My wife tells people she has been married to twelve different men; in reality we’ve been married forty-nine years, but I’ve change careers and reinvented myself over a dozen times. Keep in mind that each radical change meant learning to adapt quickly to new work environments, new responsibilities, a new work culture, and new colleagues who often had different educational backgrounds, different values, and markedly different interests. If you think I’m exaggerating, imagine yourself invited to three different parties. One consists of a group of English professors discussing their latest research on Chaucer, Hemingway, and Shakespeare. Another party consists of police officers, mostly with GEDs and no college degrees, comparing notes on the most horrible crimes they’ve investigated. The third party is held by a group of software engineers where almost no one speaks first. Some people attending that party can go an entire evening without saying more than a polite hello. Some but not all of my other transformations include sales manager, hospital lab tech, computer network manager, futurist, software trainer, and market research executive.
In most of these situations I managed to make radical career transformations without taking major salary cuts. The secret to reinventing oneself consists of knowing how to recognize and communicate your transferable skills, know how to learn quickly, and know how to convince a skeptical employer that it makes perfect sense to take the risk of hiring someone with an unconventional background.
Let’s take the art of convincing a skeptical employer to take a chance on someone who wants to reinvent himself or herself. I moved from English professor to software trainer with a major mainframe computer company by identifying the head of training, arranging for us to have lunch together, and then convincing him over that lunch that someone who was an excellent teacher of something radically different could pick up mainframe software programming quickly and then be able to train that company’s customers.
Let’s take futurist as a second example. I convinced my future employer that I was already doing the job of a futurist (in this case a technology analyst who had to forecast future trends for specific industries) even though I was doing it as a hobby rather than as my day job.
Once in a new job, the reinvention part is not complete. You still have to learn the content required for this new job quickly and, this is critical, adjust to a new culture. When I moved from being a college professor to a law enforcement administrator, my educational background could not have been more different from the police officers I worked with every day. I realized I had successfully navigated that change on a Sunday when an officer came over because he had heard I had engine trouble. He took my engine out of my car, had the cylinders reground, and put everything back together without charging me anything but his cost.
So, reinventing oneself means recognizing your potential for completely different types of work by identifying your transferrable skills and convincing others to give you a chance. It also means fitting in a new work environment and quickly identifying the social rules each culture has.
One secret for those of you considering reinventing yourself is to look to new industries where the barriers for entry are not as rigid. When I talked my way into the computer industry, for example, there still weren’t formal computer science degrees offered. Recently I co-authored a book (Paint Your Career Green) that lays out why emerging green industries can be so attractive for people who want to make radical career changes. These new industries do not as yet have formalized educational requirements. Often you can take a few extension courses or earn an extension certificate to validate your knowledge in a new industry such as water purification or solar energy.
Another secret to making radical career changes is to know how to do research. Most people spend far more time researching a new car than they do researching new industries and key contacts. I write at length about this approach in Paint Your Career Green, but the point is that if you can meet a key contact before you apply for a job, you’re way ahead. If you have researched that industry and figured out how you could definitely add value to a particular company, then you’re even further ahead.
So, with the new year approaching, it’s a good time to do some soul-searching and determine if you want to reinvent yourself. In the current economic environment, it is likely it could take an entire year to make the change. Still, you will be a year older whether you make the transformation or not, so why not consider it?