Ten ways to improvise your career | Women's Agenda

Ten ways to improvise your career

A great career can often seem to follow the perfect script: The actor remembers her lines, sticks to what her director had planned, and basks in the applause that comes with success at the end.

But having interviewed numerous women on just how they’ve managed their careers over a long period of time, I’ve learned that successful women – seemingly more so than men – depend on a degree of ‘career improvisation’ in order to ensure their work and ambitions suit their shifting life circumstances. They don’t follow the script. They forget their lines. They make it up as they go.

See more on what I’ve written about career improvisation here.

Below are ten lessons I’ve picked up on how women who do and achieve remarkable things manage to ‘improvise’ their careers.

  1. Accept that change is uncomfortable

    If it’s not taking you out of your comfort zone, then it’s not much of a change. Exploring new career paths, new roles, new industries and opportunities should feel uncomfortable. It should take effort, force you to learn new things, have you meeting new people and push you to new limits.

  2. Intertwine your career and life goals

    While career and life goals can be determined separately, they need to be considered together when determining whether both sets of goals are actually compatible with each other. Is there much point achieving a career goal if it leaves your life goals in tatters? Think about how you can achieve both, or whether you’re really willing to sacrifice one for the other.

  3. Keep one thing during your improvised career: your values

    There’s one thing that should remain consistent while improvising your career — never compromising on your own values. Those values we hold should always be the underlying theme to guiding career changes and transi- tions. It also helps to always remember your strengths, and to carry these with you as part of the improvisation process.

  4. Keep learning

    Read and continually consume information relevant to your job, industry and career. Getting on top of the latest trends will set you apart from everybody else in your field and see you able to identify gaps in the market and untapped opportunities. It’ll also provide great conversation starters for the chance encounters that will inevitably come up. Become a sponge — soak up everything you can on the habits, values and teachings from role models, mentors, sponsors and peers you respect.

  5. Make “improv” a daily habit

    Get comfortable with dealing with change and the unexpected by making “improv” a daily habit. Practise asking questions and coming up with solutions on the fly by doing it in your daily conversations. It’s a risk, and it’ll involve opening yourself up to scrutiny, but it’ll also see you come up with new ideas, and provide great training for the situations that require a major leap into the unknown.

  6. Consider why you’re procrastinating

    Improvisation takes work. It’ll sap your energy and brain power. It involves taking risks, backing yourself and trusting your own judgment. That means the areas of life and work we need to improvise are often the last ones we want to get to. The next time you’re procrastinating — no matter how big or small the task — consider what’s really going on. Perhaps it’s your own lack of experience or skills that terrifies you, and if that’s the case, break through it and move on.

  7. Consider changing your role

    This involves truly throwing away the script and being prepared to re-invent the part you thought you’d play. It’s uncomfortable, but if you’ve kept yourself informed on the possibilities you should be able to slip in and out of different character roles as required. Consider changing your role, industry or career no matter how much you’ve previously invested in it. What would it look like? Would it be worth it? Considering such options does not mean they have to be pursued, but it does present a personal willingness to remember change is possible.

  8. Remember mistakes are ok

    Mistakes are a natural part of the improvisation process. Failure can be a great motivator to take on a new lesson and learn something for next time. Fail fast, fail often, and your ability to improvise can only improve.

  9. Prepare to be satisfied, but continually wonder about the next big thing

    There’s nothing wrong with feeling satisfied but getting too comfortable could leave you plodding along, waiting for opportunities to find you. If you can’t see what comes next, make up some possibilities.

  10. Leave dead-end jobs and pick your employers well

    Don’t stick around in a job or with an employer that’s not working for you because you feel you should clock up a certain number of years on the resume. And don’t wait around thinking a manager or company culture will change with time. If you can’t work to change an employer or situation for yourself, get out of there. If the passion, ambition and drive are gone, it’s probably not coming back and you’ll need new opportunities and experiences to find it again. Get hunting: talking, reading, exploring. And forget the idea that employers are picking you — turn that around. Shop for the leaders and managers who are supportive, reflect your values and genuinely appreciate what you bring to the business.

This is an edited extract from Angela Priestley’s book, Women Who Seize the Moment: 11 Lessons from those who create their own success.

Why some of the most successful women improvise their careers.

Angela is doing three sessions at the Vitality show this weekend in Sydney and sharing more lessons from her book. Check out her three sessions, occurring on the ‘Empowerment Stage’.

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