Summer vacations were one of the best things about college. They provided me with a precious three-month opportunity to explore the working world without consequence – exactly when my appetite for adventure and real-world experience bumped up against the ugly reality of living wages and educational expenses.
After my first year in school, I wangled a stipend to explore my passion for non-profits and the law. I volunteered at a major international non-profit sporting organization that planned, organized, marketed and led a weekend summer camp for the athletes. One day a week, I was a lackey at the county courthouse. In spite of organizational challenges, I was a veritable over-eager sponge. I had a burning desire to move faster, produce more and innovate around systemic efficiencies that were of little interest to my seasoned superiors. The whole time, my bright-eyed enthusiasm never waned. The reason? The start of the school year provided a clean break. These three months were a priceless, experience-building window that allowed me to bypass any regrets, resume concerns or awkward goodbyes.
If you could walk out the door into a new life, how would this affect your performance?
Once this career approach clicked, building work experience during those vacations became like my own professional dress-up; I could literally try on a new work-life and leave the “outfit” behind at the end of each summer. It fueled my desire to take risk. Life boundaries – money, housing, student loans — existed as always, but the goal was new: pack as much into the window as possible. One summer I secured an internship at a brokerage house; another I won research grants for independent study in Spain. (And yes, I would consider that one an educational boondoggle).
Those days eventually ended, of course, and when I graduated from college, law school and eventually business school, there were no more slate cleaners on the horizon. Suddenly, I was a part of the real world — for which I’d spent so many years preparing. Six months into a job with a clearly defined career path, I encountered many unhappy colleagues who felt stuck. Determined not to fall into the same mindset, I revived my previous internship/gig mentality. The only difference was, this job had no clear end date.
It was the smartest thing that I could have done to take control of my career. Thinking about your job as one that’s finite, with a clear ending (whether it truly has that or not ) can open you up to do your best work, take risks and seize control. Each move weaves into your big picture story, skills and potential.
Here are 5 key tips for keeping that gig mentality intact even, if in a long-term job:
1. Begin With the End in Mind
Whether you are starting a new job or languishing in an old one, think about what you want to accomplish if you left in six months, one year or two years. Janet Hanson, the founder and Chairman Emeritus of 85Broads, a global women’s networking organization, coined the “beginning with the end in mind” approach, and she’s 110% right. Deadlines clarify goals and can alleviate the pressure from the hard slog. Optimize your time at your current job, and write a list of its pros. If it’s a short list that doesn’t inspire, increase your skill set, or seem worth the trade off, think about moving on. When you leave, write what you want your resume to say (that is, what you really want to be doing) and find something that fits your description.
2. Take Risks
If you knew that you could change jobs within a year, what would you do differently? Would you ask for more opportunities? Exercise more creative license? If you could walk out the door into a new life, how would this affect your performance? Very often, this exercise frees your mind to perform at a higher level of excellence and pierce your comfort zone. It also helps you to regain a sense of control, because you are in charge of your job, not the other way around. Acknowledge the shortcomings, determine whether they are fixable and make an action plan accordingly.
3. Set Other Life Goals
Even if the majority of your life is your work, non-work goals heighten focus and create new opportunities. Two years after grad school, I quit my San Francisco job to move to NYC. My employer wanted to retain me. Together we crafted an innovative role highlighting many things I loved: leading client teams, building business, solving hard problems and travel.
4. Create Your Own Gig
It can be as simple as an extracurricular activity, mentorship or volunteer role, or even freelancing on nights or weekends. New responsibility stimulates skill development and creativity. Time constraints and a desire to please often hamper commitments. Convince yourself you can’t fail and that goodbyes are easy. Create your own opportunities based on interests.
5. Know Your BATNA
In the book Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, authors Roger Fisher and William Ury, discuss what they call BANTA (“best alternative to a negotiated agreement”). This is a course of action one party takes if an agreement cannot be reached. In your career, these are your core skills. When you focus on your true strengths, skills and potential, a sense of calm will enter; you know that you are going to be ok, even if you don’t know what ok looks like. Take time to find your BATNA. Write it down, nurture it, and remember that no matter what happens, you are incredibly fortunate. You can always rely on yourself.
Learn about Jennifer’s latest gig at Sixty Vocab.