“There are ways to get unstuck” – Kathryn Minshew
When you don't know what career path you want to take, the process is not only hard to get started, it can be paralyzing when you don't have all of the answers. Just thinking about a career change causes stress, anxiety, frustration, and fear to rise inside many people because the majority feel stuck and unsure of what to do first.
But, there's a way to get unstuck.
If you're willing to do that, all you need now it to make the time and energy to get you through the journey.
Below, we've outlined tips from Kathryn Minshew, CEO and Co-Founder of The Muse, a career discovery platform that “puts the human at the center” and helps over 50+ million people a year in their career search.
Now, pull out a notebook and let's get you started down the right path to get you unstuck and find your new career path.
How-to Get Unstuck
Also known as getting out of the Figure It Out Limbo
STEP ONE: Layout your list of values
Ask yourself what you value most in a career.
Do you value your independence, creativity, management-style, flexibility in schedule? Or maybe you're the type that values prestige, compensation, stability, or career advancement? Whatever it is that you value, write it down and make a list of what is most important because this will help you get closer to determining your new career path.
STEP TWO: Look to your friends, family, and co-workers for their honest opinion
Ask five friends/family/co-workers for their professional observation of when they have seen you at your happiest? What kind of work have they seen you do that absolutely lights you up?
The people closest to you only want to see you succeed and it could be anything from planning and scheduling parties with friends and family, to executing and leading projects.
Getting a more distant, outsider opinion in what kind of environment you thrive in will be beneficial in putting together the framework of your next career.
STEP THREE: Research and assessing the variety of paths against your values
You'll want to take your list of values from STEP ONE and the opinions that you've gathered in STEP TWO and do some research to come up with a list of careers that best match your findings from STEP ONE and STEP TWO.
This part is similar to the scientific method.
Take your theory of career paths and test them against the career values that you've listed in STEP ONE and see how well they work. Your goal is to be able to approve or disprove the career paths that you've narrowed down for yourself.
The important part of this step is being able and willing to disprove the potential careers that you've chosen for yourself.
Once you've gone through the steps, you're now able to take a closer look at the career path that best fits your needs and your values.
Now you're ready to move on to the “Test Drive” method.
STEP FOUR: Test-Driving Potential Career Paths
What does is mean to “test-drive” your career path?
Essentially, you're just dipping your toe in the pool of the career you've got your heart set on before committing to high-diving into the the deep end.
Here are examples of “test-driving” a career from Kathryn (from most intense to least):
1. An internship – Whether you're just getting out of school or are in-between jobs, an internship requires at least a 3-month dedication, but you're in the trenches at that point getting to know the job position (hopefully at a company and industry you're looking to get into)
2. Volunteering – Like an internship, you can volunteer your skills for a certain period of time to get that “on-the-job” feel at an organization of your choice. Volunteering is a great choice, since most organizations will let you do the work if you can outline your skills tailored to their needs.
3. Informational Interviews – This is your chance to ask all of the questions about the job. Ask the good, but also ask about the bad. Ask about the parts of the job that are mundane, tedious, and not so glamorous.
4. On-the-job Shadowing – If you can find an organization that gives the green light and you've got the time, shadowing someone throughout their daily routine is a great way to see it in action. Ask those questions and get all the information about the position as you can!
“You feel like if you switch careers, you've lost everything – lost everything you worked for, you lost that experience, [like] it was wasted […..] not if you focus on what I have learned, where have I grown, what skills have I developed.” – Kathryn Minshew
The career search process is more of an endurance run and not a sprint. This is a BIG life change that we're talking about.
Once you have done the work of laying out your values and following the steps that Kathryn has mapped out for you to narrow down your new career path, don't be afraid to test it out. When you're looking for a new career, it's definitely something that you want to be sure that you can sustain.
If you need help getting your career search started or need a little more direction before you start testing out your potential career paths, we’ve got the solution for you! Just apply for our coaching and we’ll set you up with one of our career coaches that can help you highlight your experiences and frame them in a way that will lead you down a more structured career search.
Head on over to www.happentoyourcareer.com/coaching to work with one of our coaches and figure out your new career path!
Transcript from Episode
Kathryn Minshew: That is a great question. The main thing I do is work on The Muse. I like to describe The Muse as people’s trusted and beloved place to navigate your career. I started the company five and a half years ago and we serve over fifty million people every year across the United States. Over 700 companies use us for employer branding, hiring, and to reach great people. The idea for The Muse was what if you created a career platform that put the human at the center that helped people figure out what they want to do and go get it; the job, promotion, or negotiate the raise. Then help them succeed in the career they have, be more fulfilled, acquire skills, and develop relationships at the office. After several years working at TheMuse.com my co-founder and I decided to wrap it up into a book which comes out on April 18th.
Scott Barlow: I have a copy and have read through most of it. I really enjoyed it. I cherry picked some of the parts that I was particularly interested in and was pleasantly surprised. We will get into all of that. I’m curious about your career first and want to dive into it because you have an interesting story of how you got to here. You have The Muse now but it wasn’t always that way. Right? You started your career in a drastically different place. You thought you’d go some other directions but it didn’t turn out how you thought. Where does this start for you?
Kathryn Minshew: I grew up in Washington D.C. We moved there when I was eleven. I decided quickly that my career was going to be in Foreign Service or international relations. As I grew up I was absolutely in love with the idea of being an ambassador, Foreign Service Officer, an international women of mystery. I don’t know if you watched the show “Alias” but Jennifer Garner played this badass heroin that spoke a bunch of languages and that was as comfortable kicking ass and working for the CIA as she was at a high end cocktail party. I remember thinking I could do that, that could be my career. It didn’t work out like that which I am grateful for.
After studying political science, learning French and Turkish, and traveling I had an opportunity working at the United States Embassy in Nicosia, Cyprus on the Regional Security Team. It was an incredible experience but not what I expected. I realized that the idea of a Foreign Service career didn’t match the reality. It set me into a massive period of career exploration. I thought about different paths, skill sets, and functions and spent a lot of time on job boards. I ended up taking a job at McKenzie Company as a consultant. I learned a lot but it wasn’t the right long term path. As I was thinking about what was next it struck me how insufficient a lot of the existing career tools were. Here is one example from when I was thinking about business strategy jobs. I went to a major job board. They all start with a giant blank search box which is frankly an intimidating place to start.
Scott Barlow: It’s depressing.
Kathryn Minshew: Exactly, because unless you are exactly sure what title you want it’s a terrible place to begin. I had no idea what to type in the box. Business strategy director is what I entered. The first job that came back was “assistant store manager” at 7-Eleven in Secaucus New Jersey. I remember thinking, you have got to be kidding me. This is ridiculous. It’s from that experience and the whole host of experiences that I started thinking about the concepts and ideas that would become The Muse. We didn’t get it right the first time, but my co-founder Alex and I essentially started a project that eventually become a company. It was a career advice related community, a blog platform for professional women. It didn’t really work out and it was ten months that was some of the hardest of my life but we learned core lessons. When we launched The Muse, Alex, Melissa and I, in 2011, we were ready. It’s been a wild ride. The timing was perfect because people were looking for what we were offering.
Scott Barlow: Let me ask you a few things. Let me go back to Cyprus. What were some red flag indicators that happened while you were there that got you thinking it wasn’t what you were after?
Kathryn Minshew: I was aware intellectually that a lot of Foreign Service work is fairly bureaucratic. There are a lot of people involved and progress is measured in inches. The reality of that set in while in Cyprus. I loved my co-workers and boss but they kept saying this field requires incredible amounts of patience. I realized I’m very action oriented. I like trying, experimenting, and failing and you can’t do that in international diplomacy. It’s challenging to try and fail because the consequences are on a large stage and trust is built over decades not just years, months, or days. Something else that struck me were the possibilities for advancement based on age. When you look at the State Department for example, if we are negotiating a trade deal or policy agreement or defusing an international crisis with counterparts in the United Kingdom, Russia, wherever it is: What would the perception be on the other side if you send a twenty-five, twenty-eight, or thirty-two year old in a senior position? It might not be good.
It was frustrating because I realized it doesn’t matter how smart, or talented you are, or how hard you work there are certain positions you won’t be able to serve in especially in a front facing capacity until you are a certain age. Not because your abilities or the intrinsic desires of the State Department but simply because if another country is going to make an assumption based on your age that has to be taken into consideration. I could go on but I had colleagues telling me, look you seem smart and driven don’t join the State Department right away. Do something else first. Go join the private sector for ten years then come back in your mid-thirties and you’ll have a great career here then.
I remember thinking that is great advice, thank you. It makes sense and I realized that there are a lot of places you can climb, move, or take on positions more quickly. Age is a factor, because there are times still, and I’m in my early thirties, where people say I seem young. Certain fields have structural challenges, more than others. That was one that might be a challenge for me.
Scott Barlow: You looked at yourself and said okay, some of these things aren’t lining up, a few are missing. You chose to pay attention to that. I see and have talked to so many people that know that and are aware of it. You’ve even sent us many people from the muse, many are listening right now and they haven’t acted on that. Question one is why did you chose to act on that, maybe because you are action oriented, any other reasons? What can other people do to not ignore that?
Kathryn Minshew: I’ll take them in reverse. I think a helpful activity is to look ahead at your boss and your boss’s boss. People that are in your path three, five, ten years down the road and ask yourself do I really want that job and am I willing to do what it takes day in and day out to get there. That can be eye opening because the career can seem glamorous from afar but when you are in the trenches you aren’t sure it’s where you want to end up or if the day to day requirements are worth getting there.
For me personally, I think I was fairly willing to accept that maybe I’d been wrong. Many people fall into that trap. They want something so bad, they work hard towards it then they finally get it and realize it isn’t right. What is hard is you feel a little like an idiot. I know from personal experience. I’d been telling people it was my goal. I had scarified and got to step one and there was a clear path ahead of me and there are voices in our culture that say you owe it to yourself to keep going or it would be embarrassing to stop now. I’m the kind of person that ignores those and says it’s better to get off the wrong path now. You feel like if you switch careers you have lost everything you’ve worked for, you lose the experience, and feel that it was wasted. People have said that to me, like aren’t you afraid you wasted all that time, especially when I was in the thick of it.
The experiences have informed so much of what I’ve done. You focus on what have I learned, where have I grown, and what skills have I developed. It’s not a loss, but it’s still hard.
What we wanted to do with the book “The New Rules of Work”, and themuse.com is to help people feel more supported and comfortable making those big changes. It is scary but if you know it’s not the right long term path it’s better to make a move sooner rather than later. The exception to that is if you can say, if I invest two more years I can get to x point and that will generally allow me to make a lateral move to y where I want to go. That is reasonable.
In the book we encourage people to look at your values, not what your parents and friends want you to do. Does the path line up? For me there was more I wanted from my career. It wasn’t an easy process. I sat on my coach for hours with books, papers, and charts. I was trying to get structure around the decision. I cried a couple times. At the end of the day if you know in your heart that it isn’t the right path it is easier than ever before to change to a new path. Not easy, but easier than before, and possible. That was part of the experience for me that made me passionate about helping other people make the same change.
Scott Barlow: Here’s what I love about that. And a little behind the scenes. Kathryn has been such a trooper because her voice is waning and she is still pushing through. You said in the book, “One of the new rules you prescribed is your education and skills gave you the experiences that brought you were you are today, but your past is a platform to spring forward from and not a ball and chain.” The opposite side of that is that many of us say if we change now that we are losing everything that was put in place that we worked for, that we have emotion invested in. When I read that I thought of sunk cost theory. All the emotion that goes into that causes you to make decisions that aren’t necessarily good for you going forward just because what has happened in the past or what you perceived you put in. I love that you are releasing us from that versus trying to say you must keep going down that track.
Kathryn Minshew: Absolutely. Sometimes it just helps to have someone tell you there is another way. It doesn’t make it easy but it is possible to take a foundation of experiences, learnings, education, goals and change to another path and goal. Leverage what you have learned and use it and look back in five or ten years and say I don’t know if I’d be as good as what I do now if I didn’t have those experiences in another field that others may think are tangential or wasted.
Scott Barlow: Let me ask you a little about the going forward piece. Like you I spent hours and hours sitting with books, charts, and excel spreadsheets. That is the type of person I am. We have that in common. What can someone do if they are really struggling? How can they get started if they are in this figuring it out limbo?
Kathryn Minshew: This is the focus of the first third of the book. I’ll try to summarize it. First start to layout a list of your values. We have a process called The Muse Method. At its core it’s about what do you value? For example, a person who values autonomy, independence, flexibility, and creativity will have a different ideal path than someone who values prestige, compensation, and stability. All of these things can be good but you have to ask what is most important to you. You can use your friends, family and colleagues to help. I love suggesting finding five people you respect, at least two to three you’ve worked with closely and ask them when they have seen you most focused and happy. What sort of activities do you feel I enjoy and lights me up professionally? You don’t have to worry about a path.
I loved reading about international relations, history, and discussing politics. But those aren’t the functions you play in a day to day job. Is it interacting with others, having control of what I do and when, or diving deep into numbers and coming up with insights from the analysis others haven’t seen? You can start thinking about yourself but also getting outside input to understand tasks and functions you enjoy and values that are important.
We help people run through a method of researching and assessing paths against those values. It’s basically the scientific method. You have a hypothesis and you have to go collect information to prove or disprove it. You have to be able to disprove. You can say I want to be a branding consultant. But using Alex as an example, she wanted to do this but when she sat down with someone at a major global consumer package goods organization they talked about how the team had spent time deciding between twenty shades of blue and she realized that would drive her up the wall. It’s not that the other person loved that part of the job but they could deal with it.
I think there is a theory that the good things are good generically but you want to think about the bad parts. What is the negative part that you are okay with? That you say it’s not my favorite but I get it versus what would really hurt and hold you back. There is a more complicated process in the book. I hope those tips help people see there are ways to get unstuck.
Scott Barlow: I’m curious about the values piece for you. What are some of the biggest values for you as you’ve progressed through your career even back in Cyprus or as you made progression doing some of the projects, and had growth where it didn’t work out as you anticipated? What values did you learn about yourself? What was most important to you along the way?
Kathryn Minshew: First, my day to day matters intensely. It’s not necessarily true for everyone. Some of the people I worked with at the State Department or World Health Organization in Geneva were able to be fixated on the larger mission of their work and organization that could obscure day to day frustrations. For me, I am action oriented, and I love to feel like things are happening moving and being pushed forward. A startup is a good fit for that reason. I love to feel like I’m constantly learning so when I do the same thing over and over again it starts driving me up the wall even if I enjoyed it in the past. I valued a career where my day to day would vary, where I would be constantly pushed and stretched, and made a little uncomfortable. I really value autonomy and control meaning that I will work ninety hours a week without complaint for The Muse but I like to know that I decide when I am working. I’ve been frustrated in previous roles when someone said I’m going to need you to stay in the office until this time or when I thought I was going to get out early and someone else arbitrarily decided I needed to stay late. It’s one thing when I decide or if the work is important and needs done. That is very easy, but I’m probably less patient than a normal person at feeling like someone else is trying to control how I spend my time and energy.
Scott Barlow: So no, “I’m going to need you to come in on Saturday” for you?
Kathryn Minshew: I can make myself come in on Saturday but it’s hard to hear it from your figurative Office Space style boss.
Scott Barlow: I’m the same way. It’s probably how I ended up in CEO roles in the past too. I can identify with that. A couple other things. You mention in the book, I’m flipping to the page, you mention test driving your career paths and I wanted to dig into that a little because I think it’s incredibly important. We get this hypothesis and people latch on to it like it is the thing and I’ll be awesome but they get there and are depressed because it wasn’t what they thought it would be. A different approach is required. You prescribe that too so what do you mean by test driving and how do people start doing that?
Kathryn Minshew: it depends on the career path but there are different ways to dip your toe in the pool before you face plant into the new career. It’s so important because once you are in it, it is harder to make a change. Not impossible but it’s better to know ahead of time. Let me start with the most intense to the easiest paths. On the more intense spectrum, if you are a student or at an age or place where it still makes sense, interns can be useful because they are temporary. No one will look at you like you were there too short of a time because it’s expected. It’s a low risk way but you sacrifice some comp. I encourage people if they aren’t sure to go that route because you get a trial period.
Similarly one of the stories we tell in the book, one of our friends was interested in moving into social media, she was active personally and thought it might leverage a lot of creativity that she didn’t have in her current job. She started by finding a small business or nonprofit and asked if she could work with them for three months on their social presence. She showed examples of what she would do. Someone gave her the chance. Put out a picture for a business on how you can help them. She found doing it nights, weekends, and on her lunch hour that some things she found were unexpected that she didn’t love. At the same time if she did decide to pursue it she has experience while not quitting her full time paying job. That is an intense way to test drive a new career.
Some less intense ways are informational interviews. Sit down with someone in your path and ask what they do during a day, what sort of people would love the job, who would hate it, and what are some of the worst things they deal with. What does it take to overcome those? These interviews can be valuable but you have to focus not just on the positive but on the grind and tough stuff. The right person will help you. When we started profiling employees on themuse.com and company profiles I wanted to get the feel of taking an informational interview online. If you are looking for an example, say you want to switch into sales or engineering, we have thousands of employees profiled online and you can listen to their videos if you don’t have someone directly to talk to. The combination of in person and online research can give you a sense of what a career is like. Go past the high level and hear about, for sales, the day to day rejection and decide if you are okay with that.
Some businesses will let people shadow for a day or week. If you have flexibility do that and step into the shoes of a future career. I know it seems like a lot of work and not everyone can do it. It depends on your current role, financial situation, and where you are in your career. One of the reasons I encourage people to think about it is the time spent up front – a week, couple days, a few months – if it saves you making a wrong move it’s a good thing.
Scott Barlow: I really appreciate that. We spend a lot of time on our show and company teaching these pieces. That is phenomenal. Two more quick questions. I appreciate you practicing what you preach even when it is hard, losing your voice and all. Kudos for practicing that.
Kathryn Minshew: I hope people know I don’t normally sound like this.
Scott Barlow: You still sound decent. No one would probably know if I hadn’t said anything. That is a dovetail into the next thing. The book is “The New Rules of Work: The Modern Playbook for Navigating Your Career.” There is good stuff in it. One off the wall question. I know you have seen a lot of changes in terms of what work even looks like, and will look like, and with that we’ve seen how you go about getting work and how it changes and the new rules of work. How long do you think before these rules continue to evolve?
Kathryn Minshew: I honestly believe they are evolving every day. There are major changes with each new technology. Google Hangouts and Skype are used differently today than three or five years ago. As the next things develop and generation Z enters the workplace it will change. My personal take is generally within a three year window, there is 80% consistency because people are resistant to deeper change. You can assume that if something held true two years ago, especially around human to human interactions, there are at least 80% of the bulk hold truth today. It is important to be aware of how things change. It’s interesting. As we looked at collecting the wisdom, stories, and experiences from the last five and a half years from The Muse and putting it into the book, a single point in time that people will sit down with on their couches, we had to be cognizant of that. My plan is to update the book regularly and we have the website to keep up to date. Anyone that thinks the rules of the workplace are changing isn’t swimming with the tide.
Scott Barlow: Yeah. Completely agree. I love that you are making those plans to update the book and have other methods to help people keep pace with it. Way to go. Virtual pat on the back because you are in New York and I’m on the opposite end of the country. Go check out the book. I’ve read through a bunch of it. I cherry picked but what I read was awesome. I highly recommend it. Where can people find it and find out more about you and the muse?
Kathryn Minshew: The book is “The New rules of Work”. It’s a modern book to navigate your career. You can hopefully find it everywhere, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Project Indy, or your local book store. If they don’t have it ask for the manager and ask them to carry it. Hopefully they will. That is a great way for book sales so if you do it I will wave and high five you from New York. We are launching nationally and expect to be at every major retailer. We have a page on themuse.com/newrules that has excerpts, worksheets, and more information. For me I am on Twitter @kmin. Go to themuse.com and we would love to hear feedback, have you engage with the site, and leave a review for the book or email me. So far the feedback has been good so crossing my fingers and toes. Some of the best things we learn are from the people who read The Muse and the book and push us on our thinking. I’d love for people to engage and let me know what they think.
Scott Barlow: I really appreciate you taking the time and making the time and coming on the show sharing everything from test driving to figuring it out and everything in between. Thanks so much Kathryn.
Kathryn Minshew: Thank you. I’ve had a lot of fun and I’m glad we could do this.
Episode Links and Resources
Guest: KATHRYN MINSHEW
Resources Mentioned on the Podcast