How to Explore Other Career Options without Losing Your Job

You're feeling bored or stuck, but leaving your job is not an option. Use these creative, low-risk strategies to explore other possible career paths without risking the one you're in.

Rachel Cooke
6-minute read
Episode #611

Unemployment, overwhelm, disengagement, and reprioritization of what matters most professionally—these are just a few issues friends and clients have raised with me in recent weeks. For all kinds of reasons, 2020 has prompted many of us to pause and reflect. We’re wondering, we’re questioning—am I on the right professional path? Am I striving for an outcome I still care about?

Feeling uninspired doesn't mean you’ve chosen the wrong career; it simply means you’re hungry for change.

If this sentiment resonates, you may want to explore alternative careers. But how do you start the exploration without putting your current career at risk?

Today’s episode is all about how to explore other professional possibilities without having to formally step off the path you’re traveling.

Do some reconnaissance

So, you commute to your office—or basement—and your first thought of the day is “Ugh! This again?”

Maybe you’re just in a slump and you need to recharge. Maybe you’re burning out and in need of a digital detox. But it's possible you’re in need of a real change. Is there something you could imagine yourself doing with more passion and pleasure?

Time to start thinking. Who do you know (or have access to) who's already doing a version of that thing you think you'd be happier doing?

Maybe you’re handling account management for an agency but you’ve always dreamed of becoming a teacher. Teaching seems noble and purposeful, and you suspect you’d love to spend your days with actual children versus colleagues who often behave like children. You'd have to go back to school to get the credentials that would land you at the head of a classroom. That's no small commitment!

The answers may reveal a deeper layer of insight to help inform your decision.

So before you make the leap, first take a step. Try talking to some teachers about their experience of what they do. Be thoughtful in who you connect with. Talking to a first-year teacher whose rose-colored glasses are still on may leave you with an overly pink-hued picture of the reality. And conversely, someone a year away from retirement may just be fried. Choose someone whose perspective feels relevant to where you are in your journey. Then, ask questions that will bring legitimate insight.

Asking “Do you like what you do?” or “What’s your favorite thing about teaching?” may deliver some cocktail-party-worthy answers. Try asking deeper questions like “What parts of the job leave you feeling challenged? Rewarded?” or “What do you wish you knew before you committed to teaching?” The answers may reveal a deeper layer of insight to help inform your decision.

Just remember, your contact's answers don’t have to define your choice; they're simply a part of helping you make an informed decision.

Take online classes

A good friend of mine is a management consultant by trade. His expertise is in business strategy, organization design, and all that good stuff. His job is to tell stories and plan vision. But he had a mysterious-to-me craving for data, numbers, and spreadsheets. (Hey—it takes all kinds!) So he registered for an online Intro to Analytics class—something he could manage virtually over an evening or two a week. He loved it, and it whet his appetite for more.

In the fall, he enrolled in a People Analytics certificate program which he completed 9 months later. He has since left his consulting job and is now heading up a Workforce Planning function for a large enterprise. He’s using his consulting expertise to advise the company on its talent plans and choices. But he’s also having all the fun he ever imagined trading in spreadsheets.

It’s absolutely okay to decide after a single class that the other path isn’t quite what you’d hoped for. It's a little harder to do if you've made an impulsive career move.

The moral of this story isn’t that he just made a leap; he dipped a toe in the pool by taking an initial class. After that, he leaned into getting the certificate. Only then did he jump ship.

So plot your course one step at a time. It’s absolutely okay to decide after a single class that the other path isn’t quite what you’d hoped for. It's a little harder to do if you've made an impulsive career move.

Join the gig economy

A former classmate of mine is a sales manager for a technology company. He likes it well enough, but frankly, the flames of passion have fizzled.

His true love is photography, and his work is beautiful. He’d love to do it full-time. But he recognizes there's more to earning money as a photographer than snapping pics—there's that little detail of actually running a business. And that involves bookkeeping, marketing, insurance and … well, a lot of moving parts.

He knows he has a lot to learn. So he’s joined the 36 percent of Americans who, according to Forbes, participate in the gig economy. This strategy allows him to maintain his full-time income and benefits while simultaneously researching, setting up, and launching his business, in baby steps, during his free time.

Is there something you’d like to try pursuing on the side just to see if you’d be able to give it a go?

He has done some budgeting, which has shown him that with some infrastructure in place, once he is able to replace 50 percent of his corporate income as a photographer, he’ll be ready to make the leap into full-time. And if he struggles to stand up the business or hit that 50 percent milestone, then at least he hasn’t taken on any real risk.

Your passion or target revenue may differ from his. But is there something you’d like to try pursuing on the side just to see if you’d be able to give it a go?

There are more ways now than ever to make something happen for yourself.

Find it in-house

When I finished graduate school, I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. So I took a job with a company offering a management rotation program. I spent several weeks with each corporate function—from marketing to finance to procurement to real estate to HR.

Spending time not just learning about these functions, but actually having my hands in them, was really clarifying for me. I learned I loved people more than numbers or merch.

While a rotational program may not be available at your company, are you able to informally create some opportunity for yourself? Are there other functions or departments within your organization you’d like to get some hands-on experience with? Maybe you’re in marketing but you’d like to deepen your understanding of how finance sets goals, budgets, and projections. Or you’re curious about how real estate will be managing its footprint in the coming years. Or your passion for corporate communications has finally caught up with you.

What can you do to give yourself not just some basic information, but actual exposure to and experience with any of these functions?

Right now, in 2020, many companies are pulling back on their employee development budgets—expenses like conferences, coaches, and training. But positioned well with your boss, getting exposure to other parts of the company is a fabulous means of employee development at no cost.

Let your boss know you understand attending a conference or hiring a coach right now may not be an option. But you’d love to spend some time with another function expanding your skills. Is there a cross-functional project you can join? Has someone on that team taken a brief leave of absence you might help fill? Is there a product your two teams might be able to collaborate on?

Sure, it will take some creativity and dedication on your part. But taking this approach will give you hands-on experience that will help inform whether your interest, passion, and skills might align to a true pivot into that space.

So, if you’ve been feeling stuck, curious, or hungry for a change, but you’ve been fearful of making a drastic change, I hope these tips have inspired you to take some pretty low-risk action!

And, perhaps most importantly, remember this: feeling uninspired doesn't mean you’ve chosen the wrong career. Don’t go down that spiral. It simply means you’re hungry for change. And we should all be open to changing and growing as we move through life.

About the Author

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke is a leadership and workplace expert who holds her M.A. in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University. Founder of Lead Above Noise, she has been named a top 100 Leadership Speaker by Inc. Magazine and has been featured in Fast Company, The Huffington Post, and many more.