3 Steps to Reinventing Your Career

Geoff Williams

"Reinvention" has become something of a buzzword and even a cliché in recent years - it pops up often throughout print and digital media, and for good reason. The world we live in has changed dramatically. A kid growing up in the 1980s who thought he might be a business owner someday never would have predicted it would be an online business operating on eBay. Many adults don't have resumes; they have LinkedIn profiles. And although the economy has shown a lot of signs of improvement, plenty of people still appear to be underwhelmed by their career choices and wish they were doing something different with their lives.

The numbers, at least, suggest many of us would like to reinvent ourselves. According to an April poll from global management consulting firm Accenture, which surveyed 2,015 recent U.S. college graduates, 41 percent said they consider themselves underemployed or in need of more training. Last year, Right Management, a subsidiary of the staffing firm ManpowerGroup, released a survey culled from 411 American and Canadian employees showing that 44 percent were unsatisfied with their work. And on it goes.

So if you're looking to reinvent your career, here are some strategies to consider as you embark on your journey. After all, it's one thing to say or feel you should reinvent yourself. It's another to actually figure out how to do it.

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Dreaming is for bedtime. Not that you shouldn't aim high, but it's wise to be realistic about where you are in your life and where you're likely to go. "Reinvention should be done as a natural evolution of your current skill set. Going from a rock star to an accountant is fiction. Teaching history from being an accountant is reinvention," says Karissa Thacker, a workplace psychologist based in Rehoboth Beach, Del., who has consulted with more than 50 Fortune 500 companies.

Granted, there is an exception for every rule, so ignore everyone's advice if you feel really strongly that you should drop your teaching position to become a circus clown. But for most people, changing that much would probably be a mistake, says Chad Oakley, president and chief operating officer of Charles Aris, Inc., a global executive search firm based in Greensboro, N.C.

"The No. 1 mistake I see people make when trying to reinvent themselves is to make a 180-degree turn from what they are doing currently, or what their experience has been in the past," Oakley says.

He adds that the most successful career changes are to an adjacent industry or function. "People can really derail their career when they make a two-step change, like trying to change your industry and function at the same time," Oakley says, adding that if you're going to completely transform, you'd better "be 110 percent committed."

Figure out your second or third act. Deciding what you want to do is the most difficult thing about career reinvention, since everyone has a different job history and life story, not to mention skill set and personality. But Thacker suggests people who want to reinvent ask themselves two important questions: What would I do if I wasn't afraid? And: What are the pros and cons of attempting a reinvention?

"I advise people to just write down their first responses to these questions on a sheet of paper without filtering their thoughts," Thacker says.

And whatever new career path you start mulling over, do what you want to do, not what you think the public is clamoring for (although if you like what you're doing, and the public does, too, that would be swell).

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"A major mistake people make in trying to reinvent themselves is to do it based on facts or figures - what looks like it might sell," says Leslie Becker-Phelps, a clinical psychologist based in Basking Ridge, N.J., who writes for Psychology Today and WebMD.com. "However, no matter how well-versed someone becomes in an area, this won't work if the person does not really connect with their new identity. Their interest will sound shallow or won't hold up with time; or they will give up easily when faced with obstacles."

Once you have some ideas, "test-drive your path before jumping into a new career," suggests Dorie Clark, author of "Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future." She says people might consider joining a nonprofit board, if that's feasible, to "develop new skills or try out a new industry. Volunteering on a political campaign can allow you to make valuable connections and deepen your knowledge of the issues of the day."

She adds that there is a company called PivotPlanet.com (formerly known as VocationVacations), which you can pay to shadow people in different professions, or just talk to them about their careers on the phone or via video conference. In-person, it can cost $250; most one-hour sessions, the website says, range from $40 to $125. The site has a slew of professions, including screenwriter, karate school owner, antique dealer, mortgage broker, nonprofit fundraiser and on and on.

Tell people about your reinvention. But be careful about how you do it, and when you do it. "If you know where you're going, it's a great idea to reach out to friends and colleagues for support or connections," Clark says.

But if you share your new career plans before you're really set on taking this new path, and you change your mind: "You may risk looking flaky ... causing others to be less likely to want to help you in the future," she says.

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Clark also suggests developing what she calls a reinvention narrative. "You might assume it's clear to others why you're making the transition, but it's often not," Clark says. "So work on developing a short explanation [of why you're making a change], so others don't come up with random or negative ones of their own."

Sure, you might be thinking, "Who cares what other people think?" But remember, if you want people to help you get where you want to go, it matters. It matters a lot that they don't think you're in the middle of a midlife crisis and worry that aligning with you is something they will soon regret. If you're like most people, you're not going to reinvent you career alone, so you need to inspire everyone's confidence.

Reinvention, after all, is not easy. That's why people are fond of another cliché, the one about not needing to reinvent the wheel. Imagine what it took to make the wheel the first time.