When we were younger, we were always asked: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Our answers usually sounded something like, “A zoo keeper! Or a cook! Or a singer!”
It’s almost as if we were raised to think we could only be one thing. But what if we swapped out each or for an and? If we said we wanted to be a zoo keeper, and a cook, and a singer, we’d be painting a much more fulfilling — and realistic — picture. These days, nothing is as simple as it seems. Even finding a career that you want to keep is so much less common than it used to be. Studies have shown that people are now more likely to change their job 10-15 times, with 5-7 major career changes, over their lifetime.
Recently, I started to think about my own career path. I always knew I wanted to be a teacher, but then my focus shifted to psychology. I swapped from psych to literature once I started college, and ended with degrees is literature and philosophy. After having an existential crisis about needing a stable career, I got a master’s in library and information science. But my first job out of college was at a marketing agency! What happened?
In fact, that trend has been brought up to me a few times, and the only explanation I can offer is, “I wanted to learn a lot of different skills.” And that’s true. But like many people I know, pursuing my passions has led me to take on a lot of different roles.
What is a Non-Linear Career Path?
As the modern workplace is changing more and more each year, people are seeing new opportunities to pursue their passions and test out different roles. Some people are fulfilled and happy staying in their original field for years, like many doctors and lawyers. Others prefer to jump around and spend a few years working as a bank teller before trying their hand at working on a horse farm — or vice versa.
A non-linear career path can be any grouping of experience that seems unrelated – and, nowadays, it’s one of the most common paths to take. For those of us who started in one industry and then found ourselves happily working in a completely different field, a non-traditional trajectory is the norm. It’s easy for some to see how having such a varied employment history is beneficial. For others, it’s a sticking point that brings up concerns about company loyalty and skill levels.
Is Switching Careers Just a Millennial Thing?
Decades ago, many people started working in a field and actually stayed in that industry for the majority of their life. Sure, they often moved up in the company and took on more administrative roles, but over 40% stayed within the same company for more than 20 years.
This is a huge contrast to how frequently people from younger generations switch careers. A close friend of mine earned a degree in psychology and worked on a ranch before teaching English abroad for a few years. Now, she’s looking into cosmetology school because of the freedom it would give her as a free contractor to mix art, skill, and stability into one brand new career.
But this isn’t just a trend for the younger folk in the workforce. Everyone from a stay-at-home parent, to a chronically ill person, to a military official looking to start their life as a civilian, can experience success through non-traditional career paths.
How You Can Find Your Career with Non-Traditional Experience
Because switching careers and jobs is often frowned upon, it’s important to take the time to figure out why you moved around so much. Did you have a slew of “unrelated” positions, held for a year at a time, because you were a student who moved every year? Have you been a stay-at-home parent? Were you simply trying to find your calling?
By giving yourself the space to reflect and plan out your next steps, you can prepare a killer resume and make a great case about why you deserve your dream position, despite the variances listed in your past work experience.
Find Your Next Transition
Whether you’re re-entering the workforce after a few years off, or you want to move on to the next big thing, you’ll need to figure out what your next step is going to look like.
For people who are looking for a drastic change, you’ll have to get to the root of this desire. Have you always wanted to build something with your hands rather than sit behind a computer screen? Do you want to leave your established medical career to advocate for women in need? Answering “yes” to these types of questions can help you narrow down what kind of job you may want to pursue next.
You’ll also want to find out if you have an ultimate goal in mind, or if you want to continue keeping things fresh with new roles in the foreseeable future.
As you continue to develop along with your working career, you may notice yourself gravitating to one particular type of job across different fields — such as accounting for a bank, vs. a small tech company. Any interest you have, or trend in your past work experience, can give you more insight toward finding the next job you’ll love.
Know What You Like (and What Won’t Work for You)
Some of the best advice I’ve ever received is to come up with a “survival plan” to get to the root of what you want — and don’t want — from a position. Jumping into a new position without knowing what you’re getting into isn’t the right way to curate a non-linear career path — it’s a recipe for disappointment.
Instead, make a list of potential jobs you could see yourself working in for several years. Then, take things a step further, and ask yourself which ones you could see yourself working in a decade or longer. This will reveal what you’re willing to commit to — and where your passion really lies.
Next, make a list of “Must Haves” and “Cannot Haves” for potential jobs. For example, if you’re someone who enjoys flexibility at work, you’ll want to add that to the “Must Have” list. If you know you don’t want to work directly with clients, you can add that to the “Cannot Have” list.
This exercise can provide some guidelines for your search. Though your goal should always be to find that one perfect career for you, remember to be reasonable and open to some compromises.
Framing Your Experience in the Right Context
One of the most essential steps in a non-linear career path is to create a strong framework for your experience. This means making a strong connection between each of your past experiences; explain what drew you from one to the next. Though it’s clear to me why I personally choose to go from literature/philosophy to information science to marketing, the reality isn’t as obvious to someone who doesn’t have the right context. Your resume should reflect the connection between each position you’ve held, and demonstrate that you have a strong work ethic and willingness to learn — no matter what you try your hand at.
Then, make the connection from those past experiences directly to your potential position — and make those connections very clear to your potential employer. What skills did you learn in those jobs that make you the perfect candidate for this new position?
Create a framework for your career by outlining each experience under a single lens. If you want to enter the marketing field, for example, highlight the creative, technical, and collaborative skills you developed in each position. This is a great tactic for transitioning your traditional resume, where each job is “explained” in it’s own bubble, to a modern one that connects each part of your career together.
Put a Spotlight on Your Transferable Skills
If you’ve had a career full of diverse positions, you have something that many other people only hope to develop: a lot of transferable skills.
In fact, putting a spotlight on your transferable skills is one of the most important steps in applying to a new position. Once a potential employer begins to see the framework of your experience through your resume and cover letter, you can step up and add further depth to your abilities by closing the loop on your skills. Whether this happens during the interview, or even throughout the time you work there, make sure you explain how your skills from past positions can be expertly applied to your new job. One of the most valuable things to an employer is versatility. If you can demonstrate that managing a household budget and directing a few renovation projects is applicable to an accounts manager position, you may prove to be more useful than someone who has followed a straight college-to-career path.
Regardless of what path you take in your career, keep in mind that you should always stay true to your passions and curiosity. With the right reasoning and framework, any age and demographic can thrive in a non-traditional career path — and enjoy whatever level of stability and flexibility you desire.