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Prototyping and experiments have become increasingly common the past decade in business ventures and decision-making. Canadian-born entrepreneur Jennifer Turliuk feels those same techniques can help you find the perfect career. It worked for her.

Unhappy with her career path after Queen’s University, she realized that like most people she had put more effort into getting a job than figuring out whether it was something she actually wanted and would enjoy. “There’s plenty of research and advice out there on how to write the perfect resume and ace the interview. But when it comes to figuring out what you want to do with your life, the strategies aren’t so clear,” she notes in her book How to Figure out what to do with Your Life (Next).

She bought into an idea from career expert John Krumboltz: Test out the different career experiences she was interested in using the most low-commitment way possible for each option. To dip her toes into various work possibilities she cold e-mailed possibilities to secure shadow experiences with companies. She ended up spending one to five days in a variety of organizations, getting a feel for the work, learning from the people and helping out where she could. That included a day following then-Kiva CEO Matt Flannery, down to accompanying him on his walk in the park when he needed fresh air to clear his head.

She encourages you to find people whose career paths you admire in companies you would like to work for and see if you can shadow them for an afternoon, a day, or a week. “And don’t be surprised when they say yes, or even if many of these experiences lead to job offers – without you even asking for them,” she writes. “One thing that really surprised me during my experience was how easily approachable, open, and helpful most people are.”

When seeking prototyping opportunities, try to offer value in return. In her cold e-mails she tried to make a personal connection and in some cases just asked for five minutes of their time to learn from them. Another technique is to approach someone after they have talked at a conference or university.

More generally, based on her discussions with Mr. Krumboltz, she developed these guiding principles for careers:

  • Focus mainly on what you want to do now: There are many things you might be interested in over your lifetime. But what possibilities are the ones you most want to try next?
  • Just do it!: It’s easy to spend eons of time thinking and reflecting, since career choice is a big dilemma. But you will learn more by trying and doing things than by discussing theories and mulling the possibilities over and over. Try something. If it fits, stick with it. Maybe down the road there will be another career shift needed or maybe what you have found is lifelong.
  • Every work experience is valuable: You can learn from a job even if it’s not your ideal one. “Everything you try is a learning experience, and you shouldn’t view yourself as a failure if you end up not liking it,” she says.
  • Set a fun limit rather than a time limit: A big issue we can face is how long to stay in a job – at what point is leaving acceptable on our resume and at what point does it suggest we are a dilettante who doesn’t commit to companies that hire us? “Don’t be a slave to your CV,” she advises. If you are enjoying the job, stay. If not, leave. It’s the fun limit that matters, not the time limit.

And when you exceed your fun limit, remember to prototype your next career rather than leap into something without a test.

Quick hits

  • Should you ask your job interviewer about the competition? HR consultant Tim Sackett suggests you can, delicately, with this question: “What have you seen in others interviewed that you really liked about what they would bring to this position?” Or: “Was there something you were hoping to hear from me, or others interviewing, that you’re not hearing?”
  • Beware of circular communications. That’s what happens, says consultant Steve Keating, when you don’t like a direction from your boss and share it with other colleagues, picked because they will be sympathetic, who in turn talk to others, until the boss hears you think he makes ridiculous requests. It wastes everyone’s time, hurts morale, and, here’s the biggest danger, may be a sign you will be a weak leader because you have learned to communicate to someone through others rather than directly.
  • “Unless it’s perfect, we’re not going.” That attitude, notes entrepreneur Seth Godin, is not true of any person we have hired, any project we have sponsored, or product we have purchased – none were perfect. But it’s a great excuse for avoiding the things we’re afraid to do. If you’re hoping for inaction, look for perfect.
  • Behavioural economics has suggested we are averse to losses – losses loom larger than gains when we contemplate taking a risky decision. But a new set of studies suggests a refinement: When people see an opportunity to be courageous and want to see themselves as courageous that may actually lead to a preference for the riskier option.
  • Be the first to reach out after an argument, says leadership coach Marcel Schwantes, rather than letting resentment fester and cutting off a work connection.

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