Try Out a New Career Before You Make the Leap

Different paths can lead you to new careers, and there are ways to explore these paths with little to no risk. You can build different skills on top of the strengths you already have. There are brainstorming exercises to imagine new possibilities. You can research different fields of work, talk to friends, and attend company presentations.

But what if you're still puzzled? You may not know what works until you've tried it. INSEAD professor Herminia Ibarra has written that "it's nearly impossible to think out how to reinvent ourselves." Instead, you may need to experiment directly in a new field.

Nina (name has been changed) is a great example. As a new corporate officer, she was unhappy with her political office environment. She also feared she'd missed her true purpose: being an artist.

Nina had considered art when finishing college, but she needed a job and transitioned to corporate life. But art remained on her mind — and it was something she continued to pursue in her free time: "Throughout the years, I kept thinking about art. I painted on the occasional weekend. I visited art museums on business trips. I wondered what it might have been like to do the art thing."

Nina took vacation to attend a painting seminar in New York. Recalling her feelings the last day, she said, "I was on fire. It was like being in love. I felt like I was awake for the first time in years. I just turned 50. I realized if I don't do this now I won't ever do it."

On the plane back home, she decided to change careers. Just like that.

Nina needed no big assessment. She knew. For 25 years, her art had been both an engaging hobby and (in hindsight) a career experiment. She didn't know at the time if she'd ever sell any art, but she now has a MFA, and she's selling pieces and takes great personal satisfaction from creating things.

You, too, can experiment with a new career. Like Nina, you can dip your toes in and learn about a new profession before diving headfirst into it.

First, set up your career experiment. Think about how to build on your capabilities and imagine new possibilities. Seek opportunities to get deep, hands-on exposure to the fields that result.

If you're already working, you can experiment on nights and weekends. Maybe you can volunteer for an additional role within your organization. Or perhaps you can find a volunteer role with a small nonprofit that relates to the field you're testing. You might take classes or get serious about a hobby.

If you aren't juggling a full-time position, you can certainly do most of these things, but with more available time you also have additional options. Consider a full-time volunteer role, a paid part-time job that relates to your aspirations, or a degree-conferring educational program that allows you to both prepare for and learn about a career direction.

Then, imagine your "curriculum." Just like a research scientist, know what you hope to learn. The more explicit you are about learning objectives, the better.

What might be in your curriculum? Consider these sample questions:

  • The purpose: What do you hope to accomplish in this field? What do people do in their day-to-day jobs? Does it match your interests?
  • Skill level: How you see yourself stacking up against peers? Does the prospect of achieving true mastery in that line of work excite you? Can you imagine advancing into a leadership position?
  • The culture: How is performance rated? What is the level of teamwork? How do people communicate? Are there any ethical issues in the field?
  • The lifestyle: How intense is the work? How many hours per week will you be working? Is travel involved?

Take out your curriculum periodically. Judge what you're learning and what more you need to discover.

The best way to learn from the experiment is to treat it seriously. Success will help you decide if it's the right field for you, and it might lead directly to a job offer. Success also will help you build a network and a record of accomplishment, as well as any skills you may need if you take a different career path.

But beware of too much experimentation. Testing new directions can be seductive — a way to do things while putting off tough decisions. Don't get too comfortable. Experiment, learn what you need, and then decide.

If you're moving from a corporate office to launch a new venture in that field, that's a big change. If you're thinking of leaving the corporate world to open a restaurant, that's huge. You're starting over, leaving much of your past behind. It's hard to know. You may make the best decisions if you first experiment with possibilities.

Have you experimented with career directions? What did you learn?

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