Earning

The wrong move to make when you're looking for a new career, and what to do instead, from an executive coach

"People hesitate to explore new areas or make shifts in their career because they're worried they might fail."

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Dorie Clark is the author of "The Long Game: How to Be a Long-Term Thinker in a Short-Term World."
Photo by Mark Thompson

American workers quit their jobs at a record pace in August, the Labor Department reported Tuesday. Around 4.3 million workers left work voluntarily in August, which is by far the most the government has recorded since it started keeping track two decades ago.

If you're one of the millions of Americans pondering what comes next for your career, start small, says Dorie Clark, author of "The Long Game: How to Be a Long-Term Thinker in a Short-Term World." Even if you feel stuck. "We get paralyzed by all of the options and we think, 'Oh my God, well, I don't know what I want to do in 20 years and therefore I can't do anything' — which is the wrong move," says Clark, who is also an executive coach and teaches at Columbia Business School and Duke University's Fuqua School of Business.

"It is far better to take small, concrete actions today, even if you're not completely sure what the ultimate destination is," she adds. Be patient, keep moving, and figure out "what you can do today that will make tomorrow easier or better."

Here's how to start searching for a job with meaning and how to play the "long game" to achieve your career goals.

1. Place small, 'inconsequential' bets

The first step towards long-term career success is figuring out what's meaningful to you. If that seems overwhelming, Clark suggests looking at the things you're already doing outside of work that you enjoy. That could be listening to podcasts, going to museums, or taking photos.

"People hesitate to explore new areas or make shifts in their career because they're worried they might fail," Clark says. "The answer is not to avoid trying new things. The answer is to place such a small bet that it is inconsequential, whether it works out or not. What I mean by that is, what is the smallest thing you can do to begin to gather data about new directions?"

Here are 4 small steps you can take as part of your search, according to Clark.

  1. Set up a lunch with somebody who works in that field so that you can learn more about it and do an informational interview
  2. Read a memoir by someone in that field
  3. Subscribe to industry blogs so you become conversant with the terms and players
  4. Shadow someone at their job for a day to see what their role is like

2. Try the 20% rule

After you've done your research, try the 20% rule, Clark says. This is a concept Google uses at the enterprise level, letting employees work for up to one-fifth of their time on experimental projects.

"There's a wide gulf between being intrigued by a topic and actually making it a core part of your life and career," Clark writes. "That's where 20% time comes in because it gives you permission to explore your interests and see what works while the stakes are relatively low."

It is far better to take small, concrete actions today, even if you're not completely sure what the ultimate destination is.
Dorie Clark
Author, "The Long Game"

If that seems like too much of a time commitment, try beginning with even less, Clark says. "It doesn't literally have to be 20%, it can be 5 or 10 or whatever you can spare, but it's carving out time on a small and consistent basis to explore an area that you find interesting and that perhaps might go somewhere."

The 20% rule is an example of how a low-stakes wager can pay off, she says. "It is a small bet, but if it actually turns out that is going somewhere, if it actually does turn into something, spending 20% of your time on a consistent basis, actually can make something real."

3. Avoid comparing yourself to others

One of the biggest enemies to long-term thinking is comparing yourself to others. "Where short-term thinking becomes really pernicious is that, first of all, we can often really get ourselves in trouble through comparison," Clark says.

Let's say you're a research scientist trying to help develop a cure for cancer: "Statistically, it's probably more likely that whatever you're working on might take years or even decades to come to fruition. It doesn't mean your work is not successful and it doesn't mean your work is not valuable," Clark says. "It just means that it's operating at a different pace than your friend who's managed to get 500,000 TikTok followers."

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There isn't a one-size-fits-all metric you can use to measure when you've got it made at work, she says. "When it comes to things that are so diverse and idiosyncratic like career success, it can be really damaging because there are a lot of industries, or a lot of just unique paths, where for whatever reason that might not be in your control and might not have anything to do with your level of talent or ability."

Ultimately, "it's really hard for any of us to tell the difference between are you not successful, or are you not successful yet," Clark says. "I think it's very important for us to be able to recognize that this is a distinct possibility and not to give up too soon on areas that may in fact be promising."

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