Here’s how to get that management experience before entering the workforce:

Mentoring and Tutoring
Being a mentor is a great way to build interpersonal and coaching skills.  Tutoring will teach you to train, motivate and evaluate individual performance.  Take it a step further and start your own mentoring or tutoring program to gain experience building and managing a team.

Event Planning
Putting together a conference, lecture series or movie night allows you to demonstrate your ability to effectively coordinate people and resources.  Events are perfect for learning how to delegate, resolve conflict and work with service providers.

Volunteering
Volunteering for a good cause is rewarding work experience and many organizations are looking for someone willing to take on a specific project.  Create your own management training by putting together a project team and motivating them to succeed.

Industry organizations are also a great opportunity to volunteer for outreach or other service projects.  They also often have elected leadership positions that require management skills (meeting facilitation, financial management, etc.).

Entrepreneurship
Starting your own business is a great way to learn any number of management related skills.  Solopreneurs won’t gain much people-management experience, so create a business plan that requires you to bring on team members.

Student Government
Student government can offer many leadership opportunities beyond just running for class president.  Start a club or organize a service project.  Coordinate campus tours or create a mentoring program for incoming students.  Student government is also a great way to hone your public speaking skills.

 

And remember…employers are always thinking about how to manage and motivate the next generation of employees.  Experience managing your peers has put you a step ahead, so highlight that in your resume, portfolio and online profile.

 

(Photo by ThoseGuys119 via Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons)

 

Adjusting your mirrors.

Rearview mirror by Massimiliano Calamelli

“I have to adjust my rear view mirror when I leave the office at the end of the day.  When I drive to work, I’m upright and full of energy, but when I leave, I’m so tired, it’s like I’m a few inches shorter.”

A woman I worked with years ago told me this and I remember it because, at the time, I had the opposite experience.  I arrived at work slouched in the driver’s seat, dreading the day ahead of me.  But I left with a spring in my step, standing tall and looking forward to 15 hours of freedom before I had to return.

My coworker was seemingly content and quite successful, while I hated my job and was ready to move on.  But when I consider how our work was impacting our bodies, I think both scenarios are equally grim.

Even if you love your job, should you be so drained at the end of the day that your whole bearing is affected?  Sure, hard work can be satisfying.  Leaving tired isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  If the work is good, you leave tired but fulfilled.  Or tired but energized.

But just plain tired?  That tells me something is out of whack.

What do you think?

Can we judge our job satisfaction by our posture at the end of the day?

 

(Photo by Massimiliano Calamelli via Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons)