Proof Projects: A Powerful Tool To Build Credibility And Break Into A New Field Faster

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Feel naïve and foolish in front of important people in your chosen industry? Acutely aware of your lack of ‘relevant’ experience? Natasha shares a simple but effective approach to help you stand out from the crowd, feel more confident, and generate new opportunities in your career change.

At some point in your shift, there will come a moment where you’re face to face with someone who has real decision-making power.

It might be in an informational interview, a formal job interview, at a social event, a conference… there you are, in dialogue with someone who could, if they wanted, help to change your life.

Whatever the context, the last thing you want is to find yourself stumbling over your words, apologising for your lack of knowledge or experience, and feeling like a fraud.

One of the best ways to tackle this challenge early on in your shift is to start acting like a duck as soon as you can.

Counter-intuitive though it may feel, the more you immerse yourself in the world of your new industry and behave as though you’re already a part of it, the more knowledge you’ll acquire, the more confidence you’ll feel, and the more credibility you’ll have.

This is a powerful baseline for any career changer.

However...

When you really want to stand out in an important conversation, you need to do more than show you’ve been hanging out in the right places and enthusiastically reading the right books.

The differentiator is taking what you’ve learned and turning it into something concrete that adds value to others; something you can point to and show, not tell, that you’re active in this area.

In the world of marketing, these are known as proof points: awards, testimonials, statistics – anything that backs up a value claim made by a brand or company.

As a career changer, you probably don’t have any relevant awards. Testimonials are great on a website, but dropped into casual conversation over coffee, they’ll make you sound arrogant at best, and at worst, creepy and mildly unhinged. And there’s no way you’ve done enough work in the industry to have generated the kind of numbers that lead to meaningful statistics.

Instead, you can create Proof Projects: self-contained pieces of work that demonstrate your learning and your ability to add value to others.

Proof Projects are:

1. Discrete (they have a clear set of boundaries, including a beginning and end)

Proof Projects are self-contained rather than ongoing; you can clearly say: “This was the day it began, and this is the day it ended.”

For example: “Cook lots of new recipes” is not a plan for a Proof Project.

Julie Powell’s decision to cook every recipe in Julia Child’s famous cookbook The Art of French Cooking within a year, and blog about her experiences?

That’s a Proof Project – 524 recipes is a discrete number, and a year is a clearly delineated timescale (although much, much bigger and longer than yours needs to be!)

2. Visible (they produce a tangible output that you can point someone toward)

This is a practice in ‘show, don’t tell’ in its most literal form.

In order to qualify as a Proof Project, someone else must be able to see what you did, without you being there to tell them about it.

So… Giving a talk on your subject of interest? A great thing to do, and also not a Proof Project.

Giving a talk on your subject of interest, filming it, and sharing it on YouTube? That’s a Proof Project. Whatever you do, you must show your work.

David Stranger-Jones took part in one of our career change courses, and ran a pilot version of a programme he called ‘Equals’, rooted in his commitment to taking action on diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

But he didn’t just run the pilot event.

Crucially, he then shared what he learned from the process in a post on LinkedIn, where anyone who now looks him up can see it.

Proof Project.

3. Valuable (they inspire interest, even to someone who’s already in the industry)

A Proof Project demonstrates your skills, knowledge, or ability to generate something useful.

After all, that’s part of what will have you stand out to decision-makers – if it’s not thoughtful, helpful or interesting to them, it won’t make an impression.

So: re-landscaping your back garden and posting before / after photos on social media? Not a Proof Project. (Impressive, but not all that valuable to others)

Re-landscaping your back garden and documenting the process step-by step, including the specific tools and techniques you used and solutions you found to problems, and posting THAT on social media so others can learn from what you did? Proof Project.

Nick Bendel has set himself the task of having lunch with 500 strangers.

As a Proof Project goes, it’s enormous. But the size isn’t the point.

Every time he has lunch with someone, he shares their story on LinkedIn – and at regular intervals (like his 150th lunch) he shares the lessons he’s learning from the project itself.

Interesting, valuable, and generous, regardless of the scale.

If you did the same with 20 people connected to a theme of interest, or even 10... fabulous example of a Proof Project.

4. Personal (they’re connected to your own specific interests, concerns and trajectory)

The best Proof Projects are ones that really, only you could do – because they’re of you in some way.

They demonstrate to decision makers who you are as a person; your specific combination of interests, or your particular style of doing things. Bring something of yourself to the Project, whether it’s raw authenticity, beautiful presentation, your particular brand of humour, or an unusual angle on a conventional topic.

If you’re interested in big data analysis, then recording 5 episodes of a podcast where you interview futurists about the 5 most unexpected trends they’re currently seeing could be a Proof Project.

Recording 5 episodes of a podcast where you interview futurists about the 5 most unexpected trends relevant to women like you who are living with a disability would be a far more personal – and therefore memorable – choice.

Kelly Nguyen had a niggling annoyance with the way that music streaming platform SoundCloud’s app worked. So much so, in fact, that she started talking to friends about it – and found that she wasn’t the only one.

Not everyone gets excited about the idea of redesigning an app – but as an aspiring product designer, Kelly does.

But she didn’t just feel excited about the idea – she actually did it.

She redesigned the app, from the ground up, in her own time, and then posted a run-down of the whole thing on a coding education platform, with her own personal rationale for doing it woven throughout.

Proof Project.

Examples of Proof Projects you might create in your career change:

  • Interview 20 people working in your industry of interest about a specific topic, trend, or question you have, and write up your biggest insights in a short e-book
     
  • Host a roundtable discussion with at least 7 attendees on an industry subject, and have each attendee share their main takeaway to include in a round-up post on social media
     
  • Record 5 podcast episodes to share your knowledge and publish them online
     
  • Run a pilot experiment over the course of a weekend, and write about what you learned on LinkedIn
     
  • Create and run an ‘introduction to’ workshop on your subject, and have someone film the workshop (and the testimonials of participants at the end) to share on Vimeo
     
  • Help 5 people with the same problem, and use the experience to write a downloadable ‘How To’ guide for other people facing the same issue
     
  • Build a portfolio of self-led projects – ten pieces of writing, ten artworks, ten websites – and publish them online
     
  • Record a short video series on the most interesting things you’ve learned about your subject, and post them on YouTube

Note: these examples are chunky (interview 20 people, record 5 podcast episodes, build a portfolio of 10 pieces of work), and require you to be interacting with the world outside of your head in order to produce a meaningful output.

A single blog post of your thoughts on a subject could be a Proof Project, but (unless it’s of truly outstanding quality) it’s unlikely to stand out from the sea of other blog posts that everyone and their mother writes.

To serve you in the best possible way, a Proof Project needs to show you’ve gone beyond ‘the norm’.

Proof Projects don’t have to be perfect.

In fact, in some ways, it’s better if they’re not.

Yes, your Proof Project is a way to demonstrate to the world what you already know and can do, and as such you want to do a thoughtful, high-quality job. Absolutely cross your ‘t’s and dot your ‘i’s – focus on offering as much value as you can.

And at the same time, remember that in order to be truly eye-catching, interesting and conversation-worthy, your project also needs to include the ‘ring’ of authenticity.

You’re not an industry expert. So don’t try to force the appearance of one.

Instead, be what you are: the curious, engaged person who’s still learning themselves, and who wants to help other people along the way. State that up front at the start of your video series. Share a bit of your story at the beginning of your roundtable event. Make it clear that you’re doing this to learn as much as you are to teach.

It’ll help you avoid the paralysis of perfectionism (so you actually ship your project, rather than staying stuck thinking about it), and you’ll become about 1000 times more relatable to the people you’re sharing your work with.

Plus, whatever you learn from running one Project can help inform the next one – so when it comes to talking to decision-makers about the learning curve you’ve been on, you’ll have some real learning to share.

Proof Projects help you stand out from the crowd, feel more confident, and generate opportunities

How?

1. They give you easy talking points with industry insiders

Ever felt concerned that, by holding informational interviews, you’re just ‘taking’ from someone without offering anything in return?

Felt awkward about asking lots of questions, without having anything concrete to add to the conversation yourself?

Just one Proof Project gives you a wealth of potential talking points that are specific, interesting, and personal.

You’ll be able to discuss what you learned, the impact of the work you did, who it led you to meet, and what it taught you about the industry. Because Proof Projects include an element of value, you might even find yourself teaching the person you’re talking to. Either way, you’ll certainly leave an impression.

2. They show you’re a do-er

Not only are you demonstrating your enthusiasm and energy for their field of interest, you’re not simply waiting for someone to offer you an opportunity.

You’re engaging with the area off your own steam, taking initiative and creating outputs. This alone will help you stand out from the legions of people scrolling hopefully through job sites.

Plus, in the subconscious of any decision-makers or hiring managers who witness what you’re doing, the thought will likely arise:

“This person is going to create value somewhere. If it’s not with me, it’s going to be somewhere else.”

3. They provide career change capital

As a career changer, you’re unlikely to have the ‘X years of experience’ that most job ads are seeking.

You’re new to the area, after all – and likely haven’t had the time nor commitment level (yet) to invest in new qualifications or significant retraining.

But by running Proof Projects you’re gaining inarguable experience and connections in the area you’re interested in.

And not just any experience: hands-on, at-the-coalface experience of adding value in the world that will show decision-makers what you’re capable of, and increase your chances of being offered opportunities.

4. They establish you as the ‘That Thing Person’

One of the key features of a Proof Project is that it creates an output that can be shared with the world.

And when you share something of genuine value, which has clearly required something of you to create, people will forever connect you with ‘that thing’ in their minds.

You’ll become the ‘that thing’ person, at least to your community.

You’ll be:

‘The Person Who Hosted That Interesting Discussion About X’, or
‘The Person Who Wrote That Really Helpful How-To Guide on Y’, or
‘The Person Who Finally Made Z Understandable In That YouTube Video’.

You’ve established a reputation.

So when your area of interest comes up in conversation elsewhere, your name will be what comes to their minds. They’ll refer people to whatever you created. They’ll pass relevant connections to you first… because you’re the ‘that thing’ person in their life.

The more connections that come your way, the more likely you are to encounter someone whose decisions could have a powerful impact on your career change.

And when that person has been primed to think of you as their friend’s ‘that thing’ person, your credibility has already been established for you.

This might sound like hard work…

And it can be.

Establishing credibility in a new industry or area of interest takes effort. It requires vulnerability, and a willingness to get stuck in off your own steam. If you’re a perfectionist, it’s going to require extra courage to put something out into the world before you’re 100% sure of it.

Building Proof Projects is not a quick-fix short-cut to fulfilment. But that’s largely because there are no quick-fix short-cuts to fulfilment (despite what many ‘gurus’ online might tell you).

However, consider the satisfaction, credibility and confidence that comes from having created something tangible, valuable, and informative in an area you’re already energised by.

Imagine the ability to sit down for a coffee with a decision-maker in an industry you’re inspired by, and have something unique and interesting to contribute to the conversation.

Think about people bringing ideas, and connections and opportunities to you, instead of you having to seek them out – and that initial investment of time and effort paying career dividends long, long into the future.

What is that worth to you?

Natasha Stanley's picture

Natasha Stanley is head coach and writer for Careershifters. She also speaks, writes and facilitates events on the art and science of human connection.