Creativity is Required for Alt-Ac Career Planning

I’ve been thinking alot about creativity and career planning this week. Not just in a general sense of thinking outside the box, but more in the sense that career planning requires you to flex and use your creativity. And fortunately, for academics, this is one area in which we all excel.

All Work Requires Creativity

This is easy to forget, especially in today’s society where creativity is associated so strongly with only art. Or more dangerously, that it is an innate characteristic or talent, as if it is limited only to a select, chosen few – brainchilds who work in certain professions. Or that it is limited to only certain industries.

Creativity is a skill. One that anyone can use, that you can strengthen, that all work requires to some degree, and that most academics have in spades.

Most importantly, it’s a skill that’s required for making an alt-ac career trajectory work.

But what I have experienced is that hearing that you need to be creative might scare you. First I’ll break down why, what to do about it, and what role it plays in career planning.

We Barely Understand Creativity

Many believe that creativity is something you’re either born with…or not. And while experts even disagree on the degree to which creativity is nature or nurture, the truth is that creativity is poorly understood in general.

Nevermind our Own Creative Process

On top of that, most of us aren’t very in touch with our own creative process. Some have found success in following a regimented prescription. You know the ones: rise daily at 5 am, writers, and just write for 2 hours. That’s great if it works for you!

But if it doesn’t, believing that wrestling creativity to the ground is the only way to get creative work done does more harm than good. Because then you’re hearing yourself conclude: Since I can’t just sit here for 2 hours and have brilliant -or ANY – thoughts come…I must just be unable to be creative, I guess.

Some have a very specific sequence that must happen – tidy the mess, clean the desk, exercise for 30 minutes, get a specific type of coffee, and only then can I conceive of writing. Again, great if it works! But what if *sometimes* those sequences and prescriptions work, and other times they just don’t! So then what?

ETA: I just heard a an interview with Carolyn Gregoire talked about her creativity being seasonal and cyclical. Holy crap, that’s a whole new level of possibility for me.

Source: Hannahlyze This podcast

So not only is creativity in general not understood, the creative process is also highly individualistic and varies widely!

We Unlearn – or Stop Practicing Being Creative

Some say we get creativity taught out of us through schooling. Oof if that’s the case, because for academics, especially, then we all have a lot of unlearning to do. (Or, I suppose even more schooling to get back in touch with it, as “Can You Learn to be Creative?” from the BBC implies.)

And all of us have had a creative idea shot down at some point, usually at a very impressionable age. A drawing that a teacher can’t “recognize,” a dance move that your best friend mocks, a suggestion that a parent laughs at as wholly impractical. As a result, most of us hear loud and clear the message from someone influential – a teacher, a friend, a parent – to tame, rein in, or just plain old shut down our creativity.

So I get why being told it’s time to get creative may be scary. Hard. Make you want to crawl under your desk. But nevertheless, we gotta persist.

Why Creativity is Required for Career Planning

Even with all those barriers in place, creativity is required for career planning and career change, in particular. Creativity is a useful framework for career planning, especially for academics who are facing or need to figure out a career change.

Especially as an alt-ac, you’re going to have to think creatively about your work.

If you’re here, you already know why. I’ve got no way around this. The faculty job market sucks. So you need to know where else to turn. And while I wish I could just bullet list all the employers looking for someone JUST LIKE YOU, there aren’t yet whole industries swooping in to scoop up all academics. Without a scalable model – and systemic change among employers! – it leaves us as individuals to carve our own paths out. It is not easy.

This is one of the criticisms of alt-ac career planning that I constantly grapple with, by the way. That the alt-ac career rhetoric still leaves you to tackle this, rather than addressing the real systemic issues. I think that criticism is totally fair, which is why there are many of us really active in this space, trying to get us to scalable solutions, ones that really can work across disciplines, across industries, and that legitimately value academics. But until that model emerges, should you sit around and wait for change to come, or is it time to get creative and figure out how YOU are getting out this mess?

So figuring your way out requires creativity. Thinking creatively about your options. Getting creative with how you frame your experience and skills. Marketing yourself creatively and memorably.

And who you are as you make your way onto a new path requires more creativity. Even once you’ve found a new career, most alt-acs, myself included still struggle with a succinct career “identity.” This may be because a portfolio career – in which you blend and mix jobs (to pay the bills and get benefits) and passions (your academic / professional / personal endeavors) – is your solution. Or maybe because you feel like an outsider on both ends – you’re now working outside of your academic field AND also not trained specifically for your new field.

And finally, academics often forget this part, but it’s time to think creatively about the role your career plays. What relationship do you want with your new career? Are you fully leaning in? Or is it going to be just a transactional relationship – one that enables you to pay your bills and save up for other goals? As a coach, I want you to think of your self creatively, to think about what could be creatively.

And so it’s time to flex your creative muscles so you can get closet to the right mindset for all of your career planning work.

Practice the Creative Skill First

One of the best ways I can ease clients into having a more open mindset about their careers is to have them do something fun and creative. Depending on how open-minded they already are, I might try something small. Or it might take a few creative exercises to draw out the openness that career planning requires.

When you’re career planning on your own, try starting with something that will spark your creativity and curiosity. It might be something simple like taking the Adobe Creative Types quiz . Or maybe going for a walk in a beautiful park. Listening to some new music. Watching a TED talk about building your creativity. Reading Carolyn Gregoire’s really interesting articles about creativity.

The point is to get practice in exercising your creative skill, and seeing that it’s not a negative experience, that it’s meant to be liberating, that it comes without rules, that YOUR way will be just fine, and that you can begin to reacquaint yourself with and trust your instincts again.

That way, when you face doing the harder work of thinking of your career creatively, you’re more equipped to brainstorm your options more freely, in a better frame of mind for reading job descriptions, and what I’ve found (though it sounds counterintuitive): more grounded in sorting through the realities and practicalities of work (the minimum pay you need, what you are / not willing to accept about a job, etc.)

To be prepared to switch paths often requires flexing that creativity muscle.

Fear Not! Academics Have a Creative Advantage

Think about it: As an academic, you thrive at thinking creatively about your field, about the intersectionality of different theorists and different disciplines, and the possible applications of your field and work. And that’s good, because, you will also have to think creatively about your career. Your professional identity, your possible future paths, and where and how you can grow.

And you’re trained to think about things deeply. To look at things critically. To question them. And so while it may be daunting to have to switch career paths, it’s not because you’re not creative. It’s usually because there are TOO MANY possibilities. (Analysis paralysis and decision fatigue set in. That’s where setting one goal and narrowing your focus become key.)

You have what you need to get there: creativity, intelligence, flexibility, and mad skills. As a career coach, of course I’m here to help you when you want help, but strengthening your creativity in your day to day life can help open your mind to seeing where the possibilities might lead.

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