5 Tips to Planning Your Career to Beat the Recession

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Editor’s Note: This is the first in a four-part series of columns by career coach and consultant Michael Melcher. Send questions or suggestions for future articles by clicking here and putting Careers Inbox in the subject line. Or simply discuss the topic in the comments below.

How do you plan a meaningful, fulfilling and possibly lucrative career in the midst of a giant recession? It’s not easy. But it’s possible.

Recessions constrain resources and require you to focus on short-term survival. But you can still plan creatively for long-term career growth.

Here are five tips to surviving in the short term, while looking forward:

  1. Start with a 30-year perspective. If you are 40 years old, you are going to work for at least 30 more years, and probably more. This is a result of multiple factors: people are living longer and in better health; human fulfillment comes from engagement rather than leisure; and there won’t be any social security money left when you’re old. Given this perspective, spending two or three years in a state of career limbo isn’t that big of a deal. You still have several decades to make things happen, either in this career or in those that follow. Focus on things under your control in the short-term that will create long-term benefits.

  2. Create a professional learning plan. Career growth almost always requires new skills, even if you’re an expert at what you currently do. Define what you need to learn in order to progress in your career. Identify courses, books, pro bono work, professional organizations, and networking opportunities that will help you learn what you need to know. Don’t let a static job or unemployment stop you from growing.

  3. Get out of your silo. Sociologists who study work relationships have a term you should know—“the strength of weak ties.” First coined by Mark Granovetter many years ago, it means that you will get farther in life by connecting with people you don’t know very well than by relying primarily on your inner circle. Why? Weak ties have access to new information, different people and unforeseen opportunities. And they don’t cramp you with pre-existing expectations. Your personal and professional network should include people of different ages and different fields, and should include lots of nonlawyers. Create a personal board of directors, if you don’t have one already.

  4. Make a habit of articulating your interests. People can’t help you if they don’t know what you want. Create some hypotheses of potential directions for your future professional growth, whether you plan to stay in your current practice area, explore something different, or leave the law entirely. (These are what I refer to in my book as positioning statements.) Focus on what you want to move toward, not what you are moving away from. You don’t have to be a hundred percent certain, you just need a coherent hypothesis that you can share in good faith.

  5. Maintain the machine. You are no good to anyone, especially yourself, if you flame out from stress. Sleep, eat well, exercise, and avoid snarky blogs. You’re in life for the long-haul, so maintain your best asset—yourself.

Next week: “How to Hire a Career Coach”

Michael Melcher, a New York-based career coach, is the author of The Creative Lawyer: A Practical Guide to Authentic Professional Satisfaction (ABA, 2007). He has a JD/MBA from Stanford and is currently a partner at Next Step Partners, a leadership development and executive coaching firm with offices in New York and San Francisco. He writes the blog, The Creative Lawyer.

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