Get Smarter and Jump-Start Your Career (Without Going Back to School)

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Maybe you’ve hit a wall in your career, and can’t quite seem to land that promotion. Or your real-world experience has shown you another career path you’d like to pursue, but you don’t yet feel qualified to take the leap.

For some, sharpening the pencils and heading back to school is the go-to solution, but it shouldn’t necessarily be your default. “Sometimes [your best move] can be circumventing school altogether,” says Jenny Blake, author of Pivot: The Only Move That Matters Is Your Next One.

School will always be there if you decide you want to invest in it. But spending a boatload of money (and potentially loading yourself up with debt) to get yourself to the next level may not be necessary. Here’s a game plan to follow instead.

Start With the Outcome

Outcome-oriented investing is all the rage in the finances world these days, and you’ll be best off if you can do the same thing with your career. Instead of first looking at what you’re lacking, or getting stuck on feeling behind, focus on what success looks like a year from now. If you’re not sure what you’re aiming for, take some time to think about what you’re best at, what you most enjoy, when you’re most “in the zone” and what people come to you about most often for advice. Use those strengths as clues to propel you toward related learning or research.

Hone Your Mission

Take those personal strengths and set them to paper. Then, make a concrete list of what you actually need to learn.

You want to focus on the right skills — ones that are worth your time and may help break down any career walls you might be facing. Then conduct a sanity check to be sure the skills on your list are ones that are valued by people who would want to hire you. You can do this by asking a “native” — someone already doing what you’d like to do — to coffee and asking about the top strengths required to be successful in their role.

“Then, find your own gap,” says Pamela Mitchell, founder and CEO of The Reinvention Institute. And, before you jump on filling in the blanks, take a good look at your background and make sure you haven’t already done something similar in the past. Mitchell says that as a career coach, she regularly sees people forget about certain qualifications and accomplishments.

Explore Skill-Building Platforms Like…

  • CreativeLive, which broadcasts free live classes to people all over the world, ranging from topics like "How to Write a Blog Post That Drives Traffic" to "Build an Etsy Storefront That Sells." 
  • Khan Academy, which offers free courses and practice sessions on everything from engineering and the humanities to computing and finance. 
  • General Assembly, which offers paid skill-building workshops (online or at brick-and-mortar campuses) in areas like design, marketing, coding and data. The company also offers regular networking events by skill area and location.
  • Coursera, an education-focused technology company, which offers free and paid online courses in areas like data science, computer science, business and machine learning from top schools like Stanford, Yale, Duke and Johns Hopkins — and financial aid is available for those who qualify. 
  • Itunes and Audible, which can open the door to audiobooks and podcasts when it comes to learning the ins and outs of new topics. Most podcasts are free, and a subscription to audiobook platform Audible is $14.95 per month after the 30-day free trial. (Membership grants you one audiobook free per month, plus 30 percent off any purchase.)   

Seal the Deal With Some Experience

There’s a reason “learn by doing” is such a popular piece of advice — it builds your skills and your resume at the same time. “Get miles on you!”  says career and executive coach Maggie Mistal. Once you've gained the skills and put them into practice, you can list them in both the "skills" and "experience" sections of your resume. In the beginning, you may need to offer your assistance cheap or pro bono, so reach out to local startups and offer them this deal.

Sites like TaprootFoundation.org, VolunteerMatch.org and Idealist.org are also great places to start, if you’d like to gain skills working with a nonprofit. (It'll likely be easier to get your foot in the door and put the skills you've learned to use.) Another option is Catchafire.org, a website that matches talented people to causes they're passionate about. You input a topic you care about, as well as what you're good at, and the site helps you find a project to contribute to that incorporates both. 

You’ll be contributing to a good cause — and beefing up your resume while you’re at it.

With Hayden Field