My happiness with my previous 9-5 jobs was highly variable, but I finally figured out how to get paid to work on things I love. After working for several years in Washington, DC, I developed my own ideas on career advancement that could get anyone out of rut in less than 12 months.
1. Say “yes” now, negotiate tasks later. When I was in my early 20s, I was working on stuff I didn’t really enjoy and my performance reviews were dreadfully average. One person in my organization was doing particularly well – all the senior management loved her – and I thought, “What is she doing that I’m not?” So I watched her around the office. She was always the first person asked for an opinion or contribution. She participated in every discussion like she really cared. She never gossiped or complained with other colleagues. And she was totally cool-headed despite seemingly having twice as much work as me. Her secret? She said “yes” to everything – every single thing no matter how big or small – and she volunteered for tasks, even when she was busy. She did work really hard, but she never got overwhelmed. She told me half of the small tasks she agreed to were forgotten so she completed them when she wanted, and the other half she carefully managed, asking for help or time extensions when necessary, which were always respectfully provided. When she left the organization for a job offering $30K more, they begged her to stay and gave her glowing recommendations for the next job. She created a superwoman persona simply because she always said yes. I followed her lead and it transformed my persona at work and my performance reviews. A couple years later when I began managing people myself, I particularly valued the employees who had a “can-do” attitude and considered them for promotions first. Well of course – what boss doesn’t love a yes (wo)man?
2. Make 500+ professional connections on LinkedIn. Feel like your resume is going into a black hole every time you apply to a job online? That’s because it is. LinkedIn is your magic weapon for getting personal introductions to people at companies or organizations you want to work for, not to mention fellowships, competitions and graduate programs. Every time you meet someone – in work meetings, conferences, alumni events, Happy Hour, yoga – ask for their business card and immediately send them a connection on LinkedIn. That person may not ever be a direct connection to something you are interested in, but they may know someone who is. When Ryan and I applied for Y Combinator, the most competitive startup accelerator in the world, we were able to connect with not one, but six people who have made it into the program through second connections on LinkedIn. We didn’t know any of these people personally, but we were connected with people who did, and those folks happily introduced us. We didn’t get into YC, but that certainly helped us improve our application. Same for jobs – every job and fellowship I have had, I had the advantage of making a personal connection with an employee or former fellow. Get your LinkedIn page working to your advantage.
3. Avoid making a lateral move unless you are going to learn new, hard skills. If you have had it with your current job, because you are bored or disillusioned, you might be considering a lateral move for little to no increase in salary, just to have a fresh start on something new. I would strongly advise against this, unless that position will allow you to learn some new, hard skills that will significantly improve your resume. People usually only make large jumps in their responsibilities and salaries when they move between organizations, or are offered a job that instigates your current employer to make a counteroffer. If you make a lateral move because it’s easy to do, you’ll only waste precious months or years getting settled into that position and fall farther behind your peers who are moving up in salary and responsibility. So instead of making a lateral move, take the time to look for a new job with a better salary and learning opportunities. Check out niche job sites like Escape the City.
4. Get some good karma. When people think of volunteering, they often think of scooping soup at a homeless shelter or picking up garbage along the highway. But there’s so much more you can volunteer for, things that will also help you build professional connections, find new job opportunities, and get you closer to something you love. For instance, love Facebook? Help a non-profit update and manage their social media presence online, maybe help them raise some money in the process. Love politics? Volunteer for a local election campaign, maybe help them with branding and outreach to young professionals and university students. Love biking? Join or start a Meetup group for people who love to bike and have a common professional interest – like the Startup Bike Meetup. Through volunteering you can make new contacts and build skills you can’t get in your current job, like strategic planning, social media, fundraising, public speaking, and project management. More importantly, you will help other people, which always puts things into perspective.
5. Find a way to live abroad, even for a short period of time. Resumes with international experience always stand out because they immediately make the impression that you are well-educated, self-motivated, adaptable and adventuresome. And living abroad is easier than you may think. There are many fellowships that offer paid, short-term opportunities abroad. Some like the German Chancellor Fellowship in Germany or the Luce Scholars Program in Asia allow people in any discipline to propose an independent professional project of their choosing. You can also volunteer abroad with a non-profit organization. Living expenses can be as inexpensive as $15/day when volunteering for an organization in a developing country, and you can apply for a Volunteer Grant to cover your flight through Omprakash. Have a big family and friends network? You could propose something aspirational and raise money for your travels on IndieGoGo.com. The possibilities are endless and the effort is extremely worthwhile. I don’t know a single person who has taken an opportunity to live abroad who doesn’t think the experience changed their life and their career perspective for the better.
What are your tips for getting out of a career rut?