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.