By Jaya Saxena • February 14, 2015•Writers in Residence
It seems like store aisles turn pink as greeting cards and heart-shaped chocolates fill the shelves just as the holiday season is winding down. Given that we are inundated with merchandise and messages about love in the days and weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day, it’s hard not to write this month’s blog post about that very topic – love. In this case, though, I write about discovering what you love to do through experimentation and networking.
“Experiments allow us to flirt with our possible selves.”
Experimentation is a key concept in Herminia Ibarra’s book, Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career. She describes the value of trying out – or experimenting with - new professional activities in order to discover what might be an appealing option or path to pursue. She goes on to elaborate on ways to experiment – by engaging in side projects or taking a course or acquiring additional training in a particular area. Experimenting in these ways allows us to try out a different role without making a firm commitment; it allows us to figure out if the role or activity is one that we enjoy before making any long-lasting decisions. Sound a little like dating in order to discover one’s perfect match?
Much of my career, dating (no pun intended) back to college, has involved experimenting although I didn’t really view it as such until after I read Ibarra’s book several years ago. My undergraduate course of study was interdisciplinary so I dabbled in a variety of coursework – policy analysis, history, creative writing, information systems, art, among other subjects. I was involved in numerous activities, including writing for the university paper, and being a Resident Assistant and Sexual Assault Advisor. During college, I spent my summers in various internships whether it was interning on Capitol Hill or working at a local nonprofit.
After I decided to pursue a legal career, I continued to experiment in law school. During my second and third years, I took a combination of practical courses and courses that just seemed interesting. I did pro bono work and participated in a clinic, both of which allowed me to experience lawyering in practice, and not just in theory. I spent my summers in internships that intrigued me and, along the way, I discovered an interest in philanthropy.
Since graduating from law school, I’ve held numerous legal (and non-legal) positions – all of which were extremely meaningful to me. I was flirting with various possible selves. When I was working in one of my prior jobs, I enrolled in a graduate program in health and wellness coaching. It was an area I was interested in and I took classes on the side. Through this experimentation, I realized I was ready to make a change. Blending my legal background with my coaching skills seemed to be the perfect marriage, and that is how I came into the work I currently do, which is career advising for law students.
On the surface, one may think I didn’t have focus or direction or know what I want; each experience, however, was rooted in my values and helped me gain clarity and direction along the way. As with dating, we learn from our relationships and, hopefully, gain a similar sense of clarity about the qualities and characteristics that are most important to us in a partner.
I encourage each of you to do the same – to experiment and explore in order to discover work that you love to do. If you’re a law student, try on different roles through internships, pro bono work, and clinics. I think the first summer is a particularly good opportunity to explore, and I often advise students that realizing what you don’t want to do is often just as valuable as figuring out what you do enjoy. If you’re a practicing attorney not entirely fulfilled in your current role, consider picking up a side project to explore another area of interest. Take the time to flirt with possible selves so that you can fall in love with what you do.
Networking (or building relationships as I like to call it) is like dating.
I once heard someone liken networking to dating, and that analogy has stuck with me ever since. Another way to discover what you love to do is by making connections, conducting informational interviews, and building relationships (aka networking). Usually, when I describe it in this manner to students I work with, they chuckle. And, moments later, they seem to have an a-ha moment when they realize it’s a fitting comparison.
We often focus on the value of building relationships in finding employment, which is, in fact, true. Studies have shown that the majority of jobs are found through networking. An additional benefit is being able to learn more about different fields, career paths, or industries by having conversations. Just as we can gain information through experimentation as previously discussed, we can also get information through the conversations we have with others.
So, how is networking like dating you ask?
- They both involve putting yourself out there. Whether you approach a stranger at a networking event or ask a new contact to meet for coffee, you have to put yourself out there in order to have the possibility of forging a new relationship. I, ultimately, think it’s best to network in a way that works for you – much like one should only consider online dating if comfortable with that approach for meeting people.
- They both involve a risk of rejection or lack of connection. Once you gather the courage to reach out to a new contact, there is the possibility that the person will not respond or be too busy to meet with you. Or, you may speak with or meet the person and realize you simply don’t connect.
- Once you establish a new connection, the next step is figuring out how to maintain and nurture that relationship over time. For many students I meet with, this is often the trickiest part; it’s one thing to meet someone for coffee, but then what? Maintaining relationships is actually much easier than many realize. Perhaps you send the contact an interesting article, congratulate them on a noted accomplishment or milestone on LinkedIn, wish them well during the holiday season, or share a professional update.
By experimenting - flirting with different possible selves - and building connections, we can start to discover what we might love to do. And, when we love what we do, it is much easier to be authentic in the same way that the best relationships are those in which you can truly be yourself.
In the spirit of love,
 Herminia Ibarra, Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career (Harvard Business School Press 2003).