Image: Annie Spratt
Feeling uninteresting, underqualified and unimportant? Struggling to see what you could offer in a different field? Natasha suggests a new perspective on the subject of ‘value’, and some simple but effective ways to share it, no matter where you’re at or what your background.
Trying to break into a new career can feel like stepping naked off a cliff.
Not only are you trying to make a leap into completely unknown territory, you're also doing it in your most vulnerable state.
Your CV or résumé feels limp and alien, your qualifications are not relevant, and while you've heard people say that the world of work is about who you know, not what you know, the thought of trying to explain yourself to someone from a brand new industry in a way that's interesting and relevant is paralysing.
“What do I have to offer?”
“Why would they be interested in me?”
“None of my experience is relevant and my transferable skills are ten-a-penny – I'm worthless to them.”
Work is all about the exchange of value, right?
So somehow, you should be able to demonstrate your value – to show people, and their companies and organisations, why you're worth paying attention to.
But as far as you can tell, you've got nothing of interest to them.
So… now what?
In the traditional world of work, 'value' is personal
When you think about 'value', you probably think of it this way:
- Value is something you have, or don't have
- The value you have to offer is what's on your CV or résumé (qualifications or experience)
- Value is about you.
And that third point is the crux of the issue.
Chances are, throughout your career, you've been trained to keep the focus on yourself.
When you write your CV or résumé, there's one word that shows up everywhere: 'I'.
When you go to job interviews, every response you give to a question starts with that same word: 'I'.
“I did this.”
“I achieved that.”
“I led this, I made this happen.”
So the idea of 'value' becomes personal.
It becomes about your self-worth.
The question you find yourself wrestling with is: “Am I valuable?”
No wonder it feels hopeless – heartbreaking, even – to come up short.
But what if 'value' wasn't about you?
What if value was about them?
What if, instead of gazing at yourself, examining yourself for stamps of approval and marks of acceptability, you focused your gaze out-there, on the people you want to work with?
Who are they, beyond 'the people who have the thing I want'?
Who are they, beyond 'the people with the power to judge me'?
What do they need? What do they desire?
Instead of trying to make yourself valuable, how can you make them feel valued?
Businesses, companies, organisations are made of people.
And while the business may have cold, hard 'criteria' and unforgiving systems for measuring your 'worth' if they're going to employ you, those people have needs and wants and hopes and dreams and problems and questions, just as you do.
And building relationships with those people is one of the most powerful things you can do in your search for, and your shift into, fulfilling work.
So if you want to engage with the idea of value in a new way, and in a way in which you can bring value, no matter who you are or what your background is, it's time to switch your thinking.
The first step to making anyone feel valued – a person, a company, a whole industry – is to focus on them, not on you.
Listen. Seek to learn. To understand.
Have conversations (often known as informational interviews) with people working in your chosen industry, and in the company or companies you're most interested in.
Start following industry media – follow their Twitter feeds, set up Google alerts, read relevant blogs and commentary.
Go to events related to the area you're interested in. Fairs, conferences, talks, seminars, Meetups.
And listen. Soak it all up.
Don't go to focus on yourself, and how you do or don't have anything to offer.
Go to learn.
Go to understand.
In informational interviews…. be curious
Don't sit there worrying about if you measure up, or how you're coming across.
See your 30 minutes together (or an hour, or however long you have) as an opportunity to make the person you're speaking to feel seen, and heard, appreciated and understood.
Listen for the things they're not saying, as much as for the things they are, and ask about them.
Pay attention to the little things – the names they mention, the issues they're struggling with, the things that make them smile.
“I spent as much time as I could with tech people to learn the lingo, how they think, where they come from, and how to talk to them.
“I leveraged any contact, and even contacts-of-contacts, to immerse myself in tech. It's important not to be creepy and only talk business. I was interested in their lives and how they got where they are (which in itself was pretty interesting and informative). Actually I ended up developing some real friendships with a couple of the contacts I made.” – Andrea, who shifted from Construction to Software
As you follow industry media… notice
What patterns are you seeing? What gaps? What frustrates you about what you see? What delights you?
What can you notice, as an 'outsider', that someone deep in the woods of familiarity might not pick up on?
What is nobody talking about?
At events and talks and fairs and conferences… observe
What conversations do you hear, time and time again?
What questions do people keep asking?
What language do they use?
What problems are they trying to solve?
“Since immersing myself in the social impact design world, I've learned about not only what, how, and why people are doing this work, but also the gaps that still need to be addressed. The social impact design field is nascent so the opportunities to contribute and take part are tremendous.” – Katie Crepeau, who shifted from Architecture to Social Impact
One of the most valuable things you can offer – to anyone or anything – is your attention (there's a good reason we say that you 'pay' attention)
And whether it's small-scale, over a coffee with a new connection, or larger-scale, with your time and energy over months of events, it will pay off.
Your connections will enjoy their time spent with you – time spent with someone who's genuinely curious, engaged and observant.
You'll gather information that you wouldn't get – couldn't get – any other way.
You'll immerse yourself in a world that might have seemed impenetrable before, given your lack of qualifications or experience, and (like a duck) it'll become infinitely more navigable with every step you take.
And the more attention you pay, the more you'll start to see more opportunities to make the people – and the companies – in that industry feel valued.
“Last time we spoke you mentioned you had some issues with finding funding for that new project. How can I help?”
“I attended the conference you spoke at last month, and I was really interested in what you said about the big goal you're working toward this year. How can I help?”
“I've been following you on Twitter for a while, and I can see how passionate you and your organisation are about this cause. How can I help?”
Your concern, and your time, are 'value'
A shared interest, mutual enthusiasm, your support – simple things with enormous value.
The fact that you care about what a person or a company is doing speaks volumes, and even the act of asking carries its own meaning and significance.
Maybe there's a clear answer right away – a task you can complete, a question you can mull over, a service you can offer, an insight you can share – or maybe not.
Either way, the fact that you noticed something, and then asked for a way to offer your support, will land powerfully.
You've acknowledged the value of what they're doing. You see them, doing something that matters. And you want to support them in achieving it.
It won't be found on your CV or résumé. There's no certificate for it. It's not about you. But it's true, lasting 'value'.
The fact that you can't see a way for you to add value, doesn't mean there isn't one
One of the tricky things about real talents is that they're usually so natural to you, you're not even aware they're anything special.
The way you can always see the bigger picture – surely everyone can do that?
The way you can glance at chaos and put a system in place to create order – that's normal, right?
The way people just seem to melt and soften around you – isn't that just how life is?
So when an opportunity arises for you to offer value that's uniquely 'you', you may not even see it.
But asking what you can do to help a person or an organisation, particularly if you've built up some kind of relationship with them already, gives them an opportunity to highlight what they see you can provide, even if you can't see it yourself.
Once you know what people want and need, you can find it
If you've listened, paid attention and learned about the person or the industry you're looking to add value to, you can probably hazard some good guesses about what they need and want.
But if they've told you specifically what they're looking for (because you've asked), you're in a far better position to offer targeted value.
Much like when you buy your first red car, you suddenly start to see that same red car everywhere on the road, your brain will start to notice things in the world that are relevant for the person or company you're building a relationship with.
And once you've started putting your mind, whether consciously or subconsciously, to work, you can offer something more actively…
Even more powerful than an ask is a direct, specific offer of value.
“Here's what I've noticed (as I've been listening), and here's how I see I can contribute.”
While asking is an easy and effective access point to learning more about what a person or organisation needs, it places the responsibility on them to come up with a suggestion or request of something you could then do or provide.
Offering something that you've noticed and found a solution for off your own steam – that offers them value with zero effort required on their part.
And while this can sound scary and significant, it really doesn't have to be, especially when you remember that value isn't about you – it's about them.
Size isn’t everything
Not long ago, I was approached by a woman who was interested in finding out more about what I do for a living.
We jumped on Skype, chatted for an hour or so, and at some point I briefly mentioned the poet Mary Oliver, whom I loved.
The next day I opened my inbox to find an email from that same woman, thanking me for my time and sharing a link to an article about Mary Oliver from one of her favourite blogs.
I knew she had really been listening.
I knew she'd gone away and looked up what I'd said.
I knew she'd found a little something to offer back to me as exchange for my time and my energy, and she'd taken the time to send it.
She hadn't needed a qualification for that, or 'three years' experience', or even to feel for herself that she had 'industry-relevant value' to offer. She added value to me, by making me feel valued.
That small gesture stayed on my mind for weeks afterward. And when, at Careershifters, we needed a few thoughtful, observant members of our community to help us solve a problem, she was the first person I suggested we invite. She'd proven she was thoughtful. She'd shown she was observant.
A month or so after that she joined our team, in a very small way.
Offer what you can, when you can
You may not have the skill set to be able to step directly into a paid position within the company you have your eye on right now.
But that doesn't mean that you have nothing to offer.
An article you stumbled across online that speaks to what they're working on.
An introduction to someone you know that you think would be a helpful connection.
Sharing their project among your family and friends, to help them gain support.
An hour of your time to help them make sense of their ideas.
Some of your expertise in your existing area of work, to help them tackle a problem.
Like Thea, who used her marketing background as currency to help her learn more about the world of sculpture:
“I decided I didn't want to sell all my original sculptures (each once takes so long to create, I find I get personally attached to them), so I went to investigate 3D printing them at a local event. It was there that I got talking to an entrepreneur who was in charge of a medtech start-up.
“He helped me to explore 3D printing my sculptures. In return, I offered his start-up marketing advice and guidance. A year later, he offered me a role as Communications Director.” Thea Partridge – From Account Manager to Portfolio Careerist
If you've listened, if you've paid attention, and if you've asked, you'll know something about what they might need.
You'll be able to see opportunities to help.
And you'll have built up a level of trust and mutual respect that is, quite frankly, priceless when you're trying to move into a new industry.
Make it easy for them
The greatest offers of value make no demands.
Respecting someone's time and energy leaves them feeling seen, acknowledged, and special – again, rather than making your offer about you and how great you are, it leaves them feeling valued.
So when you're looking for ways to support what they're doing, find a way to make an offer that requires little or no investment on their part.
Not only does it show them that you're honouring their experience, it also leaves very little reason for them to refuse!
Lee Mannion did this to brilliant effect during his shift:
“I made an offer to the guy who's now my boss.
“The offer was this:
“'I'll come and work for you for a week, for free. And if at the end you like what I've done, you can pay me – and if you don't think I'm any good at it, don't pay me.'
“It was about figuring out what someone might need, and presenting it in a way where they have nothing to lose – all he had to do was find me a chair in the office.
“I came up with some ideas for stories, and then I wrote them – so he was getting free content for the website as well.
“He didn't have to pay me, so he had nothing to lose by giving it a try.”
Lee made it easy: free support at zero risk.
Flip the script on your internal narrative
Let's be honest: career change can be a very self-absorbed process.
Big philosophical questions abound:
“Who am I? What am I here for? What's my purpose? What's my passion? Why would anyone pay attention to me? What do I have to offer? How do I get them to take me seriously?”
And all that automatic 'I' and 'me', while important in the right places and contexts, can keep you utterly trapped when it comes to the concept of value.
Switch that conversation around, though, and move your focus to other people, and not only will you feel lighter (because the spotlight's not on you any more), you'll get further, too.
What kind of things would you do if your measure of value wasn't about you? Let me know in the comments below.