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My Path to a Fluid Career

"I am large, I contain multitudes." —Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

My super power is not being one thing, but many things. I am an example of the new fluid careerist. What’s a fluid career? It’s a way through life that leverages a collection of experiences, expertise, roles/titles and spans multiple industries. Fluid careerists navigate ambiguity and are nimble. We’re restlessly driven by curiosity, have a passionate need for excellence and aspire to self-awareness.

This is a new opportunity. In 1978, my father began his career selling parts at a Dodge dealership, in Bellingham, WA. He would go on to work in Sales and Marketing for Chrysler and successfully climbed the corporate ladder, reaching the apex of his career as interim president of Chrysler Taiwan. While at times he entertained new opportunities, he stayed with Chrysler for 30 years.

These days, our career paths don’t look like those of our parents. Mine certainly doesn’t look like my dad’s — in fact, my degree is in ceramics. I’ve been an artist, teacher, graphic designer, recruiter, and in HR/Operations. Now I’m an Experience Design (XD) consultant.

My fluid career reflects my upbringing. I’ve lived in three continents, four countries, and 16 cities. As a Third Culture Kid, my formative years were spent in Sydney and Taipei. When you grow up abroad, you have to be flexible and adapt quickly to any situation. We learn to reflect, process and adjust in any given situation and that leads us naturally to a life of fluidity.

Go Forward with Strategic Boldness

Developing skills isn’t a linear process, where you start on one path and get promoted into roles of increasing seniority. For me, it was a series of leaps, building upon what I had already learned, instead of packing up previous skills and knowledge to leave behind, forgotten.

I first came to graphic design when I left my first job as an assistant art teacher and cultural assistant at an international school in Beijing. Cleaning up glitter after kindergartners wasn’t as glamorous as it sounds, but what was appealing was the occasional graphic design that I had done.

That giant leap took me back to the United States. I wanted to reinvent myself and carve a new path. Although I had never thought of graphic design and visual communication as a career, it made sense to me, and it built upon my experience and interests.

Strategic boldness is about taking a giant leap, but not a blind leap.

You must first understand the bet you’re making and why it will or will not benefit you. Picture yourself in the future at your new job. Does it make sense to you as part of your story? Look at the bag of skills that you currently have, and understand how your great leap forward will take you where you want to be. It’s particularly important to be honest with yourself that this isn’t just the new shiny thing that’s catching your eye.

Ultimately, this was just the beginning of my fluid foundation, from which I would be able to continue building my career.

Finding New Strengths

Sometimes you don’t know you have the right skills. When I went back to school to study visual communications, with the goal of becoming a graphic designer, I realized after ten months and $25K that I didn’t need a formal “design education.” I needed to work in a work environment where I could learn by doing.

I began temping as a recruiting coordinator and executive assistant at a large advertising agency in Chicago, thinking it would be a foot in the door to the “creative” industry. I was both right and wrong. While I found myself designing recruitment collateral and starting up a recruitment social media strategy, I wasn’t moving into a more design-oriented role.

The journey was the destination. Even if the role wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do, it allowed me to explore different paths and develop new strengths. I realized I had strengths beyond being creative: business acumen, a passion for research, and a knack for connecting people. This was when I truly started to come into my fluid career.

You’re More Than Your Title

I joined Thoughtworks as a Talent Scout in 2011 to help hire Experience Designers to build the practice in North America. Fast forward to a few years later, when I became an experience designer myself.

Titles are labels; once we receive them they are hard to get rid of. And sometimes, they can be limiting to our opportunities. As a consultant, I understand the reasoning behind having a title, it gives our clients a better understanding of what they are paying for.

When I transitioned into my role as an Experience Designer, I was put into the “visual designer” bucket, as this was my core strength. However, I have yet to be staffed as a Visual Designer!

Your title doesn’t mean you shut off all your other skills.

At first, I wondered why I was given this title if I wasn’t doing any visual design. Ironically, my title was limiting my own self-awareness about my opportunities. Your title doesn’t mean you shut off all your other skills. Working with my team for a Thoughtworks client, I found myself doing everything from business analysis to interaction design.

We live in a world that prizes specialists, but you bring your skills with you across roles. The value I provided my team was far greater than any design skill. This ability to identify an opportunity to employ other skill sets within the confines of one title, is a fluid role.

Embrace the Many

It hasn’t been easy to embrace the many aspects of myself. It’s not enough to just accept your fluidity and your ability to identify opportunities to apply it. The largest and most important part of embracing the many, is understanding and defining what the many is.

Tackling the challenge of how to talk about your skill set can be especially daunting. You might still be struggling with what your skill set is.

Try to organize your skills. For example, my strengths are visual design and research. Then cherish and share the experiences where you thrive and contribute the most. My example here would be: “I think my super power is the ability to stretch and mould into any situation. I thrive when I’m dropped onto a project and there is a necessity to figure things out.”

Your definitions aren’t going to last forever. They will change as you change and grow with the addition of new skills and experiences.

Fluid careers are the new normal. We are all different and our careers are beginning to reflect that. Don’t be scared to take leaps with strategic boldness as you move throughout your career. As I grow and change, putting all of these parts together has been the most exciting aspect of my career—and I hope it will be the same for you.

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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