Learn to Pivot: The New Approach to Career Uncertainty
By Jenny Blake
A four-stage framework for mapping your next move
What do you do when your dream job no longer feels like a fit?
I had been working in training, coaching and career development at Google for over five years when I took a sabbatical to launch my first book, Life After College . I loved working there and had a perfect-on-paper role myself ─ but something was still missing. I figured there must be something wrong with me. How could I possibly hit a career plateau at one of the most highly coveted companies to work for? Should I just suck it up and stay put, or take the risk that terrified but excited me most ─ to leave and launch my own business full-time?
Ultimately I decided to take the leap. In the six years since I left Google, I have been running my own company as a career and business strategist, writer and keynote speaker. I am the happiest and healthiest I have ever been. However, it hasn’t all been sunshine and roses in self-employment. I experienced much unnecessary angst as I navigated subsequent pivot points while running my own business ─ this time without a steady pay cheque to fund the “what’s next” exploration. As my bank account balance dwindled down to zero two years into running my own business, the question changed from the lofty, “What would you do if you knew you would not fail?” to a much more pressing, “What do you do when your back is up against the wall?”
None of the business or career books on my shelves seemed to be getting me out of this pickle. So I set out to research and ultimately write a book, Pivot, on what it takes to be more agile to change, and to develop a method for mapping one’s next move with greater clarity and ease. If change is the new career constant, it behooves us all to get better at it.
In conducting research for the book, I encountered many others who had successful careers by traditional standards, but hit a plateau and felt an inexplicable urge to do things differently. You might be feeling this, too. Maybe you (or a client) are considering walking away from a robust salary, folding or starting your own business, or taking time off altogether. Maybe you’re unsatisfied or frustrated with your work for other reasons: you’ve outgrown your position or business, or you feel drawn to a new area that better suits your values and interests where you can make a greater contribution.
The reality is that people are no longer working at the same jobs for 40 years with the safety of pension plans waiting at the end . The average employee tenure is now four to five years and job roles often change dramatically within those four to five years . Among workers 25 to 34 years old, the average tenure drops to three years .
You may even be experiencing this already ─ making career changes large and small, by choice and by circumstance, much more frequently than you did in the past (or than your five-year plan might have predicted). The truth is that five-year plans are no longer nimble enough to help us navigate this new landscape. Things change too frequently to predict or plan that far out. We need a new skill set for managing the change process, whether that’s planning your career development within your existing role, or making a larger shift in terms of company, industry, full or part-time, and many other factors.
Pivot is the new Plan A
Typically, when the word “pivot” is applied to a business strategy shift, it is considered Plan B: changing directions to save a business from dwindling profits or a dismal forecast. Pivoting is a response to failing at Plan A, the original goal. But when it comes to our careers, learning to pivot is Plan A. Pivoting, within our roles and throughout our careers, is the new normal.
I define a career pivot as doubling down on what is working to make a purposeful shift in a new, related direction. Pivoting is an intentional, methodical process for navigating career changes.
Punctuated moments of career success ─ promotions, launches and financial windfalls ─ are nice, but they are only a tiny fraction of our overall experience. By doubling down on what is working best while thinking about how to develop into what’s next, you accelerate the experimentation and change process. You can proceed with confidence, knowing that you already have what it takes to get where you want to go.
Pivoting as a mindset is about learning to identify your biggest strengths and one-year vision, then experimenting with related ideas and small steps. This will help you enhance your career portfolio without sending yourself into a panic by trying to make moves that are too drastic, too far removed from what you are doing right now.
The Pivot method includes four stages: plant, scan, pilot and launch, as follows:
- Plant by focusing on who you already are, and what is already working. Get grounded and clear on your values, strengths, interests and one-year vision for the future. What does success look like one year from now?
- Scan for opportunities that will help you double down on the strengths and interests you identified in the plant stage, as you scan for related people, skills and projects. What new skills can you learn? Who can you speak with? What small project opportunities can you tackle to explore further?
- Pilot by running a series of short, low-risk experiments. Here is where you’ll test your new direction, and potentially many new directions, to see what’s the best match, and what areas start to gain momentum all their own. A pilot could be signing up for a course, or starting a 10% project at work, like an office book club or company-wide volunteer day. During these pilots, you can gather real-time data and feedback so you can recalibrate as you go.
- Launch once you have repeated the plant-scan-pilot phase as much as needed to feel confident in a new direction; the launch stage is when you’ll make the bigger decision to go all-in. Fear and uncertainty may still be at play, ideally with excitement and motivation outweighing them. You will have reduced risk and increased your chances of success by going through the pivot process.
You will never see the entire pivot path at the outset, nor would you want to. If the next steps were obvious and manageable with a simple spreadsheet, you would either already be taking them, or you would be bored. The exhilarating part of tackling new opportunities is the inherent risk and uncertainty involved ─ and our growth and transformation in the process.
Learning to embrace the new career landscape, instead of resisting it, can become an edge and advantage. As pivoting becomes the new normal, you can learn to enjoy calculated risk and uncertainty in exchange for adventure, flexibility, freedom and opportunity.
Jenny Blake is an author, career and business strategist and international speaker who helps people organize their brain, move beyond burnout, and build sustainable, dynamic careers they love. She is the author of the Axiom Award-winning book PIVOT: The Only Move That Matters Is Your Next One (Portfolio/Penguin Random House, September 2016), and Life After College (Running Press, 2011).
 Jenny Blake, Life After College (Philadelphia: Running Press, 2011).
 Tyler Cowen, “A Dearth of Investment in Young Workers,” New York Times, September 7, 2013. URL: www.nytimes.com/2013/09/08/business/a-dearth-of-investment-in-young-workers.html