Stretch your way into your next job

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When I need a stretch in real life, I begrudgingly attend a yin yoga class and complain all the way through about my tight hamstrings. When I need a stretch in my career, I get freakishly excited about taking on a new project that scares me a little bit. A strange obsession, true, and it started early…

On my first day of high school a pony-tailed teacher bounced into the classroom and began launching copies of a 300+ page book at each of his students. It was called Sophie's World, and it was a college-level text on the philosophical foundations of Western thought. After the books were distributed he taped a red paper to the wall and asked what color it was.

We all agreed it was red. (High school was going to be a breeze…)

But then, he wanted to know how we knew.

Slowly, a few brave, 14-year old hands went up. The discussion picked up pace as he began dissecting the answers:

"It's red…because everyone agrees it's red? If everyone in this room agrees it's right to tie me to this chair and leave school, would that make it right? How do you know what you agree to is true?"

“It’s red…because you were taught it was red? Is everything you’re taught true? How can you tell the difference?”

Thus began our foray into the oh-so-exciting world of epistemology. Everything I thought was true suddenly became a question, and it shook me to the core.

A few years later I graduated from this public high school in Arizona (where public ed was ranked 49th in the nation in 2001, FYI) and headed off to a private liberal arts college. Most of my peeps came from prep school. Thanks to this class, I could hold my own with just a ‘lil bit of faking-it-till-I-made-it.

Although I quickly forgot the differences between Kierkegaard and Kant, the deeper lesson stuck: Growing is uncomfortable. It’s stressful. It’s scary. Sometimes it straight up hurts. Stretching prepares you for the big leap, getting you ready to reach further than you have before.

One of the easiest ways to prepare for a career move is though “stretch projects.” These are assignments you select strategically to help you develop the skills, gain the experience, grow the network, or gather the knowledge necessary for your next professional step.

For example, many years ago my director challenged me to lead a “train the trainer” session for other professionals. Although I was totally comfortable teaching college students, this was a hurdle. More than anything, it was a psychological stretch…did I really have enough experience to teach other professionals anything of value? Turned out I did. That stretch project led to a further stretch, presenting at a professional conference. Eventually, I was sufficiently stretched to leap into my next career, full-time Learning & Development for professionals.

The best part of stretch projects is that you can incorporate them into your 9-5 job, so you’re getting paid to build leverage for your next move while you maintain the security of the position you’re blessed to have now.

No matter what your current work situation, there’s a way to include stretch projects in it:

Option A: Work with your supervisor. Is your supervisor someone you can talk to about your career goals? Will they be open to helping you develop the skills for your next step, even if it’s out of the organization? If so, the most ideal way to do stretch projects is with the full support of a supervisor who can help you connect to training, resources, and opportunities that will help you grow and be highly effective in your current job.  

Option B: Work in stealth mode. If you have a dud supervisor, if openly showing a desire to grow would cause alarm bells, or if even hinting that you ever might want to outgrow the organization could cause a speedy firing, you can still do strategic stretch projects. You just won’t be able to talk about why you’re doing them, at work. Seeking out opportunities within your organization will be fully your responsibility, and you’ll need to discreetly tap into your network to find what you’re looking for.

Option C: Be a free agent. If you’re on your own and nobody cares what you do, you’re in a great place to do stretch projects. As a freelancer, you can solicit clients who need the type of work you want to do, letting them know upfront that you’re learning as you go and charging a reduced rate. While this might not be a good fit for some clients, others would love to give you a longer timeline and some grace in exchange for affordable work. You can also ask a more skilled freelancer in your network to subcontract work to you, and learn a new skill under their supervision.

Are you ready to make your paid work hours work for you by finding a few good Stretch Projects? You can download a step-by-step guide for this Career Experiment for FREE right here. (The password arrives via email 2 seconds after you sign up ;) ) In it, you’ll find ideas for stretch projects, tips on starting the conversation with your supervisor, and other advice you can apply today.

Not sure where to start? Let a Thought Leader lead the way!

You could do the hard work yourself. Or, you could…

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In every field and niche, there are key players who drive the conversation forward. Usually, they gather people who share an interest through their blogs and websites. These “thought leaders” are hubs for spreading new ideas and facilitating conversations between readers. Finding just one amazing thought leader can give you access to hundreds of ideas, opportunities, and resources.

Here’s an example: In 2015 I piloted a study abroad program to Scotland with two of my best professor peeps. Minor detail: None of us had actually ever been to Scotland.

We spent hours on early-morning Skype calls with UK-based sustainability professionals sourced on LinkedIn, working across two time zones. We lost entire weekends coordinating logistics involving trains, busses, ferries, airplanes, hostels, hotels, retreat centers, farms, and ecovillages in a country we had never seen. (To be fair…we camped out at a resort to make the extra work more fun.)

Then…we met Lusi.

Lusi ran a Scottish association dedicated to permaculture. She knew everyone in the field, the unique sites that were off the beaten track, distances between locations, and even the quality of public transport between them. She was embedded in the community to such a degree that she could advise us on who was doing really great work…versus who just had a great website. Based on her input, we revised our three-week program to something much stronger than we could have done on our own.

That’s the power of a thought leader.

Connecting with the thought leaders in your fields of interest gives you a massive head start. Finding them can be a bit of a trick, but it’s SOOOO worth it because by following them you’ll create a stream of higher-quality information on your areas of interest than you could ever find on your own. The info they share allows you to:

  • Access high quality resources that have been vetted by a leader in the field, so you don't have to dig them up and evaluate their quality on your own.

  • Learn about opportunities to take your interest a step deeper (such as meetups, workshops, conferences, and other ways to engage with “real people”).  

  • Build your knowledge base of hot topics, key players, and big ideas that are shaping the field, so you can be an informed conversation partner at networking events and a knowledgeable candidate for interviews.

  • Observe what’s going on in the field from a safe distance, to see if you’re really interested in the conversations going on there. When you’re ready, you can participate. Joining a conversation will give you quick feedback on the value your comments add to other members...which can be really, really encouraging if you’re not sure how your experience or expertise translates to another field!

  • Confirm your interest in the field...if the content you connect to online doesn’t get you excited, you can move on to explore another path.

Ready to Find Your Thought Leader(s)? You can download a step-by-step guide for this Career Experiment for FREE right here. The password arrives via email 2 seconds after you sign up ;)

Good luck, and let me know how it goes!

Career Experiments vs. Career Plans: Does it really matter?

Before we start teasing out the differences between Career Experiments and Career Plans (And more importantly, the mindsets they turn into!) lets start with some basic definitions.

  • Career Experiments are hands-on activities giving you direct contact with the careers you're curious about, so you can choose one next step based on a solid foundation of experience.

  • Career Plans are long term goals solidified in a written document so you can make plans to achieve them over the long haul, breaking those big goals into little action steps to execute one at a time.

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Here’s the big difference:

With Career Plans, your steps are predetermined. Your Career Plan dictates what you should do, and then what you should do after that, long before you even get “there.” The Career Plan gives you benchmarks of what you need to achieve, and where you need to be, three (five, etc.) years down the road…without any regard for what actually happens along the path or how your interest in the final destination may change. (ACK!!! You know that girl who persisted through four years of an education degree only to realize she can’t stand teaching? Yes, the one who disliked every.single.year of practicum, but did it anyway, because it was her “plan?” Talk about sleep walking!)

Career Experiments are based on the premise that you can’t make reality conform to your plans. Instead, what you can do is get really good at investigating all the opportunities that emerge on each, individual step of your career journey. And you can even create these opportunities through taking actions that build your network, your skills, and your awareness of how you can use them across fields and industries. Career Experiments give you the flexibility to build your career story one step at a time, making sure that each step is grounded in your most updated experience and all the information you gathered along the way.

Here are five more advantages to Career Experiments:

1) Career Experiments are low stakes. You’ll figure out right away if a path isn’t for you, so you don’t waste time pursuing a path that turns out to be a dead end or a wrong fit.

2) Career Experiments make it okay to change directions. Confidence is built by taking ONE smart step at a time, not from blind adherence to a long-term “plan.” Career Experiments accept, and even expect, changes in direction…so a “changed plan” isn’t a “failed plan.”

3) Career Experiments work with reality, instead of against it. They allow you to explore new options, many of which you may never have known existed, as you discover them.

4) Career Experiments connect you to insider’s information. They introduce you to people who are already actively engaged in a job or fields, who know the hot topics, big issues, and opportunities on the you real-time information on which to base your thinking and moves.

5) Career Experiments build your network, your resume, and your self-awareness. In other words, it’s the triple-threat for your career!

Ready to give Career Experiments a try? You can download step-by-step guides for 9 Career Experiments for FREE right here. The password arrives via email 2 seconds after you sign up ;)

She's back! And she brought a shiny dissertation with her.

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The dissertation is DONE! And, I only nearly cried once

My supervisor, previously the Dean of the U. Edinburgh Business College, has a characteristically British dry sense of humor and scathing sarcastic wit. Earlier in the program he facilitated a competition between several departments; we formed teams to simulate businesses, then in a 2-hour marathon competed against each other to produce greeting cards.

The winners were welcomed to the stage to receive his highest praise, and then the losers were invited to do the same...receiving the most humiliating public shaming ever endured. Producing a package of Polo candies, which look like this for the non-UK readers... 


he proceeded to explain that this was the only item he could think of with more holes than their failing business plan. 

Even from my seat safely tucked away in the middle of the auditorium, it was painful. 

So, I knew he wouldn't hold anything back in providing "feedback" on my work. I'm a glutton for punishment, and this was the best decision of the entire semester.  

Explaining his insistence that I identify a research question before reading anything, he shared a metaphor. "Laurah," he admonished, "Your research question is like a compass. The library, and the research databases it contains, are like the woods. If you go into the woods without a compass, you're going to get lost." 

He encouraged me to frame my question in plain ol' English, and we settled on this: So, how do college students actually find their career paths? 

I then proceeded to spend the entire summer immersed in my favorite topic ever, reading research in beautiful cafe's across Edinburgh.


And you know what? I love it even more now.

I can't wait to turn this dissertation into some fun content here at B+B. 

Thank you for your patience with my long study break. 

PS: Oh! Right! The only time I nearly cried was when he told me I needed to stop writing the lit review and move on to the next section.

Whaaat? I'm sorry, but whose dissertation is this? :) :) 

I explained, through quivering lips and misty eyes, that the final section on iterative decision making was essential for my professional growth, sent him an updated draft the next day, and he acquiesced. At 35, I don't apologize for being a humungous nerd anymore. 

A Brief Intermission: See you in 2018!

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Happy Holidays, friends! Thanks for being part of Better + Better's inaugural year.

The picture above is from February of this year, when Career Experiments were a bunch of ideas floating around on notebook paper. From working with college students I knew where those "ah ha" career insights came from - and it wasn't from sitting in an office talking to me. Every career insight was sparked by hands-on experience - and sometimes, that experience was hard to find. 

So, Better + Better was born in September featuring Career Experiments. From Volunteering Strategically to Talking to an Expert, these step-by-step guides connect anyone exploring career paths with experience that invites those life-changing "ah ha" moments. 

Crazy what can happen in just one year, isn't it? 

In the spirit of doing small things with great love, I'll be taking a few weeks off to plan a fabulous 2018 for Better + Better. Hope you have a wonderful holiday, and I'll see you in January!




Three brilliant career reads for 2018

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This turned out to be the hardest post I've written yet.

Why? Because I'm obsessed with books.

I actually got locked in a bookshop in elementary school when both of my parents thought that I had left with the other one. I didn't notice that the store had closed until the lights clicked off, and then, to the surprise of the remaining sales associate, I emerged from my cocoon in the kids area. 

Once, at REI, I was forced into buying a copy of Adventure Divas after instinctively pulling out a pen and underlining a really good paragraph before it was "mine." 

All my college textbooks are still at my parent's house. I could have sold them back and pooled the money with my girlfriends for a post-finals retreat at the W Hotel, but in my words to my dad (Who graciously hefted them all up into the rafters.), "They're like my children!! I can't just get rid of them!!"  

In fact, just last week I went to Blackwell's for one book, and ended up with four. Because why read "a book" when you could "a theme" instead? 

My compulsive book buying habit was almost YOUR problem too, since I outlined a post on twenty five book recommendations.

But then you wouldn't read it, because that would be truly overwhelming.

So, instead, here is an edited list of three idea-filled reads to inspire your career thinking for a new year. 

 1) Roadmap - The Get-It-Together Guide for Figuring Out What To Do With Your Life 

Back in college I was a Resident Assistant. Whitman was a nerdy place, so when I invited my hall to watch The Open Road, a documentary on exploring career paths, the lounge was actually full. Ten years later I was surprised to receive a call from the organization that sponsored the film; the green RV was still on the road, and they wanted to recruit students for an upcoming episode at the university I worked for.

Um, yes.

As a "thank you" for coordinating they sent me a free copy of Roadmap. I flipped it open on a leisurely Saturday morning thinking I'd give some excerpts to my students, then, hooked by the brilliant content, went back to page one and read it all the way through. In one sitting.

Because it's seriously that good. Forget the students...I loaned it to my colleagues, with strict instructions to GIVE IT BACK. Most importantly, the ideas are actionable. Second of all, it's so inspiring that I left the cafe walking on air, excited to bring more curiosity and fun into my career. Third, it's relevant, with stories from people who are making an impact in culture right this very moment. 

2) The Builders

Surprise! You only need 90 seconds to be inspired by this one. Leave it to Longfellow to write one of those so-good-you-could-cry poems about building a meaningful life (included: career) one little building block at a time. 

3) Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work As a Pilgrimage of Identity

At 23 I was lost...passionate about education, yet managing a little office at a Pilates studio, in tears over how much I hated my job and how frustrated I felt about not knowing how to navigate towards the career I hoped existed in real life and not just in my dreams.

In front of my boss. 

Bless her. She gave me a copy of this book and a high five when I did find a boarding school that was even more amazing than my imagination could concoct, and headed off to Montana three months later. 

This book is sloooow, reflective, philosophical. If you like Yoga, you'll probably like this too. The bit on "captaincy," fully embodying our lives and taking responsibility for the direction they go in, is a moment by moment challenge.