Building Your Career, One Brick at a Time

brickwallA career is like a brick wall. If it’s built well, from a collection of bricks that fit well together and are thoughtfully put in place, it can be a very strong foundation for whatever dreams you may want to reach for. A great collection of bricks, well assembled, will build a platform for you that allows you to stand tall in your profession.

Yet, sometimes, we find ourselves in situations where we must knock the wall down and start over – or so it may seem.

I argue that the entire scope of our professional life is a series of bricks. Every time we complete a class, we have another brick to add to our wall. Every time we complete a major project, we have another brick to add to our wall. Our choice of bricks – and where we place them in that wall – makes all the difference.

My Story, In Brick Form

I usually think that personal stories explain an idea very well to begin with, so let’s start with my college years. I made the unusual choice of double majoring in two “hard” sciences – biology and computer science. My coursework in these areas helped be to build two seemingly separate brick walls…

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Yet they weren’t entirely separate. Any hard science has some elements in common with other ones: a strong preference for logical thinking, the scientific procedure, the teasing apart of complex problems. It’s easy to see how training in one hard science lends itself in a strong indirect fashion to other hard sciences. However, a degree in computer science does not open doors for a career in biology, and vice versa.

You’ll also note that third brick wall sitting over there, separate from the others but not quite as tall. This was my ongoing passion for writing, a smaller wall built of bricks made from my own self-directed projects and flailings about. We’ll get to that one later on, but for now, it’s clearly not up to snuff.

Luckily, late in my college career, I found a brilliant mentor who helped me to bridge those gaps. He employed me in his research lab, taught me many techniques for applying computer science to biology, got me into some graduate-level courses, and actually paved the way for many of my jobs right after college.

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It was upon that foundation that I started my career. I spent a few years digging deep into life science data analysis using computers. I tore apart databases. I studied (and applied) various statistical models. And, along the way, I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

Yet, through it all, I still yearned to write. It felt like the thing that I was called to do.

So, as time went on, I began to seek out opportunities at work to communicate the ideas I was working on with others. This was hard at first – I’m a natural introvert and it took a lot of work for me to get over it. I started by taking charge of writing reports on the work that my lab was doing. Over time, this grew into making presentations on scientific data and scientific tools. Eventually, I was giving long presentations in front of rooms full of people who knew far more about hard science than I did – but I was able to communicate with them, translating the ideas in my head into a common language we could share.

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It turned out that this work experience really opened the door to further exploration of my own writing. I began to take my writing in new directions, writing more nonfiction things and exploring new areas – writing about parenting and, eventually, writing about the personal finance changes going on in my own life – The Simple Dollar, in other words.

Eventually, my writing took off and I made the choice – for the time being – to focus entirely on that for my career.

brick wall 4

Will I return to science? There is a very large part of me that wants to go back to graduate school. There’s also a large part of me that feels very compelled to write. Perhaps someday I’ll wind up writing science fiction or “pop” science books along the lines of Fermat’s Enigma. I’ve certainly built a foundation for it.

What Is a Brick?

A brick is any distinct element that helps you build a career. Some common bricks include:

Close professional relationships

People who you’ve helped in the past and you can rely on for help in the future if you were to need it. Close confidants or that guy down the hall who owes you one and sticks by his word both apply here.

Completed coursework

What classes did you take in college? What degrees did you achieve? Both are important – one builds skills and knowledge, the other is pure resume fodder.

Projects, completed and otherwise

A completed project teaches you skills and becomes perfect resume fodder. Yet, I’ve often found that failed projects tend to provide you with much more in terms of personal growth.

Natural talents

Everyone has some natural talent in some area. Yes, some are blessed more than others, but each of us has something to build from.

Membership in reputable organizations

Groups of like-minded people are not only resume fodder, but are also great places to build strong relationships that can only help you later in life.

Training

Much like completed coursework, training both offers you extra skills as well as potential juice for the ol’ resume.

Choosing Where to Place Your Bricks

As you can see, a few bricks are somewhat set in stone (talents and passions). For the most part, you can’t control these – they’re bricks that are already put in place for you.

Most bricks, however, are ones that you choose. You choose what to major in. You choose what classes to take. You choose which projects to tackle. You choose what organizations to join. You choose which friendships to cultivate.

Each of these bricks requires some time investment and distinct effort on your part. A semester spent in a class. Several afternoons spent with a business acquaintance. Three weeks of burning the midnight oil on a project or a presentation. A year spent as president of the Rotary Club.

Some bricks fit anywhere – they’re transferable skills. Time management. Administrative skills. Creativity. Interpersonal communications. Information management. Personal development. Leadership. All of these things fit well into any wall you might want to build – and can be used over and over again.

Other bricks can only be used in certain walls. Specific training. Specific projects. Certain organization memberships. They’re vitally important in building some walls and completely useless in others.

A Brick-Based Alternative to Knocking Down Your Wall

So, let’s return to the situation I described in my own story. What if you have two completely separate walls, one built from your own passions and interests and another built from experience and work?

My suggestion is twofold.

1. Work on those transferrable skills

They fit into almost any wall. Find opportunities to work on them and grow them whenever you can. This will not only help your career, but it’ll help any other directions you might choose to take in life.

2. Look for “bricks” that can build a bridge between the two

Jump hard on any project at work that lets you incorporate pieces of your other passions. You’ll build skills and produce a brick that bridges both walls. You can even try to seek these out – suggest possible projects at work, or use your work for inspiration in your other endeavors.

The Final Question

The real question here is simple.

Right now, are you working on another brick to add to your wall so you can stand above the crowd? Or are you peddling in place while others add bricks to their wall – and their walls grow just a bit taller and stronger?

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