I was asked to give the 2019 Interdisciplinary Lecture at York University and there was so much interest in the talk at the event and afterward on social media that I thought I’d capture the highlights here as well. The talk was on designing your career for the future. I start by describing the early influences and academic experiences in my life and career and then summarize my 21 recommendations.
I believe that everything you do in life contributes to who you become as a person and to what you pursue in your career. I therefore think it’s important to reflect on the early life as well as early career influences. My family moved from The Netherlands to Canada when I was eight years old and that experience had a profound impact on me in deeply appreciating immigrants and those whose native language isn’t English as well as anyone who’s different from rest. I also held numerous physical labor jobs during high school and undergraduate university, everything from bailing hay on farms to being a janitor in a hospital. Those experiences made me appreciate and value people who do those jobs and it also inspired me to pursue additional education. I still go out of my way to thank the janitor who collects my garbage at work every day.
Studying, singing, and playing music were my passions during high school and music was also my part-time job during that period playing in a house band every Saturday night. Music gave me confidence in front of audiences, something I to this day appreciate. I decided to not make music my career though thanks to an insightful teacher but I instead pivoted to my other passion, helping people. I therefore initially focused on clinical psychology including doing clinical practica at psychiatric hospitals and corrections institutes and also on cognitive science in general. It was my PhD research into cognitive, affective, and physiological processing of information that led to my final pivot to design. All the research I conducted was done using computers and I relied on research assistants supported by my Medical Research Council Fellowship to run those studies.
Interestingly, a job ad at the university resulted in only male students applying for the position even though the university population was heavily female. I decided to investigate and carried out six studies into things like gender bias in computer advertising, early childhood experiences with computers, and ultimately the impact of computer user interface design on levelling the gender playing field. I next pivoted to the field that was then called human-computer interaction design and in turn created optimal design patterns for positive engagement as measured by self-report, behavior, and psychophysiology. I presented the results of this work at an academic conference which led to media interviews and a call from IBM asking whether I had ever considered working for the company. My answer was “no, but I recently read a great book about the founders of IBM who impressed me, so I’ll give it a go”. I accepted the job and said that I would give it a year which has now extented to more than three decades. Even though I’ve been with the same company all those years, I’ve taken on new and tough design leadership challenges every year or two which have given me a wide set of interesting and insightful experiences especially over the past six years in order to continuously learn and develop in my career.
Experience & Skill Confluence
All of these experiences have led me to value diversity in all forms including gender, race, age, ethnicity, SES, life experience, the crafting of experiences from every pixel on a screen to entire stage performances, a focus on improving the human and animal condition by empathizing with the individual and improving upon current conditions, and the incredible power of research methods and big data with a focus on user research, psychometrics, and data science. And I now enjoy sharing my experiences on this blog and through my mentoring, teaching, on my podcast. It’s also important to note that careers are often not a direct path but rather a circuitous one with each turn or pivot contributing more skills and insight to the base and resulting in building deep and broad expertise.
I’d suggest you similarly look at your past to acknowledge positive influences that you should amplify in your career and look to experience more influences moving forward.
Here then are my twenty-one recommendations for designing your career for the future.
Focus on your passions and aptitude to decide on a career or career change - not necessarily what your parents or friends advise. Many people come up to me to say that they completed their first or second degree only to find out that they don’t have a true interest in the subject they’ve been studying when it comes to actually practicing it in the real world. Others realize that after many years of working in a field that it isn’t for them. It’s common for them to say that they went into that field due to strong influence from parents or friends. Take the advice from parents and friends but make sure to also consider what you’re truly passionate about and also what you have a particular aptitude for in order to choose a major and a career.
Practice foresight to imagine what that career might look like in 10 years or so. We’re living in a time of rapid change so make sure to apply the future proof test to any candidate careers you’re considering. For each potential career, think about how that career could be impacted given current trends in technologies like AI and societal trends.
Talk to someone who is in that career to ensure you understand what it’ll be like. Taking a subject at university isn’t the same as practicing it in the real world. You may enjoy studying a subject but not at all enjoy a job in that field. So, I advise seeking out someone who is a field you’re considering and asking them to have a coffee with you to ask about what it’s like to work in that field. You may want to go further and ask to what’s called “shadow” that person or others to see first-hand what the job is like. This will prevent the experience I mentioned in #1 above of people having completed a degree or two before they decide when they go to work in a field that they don’t in fact like it.
Authentically listen, and listen more than you talk. This is a good advice in general but also the way you should approach #3 above. Try not to simply find evidence to support your own views but truly and authentically listen and learn without you talking the majority of the time. Any talking you should do should be questions to better understand the role you’re considering.
Take courses in adjacent disciplines - business, design, engineering, etc. Most university programs are myopically focused on a particular discipline which is great in order to develop deep knowledge and expertise in that field. However, success in the workplace often requires awareness of and experience in adjacent disciplines so take courses to learn about adjacent disciplines. Of course, you can also take those courses in adjacent disciplines once you’ve started working too.
Attend multidisciplinary workshops and hackathons - it’s a team sport. Some disciplines taught at universities are very restrictive when it comes to students taking courses outside of the discipline often due to accreditation requirements. If that’s the case in your discipline or even if it isn’t but you want more ways to broaden your knowledge and experience while you’re still at university, take advantage of multidisciplinary workshops and hackathons that may be offered at your school. They’re a great way to get to know others outside your field and to learn something about their fields and how your discipline relates to theirs. This applies equally if you’re already in the working world.
Seek out mentors to gain insight and leverage experience. This applies to those of you at university and also those who are already working. Mentors are incredibly important all through your career. I regularly come across people who are trying to figure everything out themselves but much of what they need to learn is only available or most readily available directly from people who have that knowledge and experience. So reach out to someone to be a mentor, even a temporary one for a single session. Most candidate mentors feel honored to be asked and are willing to help you.
Get the experience yourself through internships and/or first jobs. Another way to make sure a discipline is right for you and to gain experience is to take advantage of internships and/or co-op jobs. They’re a great way to get insight into what it’ll be like to work in your discipline and to also get work experience which is also helpful for your resume and if relevant portfolio. You can explore similar experiences if you’re already working but want to change jobs or careers.
Consider intrapreneurship inside a company. When I ask for a show of hands of who is interested in starting their own company and being an entrepreneur, a good majority of hands go up at most student events. I agree with Venture Capitalist Joe Kraus of Google Ventures who says, “Want to be a founder, get a job”. Getting experience in an established company is great knowledge to acquire if you want to start your own business and for an increasing number of people, being an intrapreneur inside a company is also a desirable career and for some, in fact the best of both worlds.
Be a T-shaped person with deep skills in one area but also learn other skills like design thinking. A T-shaped person has deep discipline skills (the vertical stroke of the T) as well as cross-discipline skills (the horizontal stroke of the T). Career success is often more linked to what are often referred to as “soft skills” (the horizontal stroke) than your knowledge and skill in your primary discipline (the vertical stroke). Soft skills include things like written and verbal communication skills, interpersonal skills, and the like and those are important. There’s another set of skills that I include in the mandatory set of horizontal stroke skills and that’s design thinking. The proper use of an enhanced form of design thinking like Enterprise Design Thinking by IBM in many work settings leads to effective problem solving and co-creation.
Use design thinking to design your life and career. Many people restrict their use of design thinking to work contexts. I advocate using the principles and techniques of design thinking to design your life and career as well. I have a podcast episode on this topic.
Understand the business you’re going into or are in - the flow of money. Many people in my experience work in companies or organizations doing their specific job but don’t take an interest in or truly understand the business of that company or organization. In order to design your career for the future, I suggest you follow the flow of money in your company or organization and make sure your role and how you progress your career is aligned to that flow.
Don’t only be about money - do something for your soul. Having just talked about money, also don’t only be about money in your career and life. Focus on the business but also focus on something for your soul whether at work or outside of work. Some people can find a career that brings in the money they want and need while also being their primary passion in life. For many others, their primary passions aren’t fully served by a career and it then makes sense to pursue those passions outside of work. Either way, it’s important to stay balanced in life.
Make a change every few years whether between organizations or within. It’s good to stay fresh and continue life long learning. That often is best achieved by making a change every few years whether moving between organizations or making a change within the same organization. Many people believe you can only achieve such a change by changing companies or organizations but I’ve seen in others and in myself the power of making a change within a company or organization as well.
Develop your eminence and digital brand. Many people believe that they can advance their career by simply putting their head down and working hard. For most careers, that isn’t an effective strategy. For most careers it’s important to develop your eminence and digital brand. You should be sharing your knowledge and becoming known in your field to others, connecting with others in the field, and making sure that when someone does a digital search for your name online that the results reflect who you are and what you’re known for.
Write an aspirational resume/portfolio and then make it a reality. One of the Stephen Covey’s seven habits of highly effective people is “Begin with the end in mind”. A way of operationalizing that habit for your career is to create what I call an aspirational resume/portfolio. Include in it what you’ve actually done but also include what you’d like it to look like in a few years with the experiences and accomplishments that you’d like to have had. I suggest making the aspirational parts of the resume/portfolio in another color or font and then focus your energies on making those aspirations a reality. If you’re in a discipline for which portfolios are used, make sure you base yours on storytelling rather than simply a collection of artifacts.
Try to improve every place you work. Employees who take an interest in and work to improve the place they’re working at often enjoy their jobs more and are appreciated more by fellow employees and management. Others who only complain and don’t suggest changes or better yet help to improve the workplace are often disliked by other employees and management. Yet others just do their jobs. I would advise you try to be like the first sets of employees I described and work to improve every place you’re at. Make sure though that you don’t go overboard and either neglect your primary job or get too absorbed in making improvements unless that becomes your job.
Develop an in person and digital network of professional contacts. Career progression and career changes are facilitated by many of the things I’ve been advocating here but you also need to make sure while doing those things to develop and maintain a network of professional contacts both in person and digital. Those contacts can serve as mentors and references when you need those. Some people believe that such a network of contacts will just happen on its own naturally. It may for some but others need to actively and intentionally foster, develop, and maintain such a network of contacts.
Keep up with the news and developments in your field - stay current and be a life-long learner. Whatever field you’re in, you should keep up with the general news of the world as well as the specific developments in your field. Both are important. You need to stay current in general as well as in your field. You can do both of these by doing such things as subscribing to news sites, news feeds, podcasts, online and in person conferences, courses, journals, blogs, etc.. Some believe that you go to school to learn and then you go to work to do what you learned. That’s no longer the case. You have to be a life-long learner.
Be resilient. Stay focused. Strive for mastery. Change is now constant. Become comfortable with change and some uncertainty. Anticipate change when possible and be resilient through the periods of change you didn’t anticipate. Stay focused on your aspirational goals and make realistic changes to them when situations change. Stay grounded in your fundamental beliefs and values. And strive for mastery by practicing your discipline or craft intentionally for many, many hours. Research has shown that it generally takes about 10,000 hours of focused and intentional practice to truly achieve mastery.
Do career workouts regularly. I introduced the concept of career workouts in my mentoring and then here on this blog, on my podcast, and in my talks. The feedback I’ve received on the approach has been really positive and it appears to be effective for many people. So, I suggest you read the post or listen to the podcast episode to get the details of the approach.
I regularly recommend that people group things into lists of three or at most ten so I haven’t followed my own advice here in coming up with twenty-one recommendations. But then, it’s unrealistic and probably unwise to restrict fairly comprehensive career advice to only a few recommendations. I’d like to thank the design, business, and engineering faculty at York University for having invited me to give the 2019 Interdisciplinary Lecture which inspired me to think about and develop the advice provided here.