Career Change: The Questions You Need to Ask Yourself Now | Laura Sheehan | TEDxHanoi

Translator: Như Nguyễn
Reviewer: Zsófia Herczeg

I’m a lawyer and the wife of a diplomat. You know what I’m pretty great at? Talking! You can get me into a room with almost anyone, and I can find something to talk about. And when I meet new people, one of the questions that I love to ask is “How did you come to be here?” And I don’t mean by taxi or grab a motorbike, but how did you come to be here at this point in your life? And the answers always leave me riveted because I never could have anticipated that I would be here – in my life or in Vietnam.

I grew up – I spent the most of my childhood in small-town Ohio, a state that calls itself the heart of America. And I didn’t get my first passport until I was 18. A few years later, when I met the man who was to be my husband, I had only ever left the country once. And when I met him – oh, wow! He was smart, and he was handsome, he was witty, and he was going places – literally! So, it took me a few years to convince him to marry me. I totally chased him. (Laughter) And at the same time, I was pursuing my law degree.

Well, so when I graduated from law school, we got married. And in one year, the first year of our marriage, and the first year of my career as “Laura, the lawyer,” my husband came home, and he says, “You know what? I’ve got a job that can take us overseas. What do you think?” I said, “Oh, you know I’m kind of torn here.” I mean a life of travel and adventure or a clear and distinguished career path? I don’t know. I mean exotic locations, great food, new people, fun and exciting times, or I could stay “Laura, the lawyer.” And I worked really hard for that, you know. I spent years and years of time, and thousands and thousands of dollars invested in that title, in that career track, in that trajectory.

And I wondered if I followed my husband in his job overseas, what would happen to mine? Well, I had to figure it out. So, off we went, and there we were: overseas, oh the fun, oh the adventure! Yes, there I was, at home, alone, with no job. Oh, what had I done? And I’ll never forget the moment when I realized the impact this choice might have had on my career. I was standing in the elevator at my husband’s office, and a woman comes in, and she says, “Oh, hi! Are you new here?” “Yes, I am!” She says, “Great, welcome! Do you think you’re going to be looking for a job while you’re here?” “Yes, I do!” “You know, a job in the mailroom just opened up, you should check it out.” “Wow! Thank you! The mailroom!” (Laughter)

Was Laura, the lawyer, destined to sort mail? No, don’t get me wrong. Sorting mail is a very important job, and one that can be lots of fun from what I’ve been told. But it is a job that didn’t hold much meaning for me, didn’t make me feel like I was fulfilling my life purpose, like I was living up to my full potential. And the question made me wonder, “Had I sacrificed my career, my chances for success by following my husband?”

Now, at the time, it certainly felt like it. And I was sad and angry and resentful. And these feelings are not unique to me or to the ex-pat population or to anyone who considers themselves a trailing spouse or an accompanying partner. It can also be the parent who chooses to stay home and raise children, or the child who once grown returns home to take care of an aging parent. Here in Hanoi, it can be the educated woman who when she decides to get married, leaves her family to join her husband’s. It’s anyone, anywhere who chooses to change their life course for the sake of, for the love of another. And of course, we love our spouse, we love our kids, we love our parents and we would do anything for them, and that’s why we make those choices – it’s to be with them, to support them. But when we do that, we sometimes also can’t help but wonder, “Well, is this what I was meant to do?”

Now, was I meant to sort mail? No! I didn’t end up working in the mailroom, and yes, I did find a job everywhere we lived: Tunisia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Israel and Vietnam. And in every place, I have held some really interesting jobs. But I thought all of them were a big fat nothing because I wasn’t moving forward as Laura, the lawyer! And I was miserable. Until I got to Hanoi, and within my first few weeks of arriving here, I was invited out to a lunch with a few new friends. And as it does in any getting-to-know-you conversation, the question of work came up. “So Laura, what do you do?” Ugh! I hated that question because I never knew how to answer, right? Well, I was a lawyer but we moved, and I had this job and this other job – and ugh, I don’t know! Poor me, I don’t know what I do, I’m not really sure. And so this woman looked to me and she said, “Well, if you could do anything, what would it be?” Wow! If I could do anything! Now, that’s a question that I hadn’t been asked since I was a child. And it blew my mind – I mean it had me stunned. It rendered me temporarily speechless. And when I thought about it, I thought, You know, I could do anything. I didn’t have to stay on the track of being Laura, the lawyer. I could be and do something different.

And when I thought about it, I started realizing that all the things that I had done along the way, all the titles had been very different, but I had been doing the same things all the time. I suddenly saw that each of those pieces were fitting together. And it felt fantastic! True, I had not accomplished the same things that my law school classmates had accomplished. But I had done a lot. I had lived all over the world, and in every place, I had found a way to move forward, to grow. I may not have succeeded at moving forward as Laura, the lawyer, but, wow, did I do well at being Laura, the motivator; Laura, the advocate; Laura, the writer; Laura, the persuasive speaker.

And looking back and looking forward, if I could do anything, well, I think I would like to help other people gain this amazingly empowering perspective that I had just been gifted. And so here I am! And it took me 16 years and jobs in seven countries to get here and to realize that I had found success in every place.

So please, let me save you some time in your journey. There are three key steps that you can take to find success anywhere you are.

Step 1: Be open to and ready for change. In 1989, Charles Handy wrote a book called “The Age of Unreason.” And in it, he predicted that careers would be a portfolio of different jobs rather than one position that lasted for decades. Guess what? He was right. In 2007, the New York Times recognized that when it comes to careers, change is the only constant.

If jumping off track once was stigmatized, it now has cachet! Career change has cachet! At that time, they predicted that people would change jobs an average of three times. But by 2010, the number had jumped to seven. By 2015, the number had jumped to 10. And in March of this year, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated 12 to 15 careers per person. 15 careers per person! That’s right, if you haven’t changed job not just once but a few times, you’re behind the times! (Laughter)

Changing jobs can be a strength. It can be an asset in your professional development. It can show that you’re flexible, adaptable, resilient, and that you have creative problem-solving abilities. In Handy’s words, change, after all, is only another word for growth, a synonym for learning. We can all do it, and here’s the key: Enjoy it if we want to – which leads us to…

Step number 2: Embrace the experiences, ditch the titles.

Today, a successful career is not based on a single job title, the same job in different locations. It’s the process of diligently developing and then quickly adapting a set of skills to answer life’s challenges. I might not have been Laura, the lawyer every place we lived, but in every location, I served as a talented writer, a persuasive speaker, an advocate for those who needed my voice. These were the common threads that tied my professional experiences together. So ask yourself, What are the skills you consistently use in every thing that you end up doing? Therein lies your strength, your story, your path to success.

Author Jeff Goins wrote the “Art of Work” recently. It’s a really great book you should read it. In it, he encourages you to think about your work as an artist’s portfolio, where each piece stands on its own and is its own beautiful work, but when compiled into a portfolio, clearly illustrates the progress that the artist has made, the growth that she has come through in the years. In your work, your careers, each seemingly unrelated experience stands on its own, but can also be viewed as a contribution to a collective whole, a beautiful collage of a career that you are creating. By ditching the titles and embracing the experiences, you expand your employment options, and you can better enjoy the journey.

“But, okay Laura, how do we land a job?” Great question! And this is the key.

Step number 3: Make meaningful connections. All theory and warm fuzzy feelings aside, on a very practical level, creating real life connections through actual conversations can enable and empower you to find success. Despite the plethora of internet-based job boards that are out there, 85% of jobs are still filled by word of mouth, by personal connection. Is it really a surprise that someone needs to know you in order to recommend you, in order to want to hire you?

So, plug-in! Not with devices, but with people. Ask questions, seek advice, tell the world what you want to do so that when those opportunities arise, they think of you. Start today. Go and have a coffee, or get crazy, have an entire meal with someone whose job really intrigues you, someone whose activities interest you, someone who you just think that you’d like to get to know better. Start a conversation.

And if you’re looking for a way to get that talk going, I’ve got a couple of great questions that can start you on your road. When I meet new people I love to ask, “How did you come to be here? And if you could do anything, what would it be?” Thank you. (Applause)

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