Pivot Before You Leap

You are smart, hard-working, motivated, creative, and hungry.You will not be satiated by the status quo. You have a penchant for change. You aren’t asking for easy, you are asking for meaningful. You have been working for long enough to have a solid base of skills, innate strengths, on-the-job-experience and a great network of contacts.

But something is still missing.

You are at a fork in the road. Or as I’m now calling it, a pivot point.

Pivot Point: when you become aware that you’ve hit a ceiling and it is time to make a change.

Here are the choices as I see them:

The Pivot Point (Diagram via JennyBlake.me)

Pivot Analysis Paralysis: The Broader Context

  • During the paleolithic era we hunted and gathered in groups.
  • During the agricultural revolution, we worked a farm to feed ourselves, each a small business unto itself.
  • During the industrial revolution we perfected the factory system: specialization and technology. We followed steady, predictable templates in life and work.
  • During the information revolution we started to leverage computers, the internet, and globalization. We automated and outsourced. We streamlined. We climbed the ladder.
  • Now, in the knowledge economy, we are at risk. We must pivot or be pivoted.

We know too much, we have access to too much: we hit a self-actualization ceiling and become paralyzed by the glut of choice, the uncertainty of the job market, and the imperative to create meaning and impact.

These economic factors have created a perfect storm of fear: if we don’t create, we become obsolete.

And yet, something rings hollow about the zeitgeist that swept the blogosphere a few years ago: quit your job and don’t look back!

Where are those people now? Are they happy? Some are still self-employed and thriving, some headed back to corporate work, others created a hybrid of both. There are no value judgments, none of these is wrong or right. But the admonition to take great leaps! (in my very own words) should be caveated with a very important skill: leap from what you know.

If you haven’t yet figured out how to get from where you are now to where you want to go, the pivot will help you start.

The skill you need to succeed in the knowledge economy

There is no bigger destroyer of creative potential than the misguided decision to preserve. Companies that cannot bring themselves to pivot to a new direction on the basis of feedback from the marketplace can get stuck in the land of the living dead, neither growing enough nor dying, consuming resources and commitment from employees and other stakeholders but not moving ahead.

. . .  A pivot requires we keep one foot rooted in what we’ve learned so far, while making a fundamental change in strategy in order to seek even greater validated learning.” —Eric Reis, The Lean Start-up

Eric Reis, author of the business bible Lean Start-up, defines a pivot as “A change in strategy without a change in vision.”

Pivoting is a skill set, and it is one you can get better at.

To my knowledge, pivoting started as a basketball term and was later commandeered by the business world, specifically agile start-ups who are often required to shift their strategy dramatically to survive. After all, Twitter started as a podcasting service and YouTube used to be a video-dating site.

But as I described in my post on approaching your career like a caveman, people are distinctly not companies.

People are hopeful, irrational, fearful, passionate entities. A human pivot isn’t always as straightforward as slapping on a new mission statement. Thus, an intensive area of study for me in recent months has been the idea of a Human Pivot as it relates to major life and career changes, and I’ll be writing more about it moving forward.

The Career Pivot

I've observed dozens (if not hundreds) of people through years of coaching at Google and on my own: the most successful career-changers are agile AND strategic about doubling-down on what's working to build a bridge from where they are now to where they want to go.

Lately I've been going back to the basketball analogy: I believe change meets less resistance when we can root down in our strengths (the plant foot) while scanning the horizon for new opportunities (the pivot foot). This is much less painful when done from the vantage point of our existing assets (à la Strenthsfinder 2.0), rather than groundlessly zig-zagging all over the the career court like a drunk bee.

A mistake many of us make is to search aimlessly with frustration, never truly acknowledging what is already under our belt. So many times during my confusion last year I wish I would have started with what I did know, what was working, rather than berate myself for what I thought was missing.

Pivot Before You Leap

In contrast to the 180, I’m defining a career pivot as the following:

Career pivot: a strategic move in which you double-down on your assets (strengths, connections, experience) to launch into a new direction.

While it may appear from the outside that quitting a corporate job to start my own business is a huge leap, in hindsight I see it more as a series of pivots:

  • When I worked at the start-up company in 2004, I managed our AdWords advertising account and taught myself HTML.

  • When I moved over to Google in 2006, I took a role on the Training & Development team to train hundreds of new AdWords customer service reps (who were fresh out of college). I launched a global training team website and taught HTML & CSS training classes during my 20% time. I also started a website called Life After College.

  • I then pivoted from teaching about AdWords to teaching and creating programs on the Career Development team in 2010 (after previously completing coach training on nights and weekends in 2008). I helped build and launch a global program that made coaching accessible to all employees.

  • When it came time to leave in 2011 after my sabbatical for the LAC book tour, I pivoted from an internal coach to a self-employed one. Coaching became my “bridge” income to support me while experimenting with other streams of income, and it is still the foundation of my business today.

A 180 would have been quitting my job to become a full-time yoga teacher—instead, my most recent major pivot was doing coaching and career development at Google, then leaving to do those same activities on my own.

I pivoted the context of my work, but didn’t dramatically shift the content of it. 

Moreover, I built the bridge to self-employment by starting a side hustle so that I didn’t have to make such a dramatic blind-faith leap, but rather could walk along a more steady path of incremental growth until it was time to make the BIG move of leaving.

More recent still was pivoting from the Life After College blog and book to this site and accompanying new ideas—a pivot still in progress.

For those of us who can be risk-averse, who can feel afraid or get rocked by uncertainty, pivoting can be a framework for building meaning without driving ourselves crazy trying to create from scratch.

But what if you pivot and the outcome is not what you anticipate?

It almost never will be. 

The real question is, what will you regret more: shifting or staying in the same place? Are you willing to fail to know that you have tried?

I’d love to hear from you in the comments:

Looking back, what is a major life or career pivot you’ve made? How did you take what was working and parlay it into a new direction? Are any of you at a pivot point right now? (I’d love to collect stories and potentially interview you for a future book!)