Although it would make life so much easier to have one of those fabled dream jobs you've known about your whole life, and eventually move through with joy, most people's career paths aren't so linear.
In her new book, Fearless and Free: How Smart Women Pivot — And Relaunch — Their Careers, writer and content strategist Wendy Sachs explains how to move out of your work slump with a little more grace and intention. We asked Sachs to share some nuggets of advice for women looking to take the next step in their careers. Ahead, five pro tips that just might help you make your own career pivot.
1. Reframe Your Experience
Whether you’re applying for a new dream job, a better role within the company where you already work, or simply looking to take the next natural step in your career, you’ll need to talk about your experience in a way that feels relevant. Sachs suggests using LinkedIn as a cheat sheet. Find someone in your immediate or close network who currently holds the type of position you want, read through their profile, and pay attention to the language that they use to talk about their skills. “When you look a job description, you want to match your skills to what [the person hiring] is looking for and position it that way,” Sachs says.
Don’t feel the need to downplay past positions that you’re genuinely proud of, even if you think they might seem like a detour. In Fearless and Free, Sachs tells the story of one woman who took time out of the workforce after becoming a mom, and volunteered to raise money for a local playground. “When she started interviewing again, people would ask her what job she was most proud of, and she would say Hippo Playground,” Sachs says. “She didn’t position it as, ‘Yeah, I helped raise money for some swings.’ She spoke about it in the terms that the industry she was looking to get into were looking for — raising X amount of money, bringing in programming and new partners, and it didn’t matter that it was volunteer work.”
2. Don’t Hop On The Bandwagon
It’s tempting to follow the latest trend in business or technology, especially when people make it seem like all your hopes for landing a job hinge on the skill du jour. Don’t feel the need to mindlessly follow that advice. Case in point: Not everyone needs to be a coder, Sachs says. In her book, she interviews Tami Reiss, a woman who went from fundraising and party planning for the Muscular Dystrophy Association to becoming the CEO of a small tech company. “She had no tech background, but realized all those skills of development, working across teams, and event planning actually fit beautifully into a project manager position, and that happened to be at a tech company.”
If there are certain skills that align with the industry you're trying to break into, learning them can absolutely be a boon. But there’s no need to derail everything based on the smaller picture. “Other people will tell you that not everyone needs to be a social media expert. Should you know about Snapchat and maybe pay attention to things happening there? For sure — if your job is in online publishing, or in entertainment, or in retail, or in fashion, or in any of these industries that spend a lot of time posting things. But does that mean that you need to be the go-to expert in it — or that everyone needs to be an expert in everything? Absolutely not.”
Most jobs these days will want employees who can wear many hats, Sachs says, but it’s possible to utilize the skills you already have in new fields, and grow into a job at the same time. Case in point: Reiss told Sachs that she still has no plans to learn how to code, and is still moving along just fine.
3. Try Not To Be Afraid To Take A Risk
This is easier said than done, of course. It's also subjective: What feels like a risk for you may be a breeze for someone else. But it’s hard to break through stagnation by doing the same things, over and over again, so you need to find a middle-ground.
“The more risks you take, the faster your confidence will grow, so it's important to take risks,” Sachs explains. “Maybe that’s going into a networking event, signing up for a class online, showing up in person to go take a class, or reaching out to that more senior level person in an industry you’re hoping to move into.”
Most people usually know what gives them that sinking, but slightly excited feeling — or they can figure it out pretty easily. Whatever it is for you, dip your smallest toe in to start, and see where it takes you.
4. Use Other People’s Time Wisely
If your risk involves asking someone else for something, make it easier on both of you and come prepared. “Don’t ask to ‘pick someone’s brain,’” Sachs warns. “No one wants or has time to have their brain picked. Be very strategic in what your ask is.”
If you’re hoping for an introduction, be forthright about that — but not rude! — and also explain what you’d like an intro for. You might say, “I’m interested in launching my own jewelry company and I know that you’re friends with someone who has an Etsy store. Can you connect me to your friend who does this?” suggests Sachs. “You need to do that research so you don’t waste your once chance with that person.”
It’s also okay to have more than one person you’d like to reach out to. Humans are complex with varied interests, and you might want to look into a few areas. Just don’t bombard one person with all of your hopes and dreams.
“When you sit down with someone who is well-connected that you want to network with, don’t throw all 10 ideas you have out there,” says Sachs. “No one knows what to do with that and frankly, they can’t really help you — that’s a conversation to have with a career counselor, your therapist, your mother, or your best friend.” Instead, pick a lane when you have a networking opportunity, and make it the one thing that is relevant to the person you’re talking to. Starting small will be less overwhelming for both the other person and you, so that you can start taking small steps forward.
5. Don’t Leave With Nothing
“Our career lives are long and mistakes will inevitably be made,” Sachs says. Those mistakes can include picking a job you hate, doing something that gets you fired, even staying in a job too long, way past the point of when you learned something new. (Not to mention the possibility that at some point in your career, you may face layoffs, which is beyond your control.)
“Look at all of this stuff as very much part of the journey and part of the learning experience,” says Sachs. “When you leave a job, the most important thing is — even if it was a bad fit or you weren’t getting along with your boss — to leave on good terms. These people remain part of your network, and you would be surprised how you’ll circle around similar people over time, even when you switch things up.”
Sachs experienced that firsthand after accepting a job that met most of her criteria on paper: a well-respected company, great coworkers, and a wonderful boss — but turned out to be a place where she would stagnate. “I had interviewed five or six times and we talked about the creativity and innovation that I would bring to the job, but the reality was that the agency just wasn’t ready for that. They had their own ways and for me it was taking five steps back and doing a job that I had already done for years."
Sachs didn’t leave immediately; quitting a job in a huff isn’t a luxury most people have. But she did try to make the most of it while she looked for a way out. “I stuck with it [for nine months] because you don’t want to let people down, and you think maybe it’ll work out,” she explains. “Now I’m a lot smarter now when it comes to thinking about my next move.”
Within reason (in terms of how much wiggle room you have when it comes to your work situation), think about what matters to you, whether that’s making a certain wage, working in a particular atmosphere, or having a certain kind of relationship with your coworkers. Then, before you say your final goodbyes, make sure that you’ve at least learned something new, or built a few relationships that you can take with you.
“You’d be surprised at how much experience you’ve really accumulated along the way. So don’t beat yourself up over it,” Sachs says.