3 Rules for Reinventing Your Career

Most successful people occupy a certain space in the working world — executive, lawyer, doctor, academic — and learn to master that space. They may go through peaks, twists and valleys within that space, but fundamentally they have one career. Think of Mike Krzyzewski, men’s basketball coach at Duke University.

Then there are those with a wanderlust disposition when it comes to careers, trying on many hats during a working life and finding several suitable fits.

Are there certain traits common to these individuals other than some sort of job-related attention deficit disorder? I think so. These individuals — let’s call them re-inventors — do three things well:

  1. Constantly move forward.Re-inventors don’t ruminate. They don’t live life through the rearview mirror; they look out the front and keep driving. It is a loser’s game to harp on enemies unvanquished in boardroom wars or worry about mistakes made along the way. Throw the good stuff on the seat next to you, put the bad stuff in the trunk and press down on the accelerator.  
  2. Practice realistic optimism. An optimistic outlook predicts (and creates) an abundance of good life outcomes but many are skeptical of its benefits. Why? Mainly because we think optimism sets us up for trouble and woe. Re-inventors look at things differently. They are confident in their own abilities and capacity to successfully navigate change and uncertainty. “Things will work out” is one of their favorite sayings. Re-inventors don’t Pollyannishly ignore risk; they prudently assess a future situation with a fact-based but optimistic bias.
  3. Stay authentic. Re-inventors are constantly working to better themselves by changing habits, learning new skills and trying to be nicer to people. But successful reinventors never lose sight of their core values or who they are in their heart. They have plenty of new friends but don’t forget old ones. They don’t adopt a fake Euro accent (unless they are actually FROM Europe) or quit going to high school reunions. Their mom still recognizes the little boy or girl in them. They stay real.

Are you at a crossroads? Ask yourself whether these traits sound like you. If they do, don’t be scared to do something new and completely different. You’ll be amazed at where life might take you.

Editor’s note: Dan Bowling entered teaching after a career as a lawyer and Coca-Cola executive. Despite being what he calls a “poor to mediocre” law student, this spring he was awarded Duke Law School’s Distinguished Teaching Award.