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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

4 Secrets to Taking Career Risks—While Still Paying Your Rent

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“Take more risks!” is a common refrain these days. People of all ages are encouraged by their peers and employers alike to keep from staying stagnant—to mix it up, to try new things!—all in the name of spurring innovation, finding your passion, and making big things happen for your career.

Risk-taking is encouraged. But so is loyalty, building your brand and reputation by doing your job well, and—of course—paying your bills. How are you supposed to take risks then, while also ensuring you don’t put yourself in career or financial ruin?

“You have to manage those risks,” says Rachel Kim, Career Strategist and Coach at leading online lender and modern finance company SoFi. “But we do think the career trend is moving toward people taking their own risks, before they risk losing their job in an unstable market.”

There are a lot of reasons why people don’t experiment more when it comes to their livelihood, but most of them stem from fear: fear of failure, fear of criticism, fear of the unknown. But there’s another side of the coin, too—the potential for opportunity to learn and grow by taking risks. Knowing that, it’s time to get uncomfortable, get out of your comfort zone, and push aside your fear to bet on actually reaping massive reward.

You’ve probably heard a few common ideas for mixing things up, like starting a side hustle or taking a few online classes—and those are great ways to take the first steps toward your career goals without putting too much on the line.

But what else is there? Quite a bit, actually! Here are a few ways to make those big risks feel infinitely more doable.

1. Network for New Opportunities Under Your Nose

Transferring departments, relocating to another city (or country!), or telecommuting once a week—there are myriad opportunities for changing it up right where you work. And the inherent risks in those big changes, whether you’re gunning for the new gig in marketing or gearing up to pitch your boss on working remotely, can be softened by the relationships you already have in place.

“From day one, we recommend the simplest steps at work: Smile and introduce yourself to everybody,” says Kim. “Get to know other people and what they do, but also understand who they are as people. Build bridges so that you can get intel on new opportunities, build advocates to support transitions, ask to shadow a project, and so on.”

And if you don’t yet have good inter-office relationships? Start now. Use technology to your advantage—connect with colleagues on LinkedIn, and start conversations based on their background and interests. Open up about who you are and what you’re interested in, but also be creative about how you can support the people around you.

Once you do, you’ll likely find that you’re privy not just to new opportunities, but also to useful advice and feedback that will support and encourage you as you take risks in your work—at your current company even in your current role and throughout your professional career.

2. Design the Job You Want

Or, in other words, take the risk of trying out something new at the place that already sends you that steady paycheck. Start by asking: What does my company want? And then: How can I use my strengths and interests to fill that need?

This is an entrepreneurial skill that most companies love. You are solving a problem and aligning your work with your skills and passions. It’s a win-win for you and your employer!

While it’s fairly simple to figure out where your company needs more support, it’s not always easy to figure exactly what you want. In instances like this, Kim recommends trying to write a personal mission statement, or—better yet—turning to the support of an unbiased party, like a career coach.

“A really good coach asks good questions to help you think through who you are, what your strengths are, and what you want,” she explains. “A great coach sees beyond what you can see, and they’ll coach you so you can really believe that about yourself as well. They help you make external and internal connections—between how you see yourself and what your possibilities are.”

For this reason, SoFi offers career strategy and coaching services to its members, guiding them toward the opportunities that advance both their passion and their professional viability. Whether you work with a coach or not, once you’re clear on the work you can do in the world, you can connect that to the needs of your company and design a position that suits you both.

Once you’ve figured this out, craft a pitch to your manager that highlights the benefits of this new role for you and for the company. Emphasize your commitment to your work and the company’s growth, and outline specific ways this new role could solve a problem or boost the bottom line.

At the end of the day, what’s the worst they can say? Thanks, but no thanks? You’ll still be that much clearer on the work you want to do—and perhaps ready to risk doing that work elsewhere!

3. Skip the Staycation; Try a “Shadowcation” Instead

Shadowing someone is another great way to try on a different career without having to leave your current job. It gives you realistic insight into what it’s really like to do the job—you may find it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be, once you’ve (literally) walked a few miles in those new career shoes. And shadowing someone in a new position or a different career will help you expand your network, connecting you to people who are already doing the work you want to pursue.

Start by soliciting shadowing opportunities as you would job opportunities: Turn to your network or research and connect with people you admire in the industry you’re interested in. Send emails to the appropriate contacts indicating who you are, what your background is, why you’d love to shadow them, and when. Let them know that you are open to whenever works best for them, and are happy to work around their schedule.

Then, clear your schedule. Use a few personal days to “shadowcation” instead of “staycation”-ing, ensuring that your manager and your co-workers will know you’re offline and unavailable.

Much like with a job interview, do your research before you show up, learning about the industry, the company, and the person you’ll be shadowing. Come prepared with specific questions you have about each, but make sure you’re not asking questions you could easily answer yourself with a little bit of Googling. And instead of just following them around all day (or week), offer to help out! Ask for specific assignments you can complete and meetings you might be able to sit in on.

Finally, spend some time at the end of your shadowcation reviewing your experience with the person you shadowed, reviewing any follow-up questions and asking for feedback on your own performance. Of course, don’t forget to send a note or a small gift of thanks, and stay in touch with your contact! This might be the start to a new professional relationship.

4. Weigh the Costs

“Following your passion is important, but so is taking care of your responsibilities,” says Kim. “At SoFi, we want people to feel like they’re taking a ‘good’ risk.”

The best way to feel comfortable with the risk you’re taking is to calculate just how risky it is—and to make a plan to manage that risk. What will it actually cost you? If you’re thinking about changing careers, for instance, consider: What’s my projected income if I stay? What’s my projected income if I switch? Or maybe you think you need to quit your job to find your passion. Think through: How many months do I think I would need to take off (and how many would I in the worst-case scenario)? How much of my savings would that require dipping into?

SoFi currently has a “Return on Education” tool that helps members calculate the financial return of their degree, and the team is also working on a salary tool, based on the plethora of degree-, location-, and industry-focused salary information in their proprietary database. Additionally, Kim says that she and the other career coaches at SoFi always recommend adding a recruiter to your network as an unbiased party who will help you understand the financial implications of a given move. “They’ll give you the real numbers,” she shared.

But there is also, perhaps, an even more important number than money to consider when planning for a career risk: what’s your “ROR” or “Return On Risk”?

“There’s so much more to consider than salary,” says Kim. “More often, people take career risks to find more happiness and meaning, not more money. Remember what you’re giving up if you don’t take this risk—why did you consider it in the first place? Even if you failed, what do you gain? If you don’t even take the risk, what have you lost? That’s the real cost.”

By planning ahead, crunching these numbers, and reflecting on your ROR now, you will actually have an answer to “What’s the worst that could happen?” and can make a plan to overcome or prepare for it, like saving money to lower the risk and lessen your fear. You’ll also have a clearer understanding of “What’s the BEST that could happen?”—giving you more motivation to push through the risk. Whatever you do, it won’t seem quite as risky when you have planned ahead.

“At the end of the day, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” says Kim. “Sometimes you just have to start and then you’ll figure it out.”

Sure, there’s a chance your risk-taking won’t pay off, but if you approach it with careful consideration and planning, and if you believe in your ability to succeed at something new, you’ll likely see greater professional rewards than you ever thought possible.