The right time to make a pivot, according to a career-change expert

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Jenny Blake knows career changes. In addition to having a book and a podcast about pivoting, she’s also the creator of the Pivot Method: a four-step process for making your own shift at work. To her, pivoting is about experimentation, or running small tests to select your next move. And they’re often kick-started by pivot points—career plateaus that push you to ask what’s next.

If you’re questioning your current place, or feeling like you’ve reached your own plateau, you may be ready for your own pivot. Blake and I talked about how to head into career changes, along with pitching, planning, and pulling off a pivot. Her advice: when you hit a pivot point, meet it with a pivot mindset.

Quartz at Work: You went from a startup to Adwords product training at Google, then switched to managing career development there before writing a book and moving on to launch your own business. How and when did you realize you were making pivots?

Jenny Blake: When I was first hitting career plateaus—what I now call pivot points—there was no term pivoting. This was 2004 or 2005. The only language that I had was, “I must be having a quarter-life crisis.” Each time that I would hit a pivot point [and crave a switch to a new challenge], I felt that something was wrong with me. Why did I keep having them every few years?

I just felt like the problem was me. Maybe I’m one of those entitled millennials the media keeps talking about. But if a company like Google is hiring the best and the brightest and putting them in an entry-level support role, of course they’re gonna get bored in a year or two.

There’s no need to keep it a secret or feel bad telling the manager. We should be able to talk about it and then have a framework for moving through that. It took me time to stop blaming myself and just understand [feeling an urge to pivot to something new] is normal.

I had a similar moment after I switched off of my planned career path in my early twenties. Then a friend sent me a slide deck by Millie Tran making sense of her own non-linear career. Seeing a firsthand perspective on pivots made me feel like my shifts were okay. Why are others’ perspectives powerful when it comes to pivoting? 

The motto that I adopted when I was working on my book was if change is the only constant, let’s get better at it. I was prone to anxiety in my twenties—prone to worrying and people-pleasing and perfectionism. My friend Melody Wilding has a great term for it: she calls it the honor roll hangover.

If change is the only constant, I didn’t want to always feel so seasick. [At the time,] I felt like I was on a raft in the ocean, and everyone else was in a cruiseliner. It helps having a different mindset around change—saying I am not the only one feeling this way in my career. It’s okay to grow and want to go in a new direction.

A pivot is a mindset and a method. I think having a perspective shift around [not being alone] also helps stop the shame and blame about hitting a pivot point—and enables a person to start taking action.

So pivoting needs a change in perspective, then a change in action?

Right. You cannot figure out a pivot in advance. It inherently involves some reflection, yes, but then action.

I think the mindset shift helps get your head out of spinning mode, where nothing is happening because it all seems so overwhelming. [With a mindset shift towards pivoting,] you’ll get into a mode of action and experimentation.

It also sounds like a pivot mindset is a confidence building exercise. We have what we need to pivot, but sometimes it’s about convincing ourselves of it. 

I also think about it as diversifying your pivot portfolio. If you think about your career, you might have your core role. But there are always little side projects or personal skill-building you can do—even if it’s learning a language on Duolingo—that take the pressure off of any one thing being your sole source of fulfillment. You’ve got these other irons in the fire.

We’ve written about how people are more ready for their next pivot than they think. When it comes to career changes, how do you know you’re ready? 

The big secret is we’re always in a continual pivot. When we get better at both the mindset and the process, we’re always pivoting. We’re in a state of seeing what’s working. What can I do more of? How can I double down on that? What can I try?

Sometimes we think about pivots as massive changes, like quitting a job or starting your own business. Those are the big ones that are visible from the outside, but there’s so much more that happens in a continual way. If we put our focus on [the small moves], it makes the bigger moves less less high-stake and less high-pressure.

To read about Blake’s four-step process for making a pivot, see more of our conversation in The Memo. This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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