How to Prototype Your Career

“Experience is the teacher of all things.”

Julias Ceasar was definitely on to something with this famous phrase. There’s no substitute for getting your hands dirty — the best way to learn something is to try it for yourself. Sure, you can read everything on the internet, ask for advice from friends, or even consult an expert, but you won’t know for sure how you feel about an experience – a new restaurant, a tourist attraction, or even as we’re going to discuss here, a new job – until we actually try it.

Enter prototyping.

A prototype is an early sample, model, or release of a product built to test a concept or process or to act as a thing to be replicated or learned from. … A prototype is generally used to evaluate a new design to enhance precision by system analysts and users. Prototyping serves to provide specifications for a real, working system rather than a theoretical one.

-Wikipedia

In classic design prototyping, the goal is to work out any kinks before going into production, in a low cost, low risk way. Career prototyping follows a similar approach – try, iterate, try again, iterate again. This means getting experiences that allow you to figure out if a type of role or career is likely to be a good fit.

There are a few ways you can prototype a career without committing to a new full time role.

  • Volunteering is the simplest way to get hands on experience without committing to a role. Maybe there’s a local event you can help out with, or perhaps an organization that you feel strongly about and would like to support. Resources like Idealist or VolunteerMatch can also help you find volunteer roles near you.
  • Shadowing is another great way to get a feel for a potential career. Use LinkedIn or network your connections to find someone with a role that sounds interesting to you, and shadow them for a few days. See how they fill their day, what their office environment is like, the challenges they might face.
  • Freelancing is a great option for self-starters, particularly if you work in a creative field. Websites like Upwork and Fiverr list thousands of freelance roles from software development to graphic design, so you can work with a real project with real deadlines and real clients. It’s not only a perfect way to test your strengths and skill sets, but also a great way to see how well you work by yourself.
  • Short-term or part-time positions give you the opportunity to really work a position, just without the full-time commitment. Check out sites like Parker Dewey for ideas. It’s a great way to feel out a business environment as a whole before jumping into a permanent job.
  • Conferences or seminars, while not necessarily giving on-the-job experience, can open a window into a specific field of work or even a company you might be interested in. And conferences are a great way to learn more about recent trends, best practices, or new strategies in your desired career path.

So how does this work? Before prototyping, consider these three questions:

  • What am I curious to discover?
  • What can I try in order to learn more?
  • When I reflect on my experience, what did I learn about myself?

Wondering why YOU have to get the experience and you can’t just take someone else’s word for whether the job or company will fit? It’s simple – each of us will have a different experience with the same event. It’s why we caution about assuming a company’s listing on a Top Companies to Work For list means it will be a good fit for you. There’s even data from brain scans that supports this, showing what we all intuitively know: We can each see the same event but feel very differently about it.

To get the most out of your career prototype, you’ll want to do some serious reflecting after the experience. Ask yourself:

  • How did this measure up to my expectations?
  • What features worked for me? What didn’t?
  • If I had a magic wand, what would I change?

You’ll also want to specifically drill down into the elements of your prototype and make some Pro/Cons lists:

  • Work environment: Did you enjoy your work space? Did you spend enough time inside or outside? Did you like the office culture?
  • Cause/issue: Did you find the work personally meaningful? Were you supporting something you feel strongly about?
  • People: What personality types did you enjoy working with? Did you find you enjoyed working on a team, or working alone? What types of work did you enjoy as part of a team, and which did you prefer to do solo?
  • Pace: How was the workload? Were you challenged too much, or too little? Is there room for you to learn and grow?
  • Type of work: Did you enjoy the tasks that were given to you? Which ones would you like to do more of? Which could you do without?
  • Growth: Can you picture yourself doing the work from your prototype for a long time? Is there room for growth, such as a higher position? Do you see potential mentors or people you can learn from? Is there enough job stability for you in this path?

According to Cindy Atman, director for the University of Washington Center for Engineering Learning & Teaching: “Reflecting on new information and making connections to prior learning and diverse contexts is a critically important skill for the 21st century workforce.” But reflection is not useful just for career launchers, it’s equally important if you’re in the midst of yours. According to executive coach Jennifer Porter, “Reflection gives the brain an opportunity to pause amidst the chaos, untangle and sort through observations and experiences, consider multiple possible interpretations, and create meaning”.

Or as education reformer John Dewey put it, “We don’t learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.”

Stay tuned for our next installment on Career Prototyping – we’ll go over five real world examples of bite-sized jobs and what you can learn from each!