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Six Tips on Career Reinvention
By Kirsten Olson,
Author of Wounded by School: Recapturing the Joy in Learning and Standing Up to Old School Culture

Hard times mean reinvention. While there is lots of practical advice on the internet about career reinvention -- tips on updating your resume, repackaging yourself, and dealing with your money worries -- they're really not the biggest barriers to reinvention. The most significant obstacle to reinvention is fear -- fear of failure, fear of looking foolish, fear of "discovering" your own limits.

Reinvention means facing yourself in new ways, and most especially confronting old concerns, sometimes long buried. While everyone is likely to feel some shame about losing status in the reinvention process, and awkwardness about starting over, a "willingness to feel insecure," in the words of someone I interviewed for my latest book, is the first step in reinvention. Because personal development happens in response to the learning we do from change, reinvention means growth and has huge upside potential. But fears are real, and they often stop us.

When pondering reinvention, how do you face your fears -- the real ones -- full on and whole heartedly?

  1. Be Gentle With Yourself. This is a moment when you need to be kind to yourself, to allow your "real" concerns to emerge. What are you really worried about? What (or whose) voices are you hearing when you get into a negative spiral of fear? A harsh and bracing pep talk about just going for it, at this moment, may not serve your purposes. Create a space for some non-judgmental internal dialog, to allow self-understanding to emerge.

  2. Deal With Your Emotions Honestly, But Don't Foment Them. A calm approach to observing your emotions -- here they are, I see them -- will help you gain perspective on your fears. This habit of observing your emotions, not dispassionately, but with kindness, is a practice Buddhist teacher Tara Brach calls the "not me." You "see" your emotions, but aren't roiled by them. This habit of observation also helps you see that everyone may have similar concerns -- you are not alone.

  3. I Could Have Many Jobs. UK blogger and FAILCamp founder Ben Whitehouse recently commented, "Two more jobs later and I'm still curious about the world, still looking to find my niche in the world. I've learned that I could have a thousand different jobs and that's ok." Whitehouse's FAILCamp celebrates failure as life's biggest teacher, and highlights the learning potential of mistakes. This is one way of understanding the fear of screwing up: it's natural, and whatever happens in career reinvention, there is a lot to be learned. Also, most of us, before we are 30, will have at least four of five different jobs. Reinvention is natural, normal -- and so is messing up.

  4. Hills Instead of One Big Mountain. Authors Claire Shipman and Katty Kay, in their new book Womenomics describe how women's careers have a different pattern than men's: hills and valleys instead of climbing one big mountain. Reinventors of any gender may find the same -- the old narrative of working for years to finally reach that summit of success may be changing forever. We all have to understand our career paths in new ways: that apparent diversion down the alleyway may not be a detour after all, but the path to a new and better work. One school founder I work with, who has been an organic farmer, a media space salesman, and a drug and alcohol counselor said, "Every job has helped me create the school I am making today."

  5. The Process of Knowing You Is Long. Someone in a reinvention workshop said that whoever coined the phrase, "I'm getting better every day" must have had a great fantasy life. "Most of us arrive at a sense of self and vocation only after a long journey through alien lands," observes writer and activist Parker Palmer in his book about vocation, Let Your Life Speak. The real nature of your inner fears, as you think about career reinvention, may not be immediately apparent. Give yourself time.

  6. Find a Mentor or Spiritual Advisor. In nearly every spiritual tradition, where the path is uncharted, journeyers find mentors or spiritual advisors. You may need a business mentor, or someone to help you grow along the way, to help you see your path. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness, but of true strength. "I knew I was more fearless when my impulse was to ask for help, not hide and try to do it myself," one of my clients remarked.

Sometimes facing our fears means simply reaching out to someone who has been there, failed, and survived. As they note over at FAILCamp, Pablo Picasso said, "Success is dangerous. One starts to copy oneself and copying oneself is more dangerous than copying others. This leads to sterility."

Reinvention is scary, with lots of opportunities to mess up. That's what also makes it so fun and exciting.

©2009 Kirsten Olson, author of Wounded by School: Recapturing the Joy in Learning and Standing Up to Old School Culture

Author Bio
Kirsten Olson, author of Wounded by School: Recapturing the Joy in Learning and Standing Up to Old School Culture, is a writer, educational consultant, and national-level Courage To Teach facilitator, and principal of Old Sow Consulting. She has been a consultant to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Kennedy School at Harvard University, and many large public school systems and charter schools.

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