Celebrating messy careers: My scenic route into UX design

Do Something Great written in lights
Photo by Clark Tibbs on Unsplash

“The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.” — Steve Jobs

I’m not sure exactly how a job-hopper is defined, but for a long time now I’ve been worried that I am one (or rather, have been one) and that it’s a terrible thing. It looks bad on your CV, doesn’t it? Employers will wonder why, and assume you’re unreliable. I’ve had 9 jobs and made 2 career changes in the space of 13 years, is that too many?

Well, maybe not. Because 🎶 the times they are a-changin' 🎶. Did you know that the average Gen-Z will have 17 different jobs across 5 different careers during their lifetime? ⁠Careers aren’t what they used to be, and I’m all for embracing it.

My messy career

For context, this is roughly how my career has gone - left university (and indeed started university) with no idea what I wanted to do afterwards. Admin job for a charity, admin job for a charity, marketing job for a charity. Junior digital communications job (yes, this is starting to feel more like me!), senior digital communications job. Career change into software development (curveball I know, but stay with me), and finally — pivot into UX design.

And, ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner!

What I learnt from the mess

It’s been a long and winding road (I promise I’m not on some kind of bet to get 60s song lyrics in here, they just came to m‍e!) but that road was important. It taught me what I’m good at and what I’m not good at, what I enjoy and what I don’t enjoy. I explored new opportunities, learnt new skills, took courses, and made connections in different industries. That dissatisfaction I felt that made me want to move on to something different wasn’t just me being flakey, it was me searching for something that would both align with my values, and where I would be of value. Having said that, if I’d taken the time to really think about why I wanted to move, I’m sure I could have saved myself a few of the less meaningful hops!

“Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value.” — Albert Einstein

And what’s beautiful about this mantra is that if you’re really of value in what you do, chances are you’ll be very successful at it.

Messy career wisdom

So here I am finally doing work that fits me like a particularly well-fitting glove, and I’d like to take this opportunity to share some of my wisdom around navigating the career playground/ labyrinth:

It’s ok to change your mind

Of course this is my first point — no matter what stage you’re at in your current career, you are allowed to change your mind and try something else. That nagging voice telling you it’s too late, or you don’t have enough experience, or you probably wouldn’t be very good at it anyway is wrong. However, as I mentioned earlier, take the time to analyse why it is that you’re looking for a change. It’s ok to move, but move with purpose. I took a short course that uses the Ikigai concept to help me identify my strengths and values, and find work that would align with these. If only I’d done this earlier!

A third of our lives are spent at work — it’s worth taking the time to understand what you want, explore your options, and ultimately find work that will make you really happy.

Write it down and take screenshots!

Oh how I wish I’d done this from the beginning! Keep a record of the projects you work on and the responsibilities you have at work, as well as any key stats around them that help to show how the work you did added value to the project/company. You’ll be so grateful later on when you need this information for job applications and/or your portfolio. Plus it’s a nice reminder for you of everything you’ve achieved.

It’s all about the transferable skills

If you’re going for a career change, there will always be valuable skills you can take with you from your previous roles. Keeping a record of your projects and responsibilities will help you identify these. I didn’t have any design experience when I decided I wanted to try UX design, but I could bring my web copywriting skills with me to contribute to the UX writing work that sits within the team, and my software development skills meant I took to interactive prototyping easily. Think about the skills and experience you do have, rather than those you’re lacking.

Ask, ask, ask

If you’ve got your eye on a particular career within the company you work for — find the right contact, have a chat with them about it, and see if you can arrange to do some job shadowing. If the career you’re after is outside of your current company — LinkedIn and meetup.com are great places to find groups around your career of choice, where you can start asking questions and getting valuable advice.

Get a mentor

If you’re starting out in a new career, try to get yourself a mentor. When I first approached the UX team about my interest in learning more about what they do, a senior designer was really happy to take me under her wing and show me the ropes. It has been invaluable. She advises me on books and articles to read, training courses to do, events to attend, and has even mentored me through my first solo UX design project. Some companies run formal mentorship schemes but if you don’t have access to one of those, the ask, ask, ask method can help you!

Break it down

Finding the time to work on the skills required for a new career is HARD, and can feel overwhelming. How much time you can spare for this obviously depends on your circumstances, but the main advice I can give is — break it down in to realistic, manageable chunks. I’ve been learning a new prototyping tool recently and have limited myself to only learning two or three components within it at a time. This makes the whole process feel much more manageable and less time-consuming. And even if the little prototype I’ve made by the end of the session doesn’t look like much, I can look back at the others I’ve made and realise that I have actually learnt quite a lot. Small wins are still wins!

Go on secondment!

This won’t always be possible and I feel very fortunate that my company allowed me to do this. If you’re lucky enough to work for a company that offers secondments, they are a fantastic opportunity to properly test drive a new career, totally risk-free, before you decide whether to commit to it. Even if you decide it’s not for you, you’ll come away with new skills and experiences that you can take back to your previous job. My secondment wasn’t advertised, I found the right contact and asked if I could do it. So I encourage everyone to do the same.

Reflect

Remember to refer back regularly to your list of achievements at work, and remind yourself how hard you’ve worked and how many great and varied experiences you’ve had. When you’re on a messy career road, it’s easy to feel like you’re behind your peers who took a more traditional straight-up-the-ladder route with their careers. But you are focusing on finding work that really makes you happy, and that is so important in the long run. Once you have that, success and everything that comes with it will follow.

The two images featured in the middle of this article are from awesome career coach Badass Careers. Find her on Instagram and LinkedIn.