How can I build a self-directed career?

When I started reading The Lean Startup by Eric Ries, I didn’t fully know what to expect. Was I meant to understand how multi-million dollar companies operate? Would Ries’ insights be of any practical use to me in my professional pursuit? Or was it just one of those books that was meant to articulate more general methodologies but really only applied specifically to techies, or people who understood terms like viral co-efficient?

Only after getting stuck into TLS and putting it into context through initiating some of my own (offline) projects, did I understand this book’s true significance. What I found completely surprised me.

What I realised, was that The Lean Startup Strategy, a methodology for growth based on a continuous process of testing assumptions, validating learning, and optimising actions, can in so many ways be applied to my very own Self-Directed Career. Many of the principles that Ries illustrates are applicable not only to an extrinsic entity, like a business (even, in his case, turning over millions a year) but also to ourselves as Self-Directed Careerists. There are a number of ways in which the Lean Startup methodology can be applied to the ‘Startup of You’.

Let’s consider this: bootstrapping a startup, “a human institution designed to create new products and services under conditions of extreme uncertainty,” requires the creation of a product so that a sustainable business may be built around it. Now, in the Lean Startup of You, your product is your value, which you cultivate over time, and your business is you. Once I understood the fundamental idea that you are your most valuable asset, and that your success, as the Startup of You, relies on cultivating that value, I understood that Ries was offering a viable strategy of self-direction in our careers.

And actually, I found all of this under Contents. After going back and sifting through my notes, writing two other, very different articles to this one, I found my answer staring me in the face, right there on the first page, and it all made sense.

Ries gives us, on that first page, a clearly defined path of ‘how’, and I had missed it. If you can adapt its methods to fit your own Self-Directed professional pursuit, then you can make your dreams a systematic reality.

I am going to focus on the first stage Ries discusses in TLS.

Vision.

In this first stage he introduces us to the ‘lean manufacturing method’, whereby lean thinking, testing, validating and optimising, is applied to the process of innovation. Apply these same principles to your Self-Directed Career, or Old Work Order Escape, and you’ll soon begin to dissipate the fog of uncertainty that often clouds our judgements and perpetuates our fears.

Reis breaks down this first stage into four very specific components.

  • Start.
  • Define.
  • Learn.
  • Experiment.

These components are what I’m going to concentrate on, as it’s the same process that I’m experiencing everyday in my own professional pursuit. It also happens to be one of the hardest stages for most people because it requires us to reconcile our ideal vision; what we think we want eventually, with what we do today. The Lean Startup provides a framework to help us answer the question of what to do first.

Start.

Writing about starting is a tricky one because it can be over-complicated but also over-simplified. You’ll find the advice to ‘take action’ wherever you look, and with good reason. For the purposes of this article, I’m going to show you a common pattern that I’ve observed, that exists whenever we take action. Learning what to expect when we take action to begin, and being aware of how it helps propel us onwards and upwards, is the most powerful way to begin initiating in our own lives.

The Initiation Cycle (first published on The Collabara Project):

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At the risk of labouring the point, any Escape or Self-Directed Career must begin with initiation. It has to start somewhere and it starts with action. But if we start without direction, we’re just a flailing hose pipe. In the Lean Startup of You, our goal is to direct, focus, and define our initiative.

Define.

Brands aren’t built on one final grand idea, at least not initially, and nor should you be. If we understand that our idea of what we think we want to do might definitely change, we must work at building our value step by step, skill by skill, in order to reduce the amount of risk, or uncertainty throughout that process. This makes actually starting, easier. But we will only become aware of this change, by starting small. Testing our assumptions, exploring our potential, and cultivating our skills is starting small. In the Self-Directed Career, we need to make sure that we are in fact heading in the right direction.

As a competitive athlete for most of my life, it seemed natural that my first micro business should be a monthly membership outdoor bootcamp. My thought process went like this:

Athlete > loved training > what the hell do I do with my life? > get personal training qualification > train other people for money.

I didn’t realise it at the time, but this was me starting. I’ve since moved on from personal fitness, I’m now on a completely different trajectory, and I’ll no doubt find myself on a new path as I continue to learn and experiment. The difference now is that I have the foresight to expect it, and so I embrace it. This is the essence of ‘start before you’re ready’ advice, where taking action to begin does not presuppose where we’re going to end up. Stephen Covey, teaches us with his second of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, to begin with the end in mind, by articulating a Vision in our mind of who we are and what we want in life (i.e.  our ideal – check out Don’t Live in the Future, Do This Instead). In the Lean Startup of You, the ‘end in mind’ is constantly evolving as a direct result of starting, defining, learning, and experimenting.

Learn.

If we want to build something of value, and in our Self-Directed Career the most valuable thing is us, we must learn new skills. It stands to reason that if we are going to re-work, then we have much to re-learn. If our ideal vision doesn’t require us to learn new skills, then we must re-evaluate our vision. As Einstein notes, “We cannot solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” By the same token, we cannot progress in our Self-Directed Careers using only what we currently know, or can do. We need to get ‘skilled up’.

Certain things like writing, speaking, critical thinking and problem solving, website design, graphic design, branding and even reading are skills that if given time to learn and better, are invaluable tools. Never before has it been so important to make yourself your most valuable asset. Unlike a worker in an assembly line, you as an individual cannot be replaced on your own path to realising your vision. A fundamental step to becoming indispensable is to maximise your ‘in-house’ capabilities. This is not to say that we should endeavour to become a jack of all trades, and a master of none. But in the digital age, starting something more often than not means building a website, designing a logo, and writing copy as well as a whole host of other technical and creative skills. It’s our duty as Self-Directed Careerists to maximise as much as possible what we can do ourselves, and to fill the gaps by collaborating with people who have skills that we need.

Learning, as well as being a highly significant, stand alone process, is also the term given to our own evaluation of our actions and progress. If the fundamental goal of the Self-Directed Career is to build our value ‘under conditions of extreme uncertainty’ then learning is our most vital function. We must learn which of our skills and strategies are working to realise our vision, and which are superfluous and unnecessary. We must learn what the world really needs so that we may build relevant value and essentially make ourselves indispensable. We must put ourselves on a path that will lead to a growing and sustainable Self-Directed professional pursuit. Ries rehabilitates learning with a concept called validated learning. Validated learning is not a retrospective, should’ve, could’ve, would’ve approach, it is the process of empirically demonstrating that our actions and assumptions are leading us to success in real time.

Experiment.

I often see my own life as a petri dish in which I’m able to test things out, explore concepts that I’d never given a thought to before, and cultivate my potential.

Even in its infancy, what I’ve learned from building a blog has helped me better understand this stage. I am always changing and experimenting with my design. Partly because I love the creative side and I’m always wanting to try out new things, but mainly because as I change over time; my message changes, sometimes so slightly that an onlooker might not ever notice.

I see my blog as something to be cultivated and moulded over time. My articles, rather than being final pieces of work, are continuous works in progress. I have cultivated a growth mindset; understanding and being aware that we don’t know everything, and our professional pursuit is a continuous process of evolution and progression.

Put something out to the world, help it to grow and make the necessary changes to adapt your developing ideas. That’s really what innovation means.

Ries teaches us that sustainable businesses are built by continuously optimising over time, and so are indispensable individuals. If it’s our intention to escape, it’s crucial to understand that we’re not just rejecting a job, but an entire approach to our careers. The more we understand what it means to do meaningful work, the more we will flourish as a collective of connected, self-directed individuals. Time is our most valuable resource, and so by adopting a lean approach, we will be sure not to waste it.

Be curious, learn, experiment, and enjoy.

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Erin Potter is a self-declared wannabe writer and explorer of the New Work Order. She’s a bonafide Self-Directed Careerist, and since quitting university half way through to move continents, she hasn’t given herself any other choice but to make things happen. You can follow her exploration on her blog, The Nudie Life


Doing something different with your life and starting a business is hard… but you don’t have to do it alone. If you need help with your Escape and if you are ready to re-take control over your life, join our Tribe.

“My own startup journey has shown me that there is no ‘secret recipe’ for starting a business that will work. However there are a hell of a lot of things you can do to give yourself the best chance whilst minimising your risk as much as is possible. If I can do it, you can do it.”

– Rob Symington, Escape the City co-founder.

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