You’re in a career conundrum. Maybe your job isn’t aligned with your interests and you don’t feel like you’re growing. Maybe you’ve burned out from your corporate job and need a fresh start. Or, maybe you’re dreaming about leaving the 9:5 behind as a digital nomad.
Whatever the matter is, one thing is clear: you need change.
While the thought of new beginnings can bring cold sweats, there’s a way to make the process of change easier. It’s called thinking like a hacker — someone who builds things through trial-and-error. Much like programmers, hackers write code to build software. But the difference is that they do it their own way: once they have an idea, they set about “hacking” it to bring it to life. Their mindset is to ‘move fast, break things’ to get to the end result.
But here’s the thing: ”hacking” isn’t just for coders. In fact, the simple mindset of a hacker can help you reboot your career and reach your potential without wasting more time. Here are five principles of hackers to help you reach your goals.
1. Drop the master plan
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” While this is a relatively straightforward question when you’re 8, it’s much harder to answer when you’re 28. By this point, you’ve already invested time, effort, and money in a path. Deviating from it is costly. It requires a grand master-plan with milestones and timelines.
But a hacker will simply start. They understand that plans always change, so their goal is to test and learn until they find something that works.
So drop the master-plan and think in terms of well-laid hypotheses, instead. These are top-level alternatives for your career that you want to test. What types of roles, companies and industries could be a good fit? Don’t limit yourself to your existing line of work. Use the knowledge you have about your skills, interests and potential.
Your heart might sway between product management and marketing, or perhaps fintech and eCommerce. That’s perfectly normal — that simply indicates that there’s more that you need to explore. The beauty of having hypotheses over a master-plan is that it gives you clarity on what you need to test without locking you to one single path.
2. Don’t stop experimenting
Hackers experiment with solutions quickly. If one path isn’t successful, they move onto the next. The good news is that you don’t need coding skills to test your career hypotheses. Neither do you need to quit your 9-5 either to test what you’re cut out to do next.
Experiment, like any good hacker would do! Commit to running short sprints that focus on trying something new. Itching to break into tech as a designer? Start small. For one month, try out an online course to sharpen your burgeoning web design skills. The next month, put your newly-gained expertise to practice by creating a website for a friend. You’ll pick up not only hard skills, but also self-awareness and insider knowledge of what the role entails. Here are some other ways you can experiment with your career:
- Start a side project. Build something, organise an event, or maybe consult for a non-profit. Your side project might even turn out to be your next gig, or a launchpad to something new.
- Use your network. Reach out to people in roles or industries that interests you. Ask if they have time for a few informal questions about their career path and day-to-day work.
- Shadow someone. Offering your help to someone in a position you’re seeking is a useful way to immerse yourself in their world and understand if it’s a good fit for you too.
- Teach. Talk at events, take the initiative to mentor someone, or build content around a specific topic. The ‘learning-by-teaching’ effect is a proven approach.
3. Define your own success metrics
The best hackers test their code as they go. Failure to do so results in bugs down the line, and no one likes using software that crashes every five minutes.
As you experiment with your career, you might also need to stop and reflect on what matters to you. The sooner you define what success means, the faster you’ll build a fulfilling career. This is the tricky part: setting your own guiding metrics for getting there. Ask yourself the following questions:
- What’s your ideal level of responsibility?
- Do you see yourself leading a team or working independently?
- How much do you value purpose over income? Starting new things over optimizing the existing?
Your ratings for each of these metrics might change over time, but that’s fine. What matters is having a compass to evaluate your experiments and guide your next steps. Without it, it’s easy to lose yourself in the wrong career trajectory without even realizing it. Countless people might decide to climb the managerial route, even though they’re builders at heart. Others might think that they want the freedom of remote work, even though they’re extraverts who only thrive in a team.
Hacking your career requires you to be self-aware about your skills and what fulfills you. Having clearly-defined metrics will help you in this intense process of evaluating different industries, roles, and opportunities.
4. Dare to pivot
There’s a moment that every hacker’s experienced: the point in time when they realize that, despite their best efforts, nothing is working. This usually calls for a pivot — a shift of approach, a course correction to test a new hypothesis, or a plain rewrite.
Of course, temporary failure is to be expected. When to begin changing things is the more important question to ask — and this applies to your career as well. Maybe you’ve exhausted everything you could learn and achieve in a particular job. Or perhaps you’ve uncovered a promising opportunity in one of your experiments. Embracing change can be more fruitful than you ever imagined, whether it’s a small pivot in your current role or an entirely different path.
5. Don’t do it alone
While lone wolves exist, hackers tend to seek help from others, whether it’s to fix a bug or get feedback on their code. In fact, there’s even a practice called ‘pair programming’ where two coders buddy up to review and improve each other’s work.
In much the same way, don’t shy away from seeking help from mentors and peers. They’ll bring fresh perspectives to inform your decisions, or get you to consider avenues you hadn’t thought about. How do you do this? You can create your ‘personal board of directors’, periodically update your network on your career experiments, or ask direct feedback from ex-colleagues and bosses. Whatever you decide, welcome difficult questions and keep an open mind.