How to design career experiments
Human beings are designed to want reassurance. Consequently most of us aren’t particularly excited about taking career risks.
If we’re going to make a career change we want to know that we don’t have to “start over” or if we’re going to take the time and effort to pursue something new we want to know that at least a guarantee that we’re going to love it at the end of all that effort.
The bad news is that it doesn’t work that way, there’s absolutely no magic pill you can take that’s going to give you the ultimate reassurance that when you spend all the effort you’re going to see nothing but rainbows and unicorns on the other end of all your hard work.
The good news is we know that as humans we want to have some reasonable reassurance that we’re heading the right direction. That’s exactly the reason that over the years we’ve quietly worked to develop ways to help align our clients and students with life and careers they love (before they actually get there) by test driving and experimenting prior to making the switch.
Ironically ever since HTYC Coach, Lisa Lewis, casually mentioned this idea of designing experiments in podcast episode 147, we’ve had constant questions about how to do this . We’ve been teaching people how to design experiments inside our flagship programs Career Change Bootcamp and Signature Coaching but we’ve never dug into it on the podcast.
Until Now! Take a listen here then read the guide below.
We’ve created 6 different examples of ways you can design an experiment to test drive your potential new career, company, industry, sector, or even the people you might work with.
1. THE “SOCIAL GOLDILOCKS”
Laura Morrison worked in sustainability for nearly 8 years for the same company moving up the ranks. When she finally decided she wanted to change careers later on she felt like she wasn’t even sure where to start. On top of that she felt like she wasn’t even totally sure what else was out there.
That’s why she came to us. As a student in CCB she quickly learned that having lots of comparison in a systematic format can help you quickly decide what direction is the best for you AND help you narrow down the list really quickly.
What does that even mean? Well much like trying all the porridge with the 3 bears and learning quickly that this one is too hot, the other was too cold and this one was just right, Laura connected with and had conversations with 2 groups of people.
- Those that were in jobs that she hypothesized that she might like AND/OR
- People in companies she thought were likely to align with her values.
This act of “Talking to all of the people in all of the places” led her to have over 20 different conversations.
More importantly she didn’t just learn that she liked mildly warm porridge, she learned she actually like oatmeal with cherries in it too!
Here’s an email from Laura showing exactly what she was able to take away from these conversations.
If you read carefully you may have also noticed one of her (and our) favorite questions to ask is
What makes you good at what you do?
Because it helps you understand what they perceive as the most important pieces of how to be successful at that job, where if you simply ask what is the most important to be successful about what you do, you often get a whole bunch of bull shit about degrees and things that people are “supposed to say.”
Remember you’re not looking for formality, you’re looking to uncover useful information that helps you decide what temperature of porridge you prefer and exposes you to things you never even thought of! (like almond butter in oatmeal…mmm!)
2. THE “AMPED UP FOLLOWUP”
Think of this approach as “The Social Goldilocks” + a bit of “BAM” – Emeril Lagasse style!
If you’re not an Emeril fan then think about it this way:
Mike Bigelow, another coaching client and CCB student of ours, needed to change cities because his wife’s job was moving. He wanted to take that opportunity to be very selective and take a role with a company that he was really excited about AND would pay him over 6 Figures.
First he used a similar approach to Laura by having many conversations as he could in the industry he thought he wanted to be in as much.
Next comes the “amped up followup”: he would walk away from a meeting with a potential employer, after asking what are you struggling with, what are big vision questions you are wrestling with to make the impact you want to make over the next five years, what would make your life easier? Then Mike went and did those things. Unsolicited, unpaid, just for fun.
How did he do this? During the initial conversations Mike would hear someone say “I have this need” or “I need to solve this” He would then ask followup questions to learn exactly why and what was most important, then Mike would go and create a spreadsheet, a piece of code or equation and follow up. Here’s how that conversation would go
Remember that thing we talked about I’ve thought about it, created this thing and I want to give you it for free, enjoy.
Being a hiring manager and seeing someone so affected by a conversation, that listened so well, and so excited about the work you are doing that they go and do the work and send it to you says a lot of exciting things about the contributions that person can make if you bring them into your team.
THIS WORKED INCREDIBLY WELL FOR 2 REASONS:
- Mike was able to test drive and experience the work first hand and decide if it was something he had further interest in. (the experiment part of the experiment!)
- Almost nobody does this, so it causes you to stand out from nearly everybody else in the minds of his potential future employers.
Through this process Mike ended up building relationships with many people he had interest in working with. It later resulted in both interviews and ultimately several job offers that put him over six figures for the first time in his life.
More importantly than that he learned through the experiments that there were some types of work and companies that he simply didn’t enjoy, saving himself potentially years by helping him narrow down his list (the opposite of taking huge career risks).
3. THE “PAID RESEARCH” APPROACH TO TAKING CAREER RISKS
One of my favorite things to help our students do is to test drive work in paid capacity.
Why? Because it adds a different level of stakes to the experiment. You now are getting an idea of what it’s like to design and deliver an end product or service for someone.
The paid research approach is exactly what it sounds like: You actually do the work or a portion of the work and …[dramatic music inserted here] get paid for it… but typically in a short term format like a project or contract so you’re not locked into it if you find that it’s not for you!
We’ve found that the two easiest ways to start with this approach are:
- Freelance on a small project in the area you’re potentially interested in.
- Take on a project that exposes you to the area you’re interested in within your current company.
Here’s an example of both of these:
Andrew was working with a marketing company and not totally satisfied with his company or his career. He suspected that he wanted to shift to a particular area of Social Media Marketing.
To test drive this, he took the tiny skillsets he had developed around the fringe portions of his job around social media and began doing that for a friends small business on a freelance basis.
This allowed Andrew to try out and get paid. Most importantly it gave him the answer to the question
“Is this something I want to dive further into?”
In his case it was a yes. He learned he needed certain types of creative freedoms and liked getting paid for it on a more regular basis.
You can do that too. Identify the most likely place where you can get a small project to start with. Where is the low hanging fruit? Do you have a friend that needs this, is there a section in one of the vendor companies you currently work with that needs help? It could be taking a portion of your current job that you enjoy and try to do it on a smaller scale project.
In Andrew’s case he determined that he wanted to learn more about the strategy side of social media marketing and then he went back to his company and expressed that to his boss.
This turned into him taking on additional responsibility which led to him getting to further vet this type of work and ultimately earning him a pay increase.
Boom! Additional paid research!
4. THE “FOOT IN THE DOOR” (VOLUNTEERING)
Volunteering, although usually very helpful to the organization you’re helping out, can either be incredibly valuable to your experimentation OR a huge waste of time!
So how do you do volunteering in a way that’s hugely helpful for you AND them?
Use this question as a guide before accepting or proposing volunteer work:
Will the volunteer opportunity expose you to the types of work, people, challenges, or learning that you hypothesize you want to spend more of your time around?
If not, or there’s not a high degree of chance that it will, find other volunteer opportunities instead.
Here’s an example of a volunteer opportunity from our very own Lisa Lewis, a career coach on our team.
She was in a place of deep career dissatisfaction. She loved helping people and wanted to do it more. She had applied to graduate school and taken the GRE, but still had a little fear in her gut pop up saying “are you 100% sure that being a clinical mental health licensed practitioner is right for you?”
She wasn’t sure, so she found opportunity to volunteer, for free in her spare time, above and beyond the 9 -5 to get a sense of if she wanted to take this on as a 40 hour a week commitment.
She found the organization Crisis Text Line that she had followed for years. They were accepting applicants for their crisis volunteer program. I thought that would be a good way to do the work of sitting with people and holding space for them when they are going through intense painful moments and helping them to become calm and resourceful and to take care of themselves when things aren’t okay.
It was fun for me because I loved that opportunity. I had a glorious time doing the work but oh my goodness by the end I knew it affected me so profoundly and intensely in just four hours of work a week that I knew I wasn’t wired to turn it into 40 hours.Lisa Lewis
For yourself when thinking about it what are some of the organizations doing the type of work or the sector you are interested in? Do they have anything you can apply for to test out and run experiments to see if that work feels good for you? I’ve personally even done this with professional organizations and volunteering to organize their events, like the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) where I wanted to gain exposure to certain people so I could learn if I wanted to work with them.
5. THE BUDDING EXPERT
I’ve found that one of the quickest ways to become involved with a certain topic, profession, industry or even type of work is to become a member of the media.
I’m not talking about becoming a card carrying member of the Associated Press. Instead I mean by writing, podcasting, creating video, or any other type of media, you can get an inside look at what a particular type of work is like AND if you enjoy it, it can pave the way to future opportunities for you at the same time.
For example, this very blog started as an experimental blog back in 2012. I wasn’t even totally sure what I wanted to do next and suspected that I would have a lot of fun helping people make big life changes and big career changes on a fulltime basis. So I started researching and writing down everything I knew about it. You know what happened from there (or if you don’t here’s the story on episode 100)
Another example is Dustin Hartzler. He started out his experiment by creating a few websites of his own. He found he enjoyed it and his experimentation evolved into paid research by creating websites for friends and small companies who needed them. Through this work he found that he was enjoying WordPress (a popular content management system for websites) he created a podcast and posted it on iTunes to expose himself more to wordpress and further his expertise. (which creating content forces you to acquire) This also brought him even more customers to his freelance operation.
After doing this he had really become a fan of Automattic, the company that created wordpress. This led him to pursue a career working with their company.
What started as an evolving experiment in the podcast, later on became his ticket to get him in the door for an interview when there are thousands of candidates that apply to Automattic regularly.
Dustin did this with podcasts but this can also be done with a blog, essays, articles, videos, a website, and any other types of media.
6. THE LEARNER
This last one is exactly what it sounds like:
Immersing yourself in intentional learning to help you understand whether or not you want to pursue a career direction.
Well the first thing that most people think of college or graduate degrees, it doesn’t have to be this at all.
In fact, I try to talk most people out of doing an advanced degree, not because they aren’t valuable, but instead because spending 30 to 70 thousand dollars and two or more years of your time often isn’t worth it for most people when they still don’t know whether or not that is going to get them to a career that they are excited about.
A bigger reason than the time and money is for most (not all but most) professions and skillsets there are many more less expensive options to get you to the same result. This is especially true now more than ever. Even compared to 10 years ago There are so many more ways and types of education other than just college.
That said, taking a class, course or school can actually save you many years of wasting your life, especially if it helps you avoid a bad career decision. Here’s an example:
Avery was burnt out on her high powered career in finance. She knew she wanted to do something much more creative but didn’t yet fully know what, she decided to pursue something that she had a dream about forever and wanted to explore. She quit and moved to Paris to go to a photography school!
In doing so she quickly realized that photography really wasn’t for her. This might sound like a failure but instead this actually saved her many years of her life as well as not having any kind of regret.
You don’t have to quit everything or move to Paris to learn what’s right and not right for you.
Instead you could start with a single class or by taking a course on Udemy or SkillShare. This can help you understand if you really actually like the subject matter or skillset. Remember to try to apply the learning before you make a decision to dive deeper or not. The appeal of learning something is often different that the application of that same learning because humans are wired to enjoy learning.
DESIGNING YOUR OWN EXPERIMENTS TO AVOID TAKING CAREER RISKS
Now that you’ve seen these 6 examples, you can choose the one that makes the most sense for your personal situation. Or you don’t have to choose just one, you can combine them together. For example doing some freelance work for a company that you met through the social Goldilocks approach.
If you’re not ready to test out an experiment yet, bookmark this page so you can come back to it when you are. Also share this with a friend who might need it!
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