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Inspiration: How to look outside your day-to-day to find new opportunities
Post Three in the Captain Career Series
Captain Career is a series of blog posts detailing how to use the design thinking process to design your career. It’s brought to you by Crew, the career platform for people who want to design fulfilling careers. Current writing and illustration are a collaboration between Crew co-founder Mollie Amkraut Mueller and creator-in-residence Charlota Blunarova.
In the previous post, we explained how to look inwards to determine what matters to you in your career. In this post, we tackle the next career design activity: Inspiration.
Mollie’s first job after college was working as an auditor at a Big Four accounting firm. This was an excellent place to start her career, however after a year or two she realized the nature of the work wasn’t right for her, and she started to think about what to do next. Mollie thought she wanted to move into a creative role at a direct-to-consumer company, but she had no idea where to look or what to look for. Her days were spent inside the accounting firm and her network was made up of other finance professionals. It was hard to think up ideas outside of this world.
Mollie’s story is a typical one.
As we progress in our work, we form routines and build close networks. Both are incredibly useful in optimizing our current work, but they get in the way of thinking expansively about what our future holds. Routines rarely include time for big picture thinking, and our close networks are full of people who think and work similarly to us. We have optimized our lives to help us do our current work very well.
But what happens when we want to get off this path and explore different versions of our careers?
Well, that’s when we need to shift to a creative process, and Getting Inspired is the perfect career design activity to get us started.
Career Design activity: Getting Inspired
In design thinking, we devote time to activities that feel only loosely related to the topic at hand. We call these activities Inspiration and they serve two purposes: 1) inspiring new thinking (sparking ideas and connections we wouldn’t get just by studying our topic narrowly), and 2) giving us an energy bump (getting out into the world, seeing new things, and making new connections between ideas can be thrilling!).
Some common types of Inspiration activities in design include:
Research with people who we call “extreme users.” These tend to be people who are either 150% into the thing we’re exploring or avoid it like the plague. Their extreme love or hate can teach us a lot about what there is to play up or avoid when designing a new product. For example, this could mean interviewing people who love going to the cinema 15 times a month and would never consider watching a movie on a regular TV, and also people who have spent big money kitting out their home entertainment system because they’re obsessed with streaming movies from their (delux) couch.
Analogous research, where we look outside our industry and immediate circles for unique ways that others have approached a similar challenge. A famous example of this is a story of a group of surgeons who made an inspiring trip to a Formula 1 pit stop. The quick coordination and teamwork required to change a tire in one second is not dissimilar to the coordination needed around an operating table and between hospital teams. This visit sparked ideas about adding new command structures and roles during operations and improved the surgeons’ workflow.
Immersive experiences that get us out of our comfort zone. These feel uncomfortable at first, but jolt our brains in a way that can lead to new observations and ideas. This can mean experiencing your city by taking only left turns on your way to work, or more sophisticated events, like eating dinner at a restaurant blindfolded.
Recently our colleagues at IDEO helped a van company think about how to design the van’s interior to make better use of the space. Of course, the team met with lots of current van owners who could speak directly about this topic, but they also took time to seek inspiration from less directly related sources. For example, they spoke with hikers who cross mountains with only 15 lb backpacks, with young digital nomads who live and work their IT jobs from a tent in Iceland, and with a real astronaut who knows a thing or two about limited space from his time on a space station! These more extreme, analogous examples got them thinking differently about how people perceive their space, and they were able to translate some of these unique insights into design principles for the van interior.
Here’s another example of an immersive experience that put us into a creative thinking zone: A few years back we worked on a project helping small businesses adapt to change. To get inspired, our team did a group improv class because improv is all about responding quickly to change. In addition to helping us empathize with the feeling of rapid change, doing an activity so different from our day-to-day routine got us out of our cognitive, thinking brain and into a more intuitive, creative mode. As is usually the case with this type of activity, we returned to the studio bursting with insights and ideas.
Inspiration spawns new thinking and it creates energy. This is useful both at the start of the career design process and anytime you get stuck (and we all get stuck).
How to find inspiration for your career
The key to getting inspired is getting out of your normal routine. The good news is, there are infinite ways to do so. Here are a few ideas.
Immerse yourself in content that’s unrelated to your current job.
This can be as easy as listening to a new podcast or reading a new blog. You can tweak your Twitter, TikTok, or Instagram timeline by following people who talk about topics that pique your curiosity.
Charlota did this with blockchain technologies and gardening – two topics which she’d been curious about for a long time. By (digitally) immersing herself in these two unrelated topics, she could consume bite-size bits of new information during her everyday scroll, helping her build new knowledge easily. Soon she found that the more content she consumed, the more curious she became. Her curiosity around blockchain turned into deeper fascination, and this led her to take on some part-time projects in the blockchain space. This is an example of how something that started out as a casual interest, once given just a bit more attention, turned into a potential career path.
Pick up a new hobby (painting, karate, a new language, etc.).
Doing a hobby will get you using a different part of your brain and have you meeting new people who have careers different from yours. The same goes for taking a course. Learning something new is incredibly inspiring, and a great reminder that learning never stops.
Mollie has done this a few times in recent years. She’s taken German courses, tennis classes, and even recently tried out some singing lessons. None of these things has anything to do with her line of work, but it was a great way to meet people outside of her normal social and professional circles, which gave her visibility into lots of different jobs and sectors. For example, in her German course, she met several teachers and learned a bit about the school system in London. While not directly relevant to her work, speaking with someone who teaches math to sixteen-year-olds has a way of making you wonder if you might enjoy aspects of that work. Similarly, the singing lessons got Mollie curious about the record industry, song-writing, and music history, and she began to wonder what working in the music sector would be like.
Reach out to someone whose work you follow and admire.
It could be a person within your company, a friend, a writer, or someone you follow on social media. Send them a nice note saying that you’re fascinated by their work and would love 15 minutes to learn more about their career path.
Here’s an example note to get you started:
We haven’t met, but I’ve been following your work at ____ for a while now and really love how you’ve ________[something they’ve done in their career, or a point of view they recently expressed online]. Your ______ inspired me to _______[for example, your tweet about productivity inspired me to start batching my emails]. I’m happy for the time being in my current work, but starting to think about what’s next. I’m wondering if you might have 15 minutes to tell me how you got into ______[role/line of work], and what you like about it.
You’ll see in this note that we’ve 1) flattered the person, 2) shown that we’ve done some research by mentioning things specific to them, and 3) made a small ask. There is a whole art to sending this type of note, but this should be a decent starter.
If they respond, fantastic! Spend your 15 minutes listening to their story and seeing if you could see yourself in their job. If they don’t answer, don’t give up. This is fairly common (people are busy!). Just move on to a different person, and if you really want to connect with them, follow up in a few months time. Many people will appreciate the perseverance.
So, how did Mollie use inspiration activities to move beyond accounting? Through a mix of the above! She joined a volunteer organization that helped high school kids learn entrepreneurship. This was a bit scary since she didn’t know anything about startups back then, but it was a great way to learn, meet new people, and get outside of her comfort zone. She also started reaching out to people in her university alumni community to learn about their career paths. Finally, she bookmarked Techcrunch in her web browser and increased her reading about tech. Through a combination of these activities, she built up her curiosity and excitement for the startup space, which led her to eventually find a part-time job working at a startup.
Inspiration is about being open to new experiences, actively observing the world around you, drawing learnings, and applying your thinking in different situations. It awakens us to new possibilities, which is helpful especially when we feel lost in the fog of unknowns. And when you’re building or exploring something new, that happens all the time! We believe getting inspired is a skill worth cultivating, whether you use that inspiration to shape your career or any other aspect of your life.
In our next post, we'll talk about how to move from inspiration to action.
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Captain Career is written by Mollie and Charlota.
Mollie Amkraut Mueller is an accountant turned business designer turned entrepreneur who is now building Crew, a cohort-based coaching program that helps professionals design careers they love. She hails from Seattle and currently lives in London with her husband and crazy goldendoodle puppy. When she’s not nerding out on careers, she can be found spending time outdoors, giving museum tours on 18th-century French art, or watching classic British reality TV.
Charlota Blunarova is a designer-generalist, who loves building brands and products. After living in Boston and Munich, she’s now based in the beautiful Prague, taking a creative sabbatical to actively prototype the next direction of her career. She is a plant parent to a wild home jungle, an explorer of the decentralized web, and curious about how technology transforms the relationship we have with our jobs. She used to be a wedding photographer and probably tasted more wedding cakes than anyone else (not bragging - that’s just facts!). She is also the creator-in-residence at Crew.
Both Mollie and Charlota spent several years at the leading design firm IDEO helping clients around the world to think more creatively and build better products and services.