Like many people in their mid-twenties, I’m grappling with a career change. I know that I need to switch fields; that’s a no-brainer. But to which field should I be switching? And what guarantee do I have that the new career will be an improvement? Heavy stuff, definitely not the kind to approach by yourself, if you can avoid it.
I went to my learned sister Kara, who’s never at a loss to dispense advice. She loaned me a copy of Richard Nelson Bolles’ seminal book on the topic of job-hunting and career-changing, What Color is my Parachute? It’s a great book, very practical, useful, and witty. He has some fabulous advice on any job-searching topic you can imagine, and his website contains some interesting supplementary articles.
“To thine own self be true”
One of the things I like about Parachute is that he lays out a systematic, methodical approach to changing careers. Rather than diving into a premature dissertation on the best resume fonts available, he begins with a fundamental self-evaluation process. This is based on Bolles’ strong belief that everyone contains a unique and invaluable set of skills, traits, and interests. Where they intersect indicates an individual’s best career path (or paths!). This process of self-awareness and stocktaking is called the Flower Exercise (I might have chosen a different name). It begins with a sub-exercise used to identify your Favorite Transferable Skills.
First you create a rough list of every skill you can legitimately claim. This is done by writing seven short stories, each describing something you have done in your life. Each story must start with a goal, something you wanted to accomplish. It must also have an obstacle you needed to overcome. You then write a step-by-step narrative of how you proceeded, followed by a description of the result (quantified, if possible).
Next you analyze each story for the Transferable Skills you used. To make this easier, Bolles had created a hierarchy of Transferable Skills. It contains nearly 70 skills, divided into three categories: Physical, Mental, and Interpersonal. They progress from being highly prescribed (”Serving, Taking Instructions, Helping”) to very discretionary (”Mentoring” and “Negotiating”).
You have now created what amounts to a random statistical sampling of you life experience, and the Transferable Skills they have called upon you to use. Some of them you may not have enjoyed using, and some may not be your greatest talents, but they encapsulate a rough description of your core competencies. They are part of what makes your contribution to the workplace truly unique.
Once you have a tally of your Transferable Skills, you strike off those that you don’t enjoy, or that only appeared infrequently.
Next you must prioritize your Transferable Skills. Bolles has created a grid that simplifies this process. You list each of your skills on a chart, and compare it to each other skill, one at a time. Each time, you pose the question, “If I could only use one of these two skills, A or B, for the rest of my life, which would I rather it be?” Each time you choose a skill, it receives one point.
After you’re finished making your comparisons, rank and each skill based on the number of points it received, and re-order the list. You just systematically prioritized your list of Favorite Transferable Skills. Would the Dead Poets Society approve of this method? Probably not, but consider the possibility for human error engendered by the use of naked intuition. Is the process mind-numbing, time consuming, and soulless? Yes. Does it ensure that you get a thorough, objective picture of your preferences? You betcha.
“Come Mr.Tally-man!” My Prioritizing-Process
I’m a big fan of Dead Poets Society. I’m not such a big of manually crunching numbers. Perhaps it’s necessary, but it’s also boring beyond comprehension. After a while, my eyes begin glazing over, and my brain starts begging for the opportunity to do something more interesting. Twenty minutes after trying to do the Prioritizing Grid by hand, I knew there had to be a better way. Heeding Peter Drucker’s First Element of Effective Decision Making (The Effective Executive), I accepted that the problem was generic and scalable, and would be best addressed by the creation of a system.
I created an Excel document with three worksheets, each of which would be able to handle lists of different sizes: 10; 24 (a tribute to Jack Bauer); and 40. I spent about two hours, and created what seemed like a great formula for tabulating the final score of item. It didn’t work. So, I labored for another 45 minutes, and crafted an even better second version. No dice. After another hour, I realized that my algorithm was “backwards” (not sure how that happened). I corrected it, and voila!
The Proof of the Pudding
With my template document in place, I handily prioritized my Transferable Skills. I also plowed through my Favorite Subjects, which came from another of Bolles’ career-changing exercises. In fact, many other exercises from What Color is my Parachute requiring prioritization; each one was readily dispatched by my fantastic tool. Generating the formula was a bit of a task, but it’s saved me hours of heartburn and carpal tunnel.
In case you were wondering, my prioritized Favorite Transferable Skills:
- I am a proactive, thorough, planner.
- I am a methodical organizer.
- My managerial style is marked by a deliberate attempt to be both decisive and supportive.
- I’m an adept instructor, with a teaching style that is flexible and fun. I love teaching individuals, but also enjoy running larger educational events.
- I try to remain patient when getting things done; persistence is the key to consistent results. Act in haste, repent in leisure.
- Written communication is one of my favorite conduits for creativity. I employ a writing style that is slightly jocular, without losing its tact, professional tone.
- I make thoughtful appraisals, and diplomatic recommendations.
- When assessing individuals, I always strive to make evaluations incisive and objective.
- My mind works in unusual ways, which often allows me to find unique ways to synthesize information.
- I’m a sensitive, responsive coach.
- When communicating to groups, I try to be commanding, succinct and personable.
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