People tend to focus the most on their careers when they’re in a slump. That makes about as much sense as trying your best to harvest food from your farm in the middle of winter, rather than learning to optimize in the good times.
In order to have the best chance at a prosperous, successful “total career,” you need to be doing certain things during the good times that (in my experience) almost no one does. And as a result, the lean times are shocking, disruptive, stressful and painful for just about everyone.
Here’s the good news: statistically speaking, you’re probably going to have way more good times than bad. At least on net. So if you’re in a rough patch now, these tips can help make sure it’s one of the last ones. And if you’re not in a rough patch – then this advice is exactly for you to act on to optimize the good times, starting today!
Tip #1: Get Out of Your Tower
When people are gainfully employed, the tendency is strong for them to just stop paying attention to the outside world. Especially if they’re relatively satisfied with that employment. Job market conditions, industry trends, up-and-coming voices? All blissfully ignored. Whenever the inevitable employment change is forced upon them, suddenly they feel like they don’t understand the world anymore.
People complain that recruiters try to headhunt them when they’re employed, only to complain that they aren’t headhunting them enough when they’re jobless! So don’t blow off those recruiters. You don’t have to be looking for a new job to have a good conversation with someone. And that conversation creates a connection, which leads to more, which becomes a network.
Set some specific goals for yourself, like:
- “I will set aside a ‘budget’ of 4 hours per month. I’ll use that to say ‘yes’ to requests for conversations, interviews, etc. from recruiters and other professionals. It can’t hurt!”
- “I will send 2 emails per month to professional contacts that are outside of my job scope. This is to ask how they’re doing and what they think about the current state of things.”
- “I will post on a professional site like LinkedIn once per week. This is to share an industry-related article or ask for the broader community’s input or opinion on something. This is NOT to ‘network’ for new job opportunities.”
Goals like these keep you accountable to being “out there” well in advance of truly needing to be. There’s a reason that we hear the clichéd phrase “dust off the resume;” because things like resumes and LinkedIn profiles sit around collecting dust for most people until they’re needed. Guess what – you’ll always need it eventually, so keep the dust off!
When the lean times come, you won’t be starting from scratch after a ten-year absence. Make sure to optimize the good times. Instead, you’ll have a thriving network and platform ready. You’ll have the awareness of both the general state of the market and of possible opportunities. And you’ll the confidence to navigate it all!
Tip #2: Create Your Brag Book
Remember the last time you had to update your resume? Someone told you that it’s important to have tangible accomplishments and results on there (it is!). Remember when you wracked your brain for hours trying to remember the specifics? What about that really touching email you received from a retiring coworker, telling you how much you taught and inspired them? That’s now forever lost on your old work email server, which you can no longer access?
If you stop to pay attention, your life is filled with small reminders of your success and competence. But they’re often small enough – and in fact, numerous enough – that we ignore them. They’re nice to see when you see them, but then quicky forgotten. We see positive quarterly feedback forms, thank-you letters from clients, or a blurb about us in the company newsletter. But almost no one saves those things. You should!
“Show, don’t tell”
If you can show someone “social proof” of your ability to do a job well, that will open many more doors than a simple resume. But it’s extremely hard to go back and get those things after the fact. They often disappear, and even if they haven’t, you may no longer have access to them. Imagine after losing your job, calling up your old manager to ask them to dig through the archives to find every positive review you’ve received over the last 5 years and send them to you. Think it’ll happen?
You need to have a folder (on your own computer) where you save these things. Send copies of emails to yourself. Save all of your reports and projects, screenshots of “great job” texts and any other signs of your success. Save it all! You never know which piece will be the perfect capstone to a future presentation or application. And as a bonus, it can really help drive off impostor syndrome to occasionally open up that file folder and look at the huge volume of your successful endeavors!
Now, I can already hear at least a few of you saying “this tip is great in theory, but I never get any praise. What should I do?”
Tip #3: Your Annual “Review of You”
When you first settle down into a hot tub, it’s blissful. Relaxing and soothing, it immediately has a tremendous positive impact on your mood and physical state. And for a while you really enjoy it. But after a while, you decide it’s time to get out. Why? The temperature of the hot tub didn’t change. The outside temperature didn’t change either. Nothing external had to change. Your body just told you that it was no longer correct to be in the hot tub, and you listened. The change was internal, and it drove your actions.
We don’t do that enough in our careers. We fear uncertainty, and for many of us unemployment equals uncertainty. So even as we grow and change, we ignore the effect that has on our alignment with our current role. We ever so subtly lower the bar for what we consider “good” until it looks a lot like “not bad” and then “could be worse” and then “at least I’m not unemployed”. Until finally, it’s “this is so horrible I have to escape.”
That means you ignore progressively redder flags, like not receiving accolades or needing increasingly longer “decompression” times after each workday. And by the time it’s finally added up to enough to shake us out, we’re in such a state of fear, stress and pain that everything about the resulting transition period becomes ten times harder to navigate successfully.
Break this cycle and optimize the good times. Here’s how:
Pick a date. Any day of the year is fine if it works for you; in fact, you can pick a different frequency altogether if you like. But whatever date you pick, put it in your calendar as a recurring event. On that date every year/quarter/month, you’re going to go somewhere distraction-free and reflect on a series of questions:
- Did I accomplish something meaningful in the past year beyond just my paycheck? Something that I could show to another person so that they could appreciate it? (Check your “brag book” if you’re not sure!)
- Did I learn any major new skills that I didn’t have the year before?
- How many times in the last year did I not do something I wanted to do in my personal life because I had to choose between that and a work obligation?
- Have any other aspects of my life – my health, relationships, hobbies, faith, etc. – taken a serious downward turns in the last year?
- When I think about something “I’ve always wanted to do,” am I actionably closer to that this year than I was last year?
I can’t tell you what the ‘correct’ answers to those questions are, because I’m not you. I can’t even say for sure that you should ask exactly that set of questions, though they are a great starting point. But if you reflect genuinely on those questions or others like them, your answers will tell a story for you. That story will be about whether or not your current job is aligning with your life.
It’s very possible for a job to no longer serve your life.
Even if the job is objectively “good.” It may pay well, not be excessively difficult, not be a toxic or hostile environment, etc. Despite that, it may not be the right place for you. It might be time to get out of the hot tub.
This is very difficult for most people. Even considering leaving a “good” job can fill us with feelings of guilt, fear, self-doubt and shame. Tell me: are your decisions made from guilt, fear, self-doubt and shame likely to be the best decisions for you?
No one job is your career. Your career (and life) will prosper more if you are the agent of positive change, instead of always reacting to negative change. The first step towards positive change is knowing what that change should look like. By doing this regular “Review of You,” you put the focus on the positive things you want in your life, not the negative things you might be trying to avoid.
It might seem scary at first, but that’s why this is the third tip. Because it gets a lot less scary if you also took tips 1 and 2 seriously.
If you are employed, I strongly encourage you to start on this today to optimize the good times. The very moment you’re done reading this. Lean times will come, and you’ll be happy you did. And if you’re in lean times now, remember: good times come too. And when yours come again, you’ll know how to make them grow.