My first gig after college was a year-long internship on the op-ed page of USA Today. My official job description involved fact-checking columns and getting quotes from famous people on whatever topic the late Al Neuharth wrote about in his column that week.
I had been uncertain about taking that job, versus trying to find one at a small daily newspaper where I could write frequently. But eventually I had a realization: Getting in the door counts for a lot. Once in, you may be able to change your job description. I asked to start writing headlines and began doing so. As I fact-checked columns, I saw what kinds of columns got accepted. I started submitting columns that looked like the accepted ones. By the time I left that internship a year later, my job had morphed into a gig regularly writing columns, and I was named a member of the paper's Board of Contributors.
It turns out there's a phrase for turning the job you have into the job you want: job crafting. While we tend to think of jobs as fixed things, "people do a lot of innovating within their work," says Jane Dutton, a professor of business administration and psychology at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business. Along with Amy Wrzesniewski of the Yale School of Management, and Justin Berg, a doctoral student at the Wharton School at Penn, Dutton created a process called the Job Crafting Exercise designed to help people start thinking about how malleable their jobs might be. She reports that people job-craft in three ways: by changing tasks, by changing who they work with, or changing the meaning assigned to the work.
The last two have a great impact on happiness, but it's the first that people often think about in terms of career advancement. It requires some strategy, but is quite doable, says Dan Schawbel, author of the new book Promote Yourself: The New Rules for Career Success--out September 3. In 2007, Schawbel was working for EMC--and hoping to work in social media, but not getting very far, when he read Tom Peters's famous 1997 Fast Company article "The Brand Called You." Schawbel rebranded his blog as PersonalBrandingBlog.com, and started writing about the topic. Fast Company profiled Schawbel; Google invited him to come speak. EMC's PR people saw the Fast Company article and forwarded it to the EMC vice president, who was starting a social media team. Soon enough, Schawbel had created the first ever social media position at EMC.
The first step to starting a similar journey? Figure out what you're interested in, and what might be part of your ideal job. I loved (I still do!) blathering about my opinions. Schawbel loved social media, though he didn't know this from day one in the job market since--though he's young--it didn't exist then. "I did 8 internships," he says. "I did internships in high school and started own small company in college," and in each gig he figured out what he didn't enjoy and what he did. "It was process of elimination for me." None of that is easy, but it's harder to turn the job you have into the job you want if you don't know what you want.
Step two is to figure out how some of your interests might reasonably intersect with your employer's interests. At USA Today, for instance, all my first columns had to do with college-related topics: hook-ups, admissions, sports recruiting, etc. The paper didn't have many writers covering these topics, but had readers on college campuses (or whose children were in college) who would be interested in reading about their lives. "Think about where you fit best, and where you can make the biggest difference," says Schawbel. Use your internal social networks to figure out what matters in your company and how you might help fill gaps. Smart companies may even have internal project boards that help you figure out what's going on elsewhere.
Finally, make the case. While Schawbel's research has found that many companies are open to lateral moves, the surest way to be granted permission to try something new is to do it on top of your regular job. "You have to master your current role," says Schawbel. "If you can't deliver above expectations in your current role, if you can't fulfill your job description in the best possible way, you're not going to be able to get a new job at your company." The good news is that if you've mastered your role, you may have some free time and won't have to put in too many additional hours to take on your new tasks, too.
If your manager is still skeptical? "Do it outside of work," says Schawbel. His blog started as a hobby before it eventually landed him his new job description at EMC. If you produce great results, they may speak for themselves.