When I was in fourth grade, my dad — who had previously worked in finance — decided to become a landscape architect. For the next two years, he drove my brother and me to elementary school every morning before heading to his grad school classes. He did homework on nights and weekends just like us. After he graduated, he got an entry-level job at a landscape architecture firm and worked there happily for the next 20 years, until he retired.
At the time, I never questioned his decision. Adults got to do whatever they wanted! If anything, it was fun to quiz him with flash cards on the Latin names of shrubs and watch him fiddle with tiny models of parks and playgrounds. But now that I’m a working adult, it’s daunting to imagine venturing into a whole new field in one’s mid-40s, and I’m grateful that he did. He showed us that it’s possible to change your mind and start fresh even when your peers might think it’s too late. We witnessed firsthand that careers are not static, nor a lifelong sentence.
My dad was fortunate to know exactly what he wanted his next move to be. Most people aren’t so lucky. Self-help books often tell you to use Sunday night as a litmus test for your career satisfaction: Are you just mildly sad that the weekend is over, or weeping and clinging to your sofa? Whether you’re craving a total overhaul or a more amorphous modification, these six books can send you on your way.
You feel stuck at your job and don’t know how to start looking for another one: Designing Your Life, by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans
Many commencement speakers peddle a utopic idea that if we “do what we love,” fulfilling jobs will assemble at our feet, like ants drawn to a picnic. Here to prove them wrong is Design Your Life, a book by two Silicon Valley veterans who are now the co-founders of Stanford’s Life Design Lab, where they teach a career development class that’s packed to the gills every semester. The authors point out that most people (about 80 percent, according to one study) don’t actually know what they’re passionate about — passion is learned, not lurking fully formed inside your soul. Instead of banking on one single dream, they champion “iterating”: tech-speak for constantly designing and redesigning new and different improvements or solutions. This book will be particularly comforting to those who tend to overthink their professional ruts and ascribe them to deep, subconscious flaws or lack of direction (can you tell I speak from experience?). It also provides nicely designed worksheets at the conclusion of every chapter, to guide you as you “build your way forward.”
You’re clinging to a job because you’re afraid you can’t do better: Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Your career-change fantasies may not involve quitting a prestigious university fellowship, dumping a perfectly decent boyfriend, and moving to Nigeria, as protagonist Ifemelu does in Adichie’s widely celebrated novel. Or maybe they do! Either way, Ifemelu’s refusal to define herself by her job(s), combined with her willingness to walk away from something good in search of something better, requires a level of DGAF confidence that we should all aspire to. What would you do if you weren’t scared that the job you already have is the best you can get? Or if you stopped caring so much about what people thought? Bonus: Adichie happens to be the world’s only MacArthur “genius”-grant-winning author to also be sampled by Beyoncé — the perfect cross-section of endorsements.
You need practical advice: What Color Is Your Parachute? by Richard N. Bolles
Billed as “a practical manual for job-hunters and career-changers,” this book is a mainstay in the career literature canon, and Bolles has published an updated version each year since 1975 to stay abreast of occupation trends. The 2018 edition is so granular that you can probably skip over large swaths. But if you need a gut renovation of your marketable skills, résumé, and interview etiquette, this book covers all the basics. If you’re stuck on fuzzier aspects of what to do with yourself (“Why have I hated every job I’ve ever had?”), it also provides assignments for defining your “inner purpose,” deploying a mishmash of tools like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (more on that in a minute) and the “Flower Exercise,” which involves creating a physical flower out of seven paper petals, “because there are seven sides to you, or seven ways of thinking about yourself.” Sure, it’s a little hokey, but there’s a reason this book has been in print for over 40 years: There’s something in it for everyone.
You need help structuring your thoughts: Do What You Are: Discover the Perfect Career for You Through the Secrets of Personality Type, by Paul D. Tieger, Barbara Barron, and Kelly Tieger
Who doesn’t love a personality test? If you’re going to take one seriously, consider the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (or MBTI), which has been floating around the self-improvement sphere for over seven decades and is still widely deployed by schools and workplaces to determine courses of study and career. Developed by a mother-daughter team during World War II to optimize group dynamics in the war effort, the MBTI categorizes people as one of sixteen types (the official MBTI test costs $49.95 to take online, but there are dozens of free spinoffs, including the popular 16Personalities test). What to do with your results? The recently updated edition of Do What You Are is an exhaustive guide to finding and/or creating work environs where your type will be most “productive and fulfilled.” Obviously, these classifications are imperfect; few people fall squarely into just one type, and I personally test on the verge of three. However, I’m a fan by any system that affirms my strengths, reframes my deficiencies as “challenges,” and tells me how to work with both. If you want a sturdy foundation for your next steps, this book will give you some ideas.
You’re having an existential crisis:
Crossing the Unknown Sea, by David Whyte
An author, poet, and consultant, Whyte has carved himself an unlikely niche as a sort of workplace bard (his other best seller is The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America, also worth a perusal if the sight of your cubicle makes your spirit shrivel every morning). His books could easily verge into cheesy clichés, but instead provide a meditative, high-minded perspective on where your paychecks come from and why it can be so rewarding — or demoralizing. Do you feel as though you’re physically transforming into a conference-room chair? “Sometimes our hiding from others has been so successful that we can no longer even find ourselves when we want to,” writes Whyte. For calm, philosophical views on success, career ladders, co-worker slights, and other work-related subjects that tend to get us in a tizzy, this is your guy. (He is also the only career-advice author I know who quotes from Dante, Emily Dickinson, and Walt Whitman in the span of 20 pages.)
You feel trapped: Get a Life, Not a Job, by Paula Caligiuri
This book is short, simple, and to the point: If you’re unhappy in your job — or even if you aren’t — it pays to diversify your “career acts,” a loose term that includes extracurricular activities (classes, hobbies) and additional income streams (tutoring, Airbnb-ing your apartment). At first I thought this was unrealistic — how are you supposed to shoehorn extra stuff into your life when you’re already swamped and overwhelmed? But then I remembered that several of my past jobs came from out-of-office pursuits — the book club friend who got her company to hire me, the freelance gig that turned into a staff position at a magazine. Chances are, you already have multiple “career acts” yourself, and it pays to identify and cultivate them. Even if they don’t lead to a major career change, they’ll take some pressure off your current one, remind you that your value is multifaceted, and help prevent that suffocating feeling that all your eggs are in one basket.
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