I recently wrote an article about the difference between Planned vs. Emergent Career Strategies.

The career plan is one you create at the beginning of your career when you have the least amount of information. The emergent strategy sometimes reveals itself in the process of pursuing the original career plan. New information emerges that was not available at the start of the process.

After receiving dozens of comments and follow up questions on this topic, I thought I would address the many practical considerations in contemplating the pursuit of an emergent career path including:

1) Is it necessary to quit the planned career to pursue the emergent career instead?
2) What if the emergent career path results in unemployment instead?
3) Fear of failure in the emergent career
4) What will my parents, friends, peers think?

Let’s dive in:

1) Is it necessary to quit the planned career to pursue the emergent career instead?

Not at all. IF you have spare time in your current job, there are numerous easy, practical ways to explore emergent career opportunities without having to quit your current job first. This is actually the ideal starting point because you make progress in one direction, without having to give up (yet) an opportunity in the old direction.

In the emergent career path, I would recommend you read industry publications, attend industry events, network with people in that field, and set up informational interviews (e.g., take people out for lunch or coffee) to learn about their careers.

I especially found the last one really useful. I contacted my university alumni relations department and asked to speak with alumni about their career choices. I ended up having about 10 – 15 meetings in New York and San Francisco. I met an investment banker, an equity research analyst, an EVP at Wells Fargo (one of the top 10 banks in the U.S.), a venture capitalist, and a management consultant.

Good questions to ask are:

  • What were you hoping the job was like?
  • What surprised you about your job?
  • What’s the best thing about your job? What’s the worst?
  • If you don’t mind sharing, what was your schedule like last week? What did you do? What time did you get in to/leave the office? Were you traveling? What activities took up most of your time?
  • When people leave your profession, what are the most common reasons? Where do they end up going?
  • What kind of person likes this kind of work? Which kinds of people end up hating it?

As you hear their answers, try to imagine yourself in that job.

Notice your reaction. Do you get excited? Or are you cringing?

2) What if the emergent career path results in unemployment instead?

One common concern is: What if I quit the job that I hate to pursue the career path I think I would like more, but end up unemployed instead?

This is a classic risk management problem.

(Side Note: I worked in McKinsey’s financial institutions group and got to understand risk management really well. Finance, especially lending, is an interesting business where you know your revenues today, but you don’t know your costs until 10 years later — which is based on who does or does not repay their loan.)

The person over wedded to the planned career (especially if they happen to hate it) tends to believe the best risk management strategy is to take no risks.

They tend to think of risk management in black and white terms — as opposed to shades of grey. The planned career = 100% safe. The emergent career = 100% risky.

The extremes are simply not true. There is enormous risk in staying in a career that you’re unhappy in, including risks to your happiness and your productivity (it’s hard to excel when you’re miserable).

The most profitable banks were not the ones who never issued a loan, nor were they the firms that issued loans to everyone. In banking, as in career planning, the most “profitable” zone is to manage risk in the middle — the so-called “shades of grey.”

To oversimplify, there are three ways to manage downside risk:

  • reduce the probability of a bad event happening
  • reduce the severity of the impact from a bad event
  • extend the time you have available to adapt and overcome “bad” events

Using strategies to learn more about an emergent career path before quitting a job is one way to increase odds of making a good decision, and to reduce the financial cost in case one of your potential career paths isn’t a good fit.

Aggressively saving money to buy yourself 3-6 months of living expenses, if not more, gives you the time to adapt and overcome the inevitable obstacles that come your way.

The other option is to see if your family can provide a financial backup plan in case anything goes severely wrong. Yes, it is worth considering the option to move back home with mom and dad as part of the plan.

I have been fortunate that my parents have always been willing to take me back into their home if I should ever need a place to live. I haven’t ever needed to, but knowing that I had a backup plan allowed me to take risks in my career, to try new things, and to pursue the emergent path knowing I would be unlikely to starve to death if things didn’t work out.

It is also worth looking at the reversibility of a decision. If you leave your current job or profession, do you have the option to go back? When I left McKinsey to form my own startup, I had left McKinsey on good terms — meaning I could go back pretty much anytime I wanted to with just a phone call or two.

As a result, taking the “risk” to start my own company was not that big of a risk — because I could always reverse my decision to leave consulting to go back. And if McKinsey wouldn’t take me back, I was pretty sure I could get a job at a boutique consulting firm.

I find many people underestimate the reversibility of leaving a profession they hate. Yes, you can always go back to being miserable if you want! (Half kidding.)

Just give it some thought.

If you are a good but miserable engineer, could you quit for a few months and would someone else hire you again as an engineer?

Sometimes, I think the perceived risk is substantially higher than the actual risk.

It’s also worth having some perspective.

I find often the people who are the most successful with the greatest employability are the MOST worried about being unemployed.

Here’s an example from one of my readers:

“I did Engineering school, worked at Monitor, then came to business school to go back to MBB (oversimplified version but true!). But during the past 2 years at school, I developed interests in the areas of high-growth tech startups and would be starting my career in one soon. I am finding it EXTREMELY difficult emotionally to manage this pivot from ‘Planned Career Strategy’ to ‘Emergent Career Strategy.’ Every few days, I realize my mind is trying to convince me to fall back to the ‘successfully miserable’ career plan.”

Look, if you have an engineering degree from a good school, worked at a top consulting firm, got an MBA from a good school… hey, you got desirable and rare skills!

If you’re young and don’t have kids, don’t have a mortgage, don’t have aging parents financially dependent on you, how much risk do you really have? That’s especially the case if you have the option to return to the career you are considering leaving.

If you’re not sure how much risk you have, ask someone 20 years older than you what they think about your situation. They may just laugh at how many options you have available to you.

It is WAY harder when you have a mortgage, kids, and aging parents to take care of. People in those situations still do pursue emergent career paths, but it is a lot more stressful because so many people are counting on you.

3) Fear of failure in the emergent career

Another common concern is: What if I fail in the emergent career? That’s certainly a distinct possibility. The way to manage this risk is to know what you are getting yourself into.

My oldest daughter really wanted to get a pet guinea pig. She thought that it would be warm, cuddly, and cute (and they are). But before I agreed, I insisted that she be well informed on how to take care of such animals.

She ended up reading several books on the topic, took notes, used post-it notes, and really studied the material — which was unusual given her age (10 years old).

But she learned about their diet, medical needs, common illnesses, social and psychological needs (yes, apparently guinea pigs can get emotionally depressed… ya learn something new every day).

So, when she finally did get a guinea pig, she knew what to do. While she complained a lot about having to read those books, in the end, she admitted it was a good idea.

Even though she had read the books, the actual work was harder and took more energy than she had thought it would.

Now, why did I have her do this as a condition of getting a pet?

First, to reduce her risk of “failing.”

Second, I knew if she “failed,” I would be the one cleaning up guinea pig poop for up to the next 10 years. LOL… so yes, I was managing my own downside risk too!

So, the first way to legitimately reduce the risk of failure is to learn as much as you can in advance. The other is to know yourself, in particular, your strengths and weaknesses. It is an enormous benefit to pursue a career that takes advantage of your natural strengths and competitive advantages.

For myself, I know I’m pretty good at troubleshooting complex problems. I also know I’m terrible about anything aesthetically creative or anything that requires disciplined repetition. I consciously avoid opportunities where my weaknesses are liabilities and focus exclusively on opportunities that harness my strengths. This strategy alone is profoundly useful.

Do not pursue jobs where you are destined to stink! (Even if it’s prestigious, your friends think it’s a good idea, it pays well). If you are not cut out for the work, don’t set yourself up for failure!

It is so much smarter to pursue work that is well matched to your strengths and interests — even if it’s a less prestigious or socially admired profession.

It is better to excel in a “B” profession than to suck at an “A” profession.

4) What will my parents, friends, peers think?

Finally, what do you do when the people around you disapprove of your emergent career path choice?

First, do take the time to listen to their concerns to discern any legitimate issues.

Second, keep in mind they are basing their assessment on their values and their goals — not yours.

If their assessment differs dramatically from yours, try to determine their values (e.g., What do they think is important? Safety? Money? Prestige?) and their implied goals.

See if those values and goals match yours. If not, discount their assessments to reflect the difference.

Ultimately, you pursue your dreams or you end up pursuing someone else’s dreams (either your employer’s, parent’s, or friend’s dream).

Either way, everyone always pursues a dream. The only question is: Whose dream are you pursuing?

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