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Women@Work

Why every worker needs to construct a backup plan Add to ...

In popular culture, we love the backup boyfriend.

You know the type: the romantic interest waiting in the wings, leaving the audience to wonder which guy our beloved protagonist will choose. Will it be the obvious match or the unexpected one?

So what about backup careers? Many of us secretly harbour fantasies about what else we’d do if social convention didn’t expect us to be so “monogamous.” Most of us will change jobs several times in our working lives, but somehow anticipating your Plan B too early in your career smacks of failure – as if we don’t expect Plan A to work.

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The truth is, many of us will fall out of love with our first choice, or maybe we resent having to choose altogether, and the sooner we embrace the idea that multiple interests make us human, not just indecisive, the happier we’ll all be.

Brampton, Ont.-based Aarti Motala struggled with duelling interests. The 27-year-old excelled at math and completed a master’s degree in financial mathematics. Her education landed her a job at financial services firm Citco as a profit-and-loss analyst and then at risk-analysis firm Algorithmics as a financial engineer, but she felt something was missing.

“It was really my education that landed me both jobs, so I can’t say I was ever drawn to them,” said Ms. Motala, who also had an interest in beauty and fashion. For years, she flip-flopped between the two interests. The day she handed in her master’s thesis, Ms. Motala flew to London to take courses at the London College of Fashion. She returned home four months later to take her chartered financial analyst exam. She now works as a full-time makeup artist after completing a course at Toronto’s George Brown College.

Few data exist to show how many times a person changes careers, in part because it’s difficult to nail down exactly what constitutes a change, but the number of jobs a person holds during a lifetime may provide some indication. A study by the U.S. Bureau of Labour Statistics showed that younger baby boomers, those born between 1957 and 1964, held an average of 11.3 jobs from ages 18 to 46.

While a desire for greater job satisfaction was likely behind a lot of these moves, unemployment and underemployment are also good reasons for a Plan B.

“Everybody, no matter at what level, or how secure you feel in your current job, should develop and be working on a Plan B,” said Dana Manciagli, a career coach in Bellevue, Wash., and author of Cut the Crap, Get a Job!

The key to a successful Plan B is being prepared. Ms. Manciagli suggests asking yourself some hard questions: If I lost my job today, what exact position or function will I start seeking tomorrow? What new skills do I need for my next job and how am I developing them? Who are the key people I want to meet who could help me get promoted or change jobs?

“Choices is my favourite career word,” Ms. Manciagli said. “At any level, from college graduate to senior executive, you will be able to propel your career forward when you have choices.”

For some, too many choices can be overwhelming and it may be challenging to distinguish between what we’re good at and what we like to do. But that understanding is critical for career satisfaction.

Leigh Gauthier, a career coach and director of the careers centre at University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, suggests focusing less on titles and more on strengths.

“In the MBA space, we see a lot of people resetting their career. As a starting point, we first ask ‘Who are you?’ not ‘What do you want to do?’” said Ms. Gauthier, who added that most people naturally gravitate toward things that capitalize on their strengths.

“Figure out what gets you excited to get out of bed in the morning, because then you are leveraging your strengths.”

Discovering that your chosen career is not your passion can be devastating. One senior manager in an Ontario accounting firm turned down a partnership opportunity – a role she worked hard for – after realizing her career choice didn’t make her happy. She is weighing her next steps.

“I feel like I could write a novel on what I should have done better so many years ago instead of continuing to trap myself in a career that sounded impressive but was a poorly fitting jacket,” said the manager, who asked to remain anonymous.

“If I could do it over, I would have given more of my non-office hours to nurturing personal passions that I have long forgotten or didn’t consider worthy of my attention any more,” she said. “Instead, I gave those hours to postgraduate designations to put after my name and a board position that did offer me many advantages but didn’t speak to me.”

An eye-opening warning from a committed careers monogamist.

Leah Eichler is founder of r/ally, a mobile collaboration platform for enterprises. E-mail: leah.eichler@femme-o-nomics.com

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