A topsy-turvy world like the one in which we live offers us tremendous opportunities. But to tap them, we must remove the barriers within ourselves.
The crucial barriers are the ways we compartmentalize our experiences — keeping them uniquely bound to one kind of job or career. Avoid such compartmentalization. Break open those compartments and mix all of your experiences, knowledge, and skills into the precise blend that makes a new you.
Not long ago, I had a respected executive recruiter tell me I needed to "climb in a box" — drastically narrow what kind of work I was seeking to do in a new career move in order to get potential employers to fit me into one of the boxes they needed to fill. In effect, he was telling me that my various experiences, skills, and career narratives were mutually exclusive. I think that he was giving me dangerously wrong advice. Isn't real innovation supposed to blow through thresholds to create something of new value?
I've made two major career moves in the span of four years. I left journalism to work with a Big Pharma CEO as his counselor for strategic affairs and then transitioned to doing industry analysis and thought leadership. In those instances in particular and throughout my life the consistent surprise was how I could draw on different skills and experiences to reinvent myself and create the optimal mix much like musicians use sound mixing boards to create the best sound. (My first pursuit as a young man was to be a rock musician.)
A mixing board is a large, imposing console with hundreds of dials and sliding faders to control volume. They are arranged in columns that control each instrument. A band playing music, whether live or recorded, uses a mixing board to blend in the precise tone and volume of each instrument, including voices, to make a complete sound. When mixed well, the music sound is transformed into something bigger and better than the the sum of the individual instruments and voices.
To use this as a template for personal innovation, visualize each of your experiences and skills in life as an instrument controlled on a sound mixing board. What if this experience were "louder" and this skill were "quieter"? What kinds of old experiences from divergent things could be used in new ways to change the overall "sound" of you?
Here are two simple examples of past experiences I've "mixed" higher to innovate me. I worked at a wastewater treatment plant (the sewer plant, we called it) as a summer job way back. One day a pony-tailed veteran named Fred gave me some advice: "If they ask if you can drive the bulldozer, you drive the bulldozer." I brought this experience much higher into my focus when going to Big Pharma to work for the CEO. Without it, I might never have even positioned myself for the role.
Another singular example is with performing skills. Previously my career roles meant that I was in maximum listening mode. Although I had them, stagecraft-performing skills were virtually muted for decades in my mix until recently. Mixing these higher has helped me to be comfortable taking a new tack in being on stage more, presenting analytical ideas and thought leadership.
The permutations of building a new innovative mix of you are nearly endless. In a real-time career, as in live music, a mix does not stay static. Different parts of different songs require changes in feeling, tone, and volume. Similarly, one should always be prepared to tweak the "volumes" of what makes you valuable to your audience at the time.