EMMA WASN’T READY TO COMMIT TO ONE CAREER PATH SO SHE SPENT A YEAR TRYING OUT 25 DIFFERENT CAREERS, INCLUDING EVERYTHING FROM GARDEN DESIGN TO INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM. THIS IS HER STORY.
Could you introduce yourself and share what you’re working on at the moment.
I’m Emma Rosen. I recently spent a year working in 25 different careers before my 25thbirthday, which worked out as roughly one every two weeks, and I completed the 25before25 project about 18 months ago. Since then I have published my first book, called The Radical Sabbatical, and I’m now in the process of turning that into a business by the same name, to provide an end-to-end career change service for millennials in particular, by providing them with work experience and work shadowing opportunities, to help guide them through a career change. This forms part of a wider portfolio career, where I also work as a speaker going into schools, universities and businesses to talk about the importance of work experience, the future of work, how to work with millennials and so on, as well as starting to write my second book!
Going back in time before the 25before25 project, you started out your career in the public sector working in a competitive graduate scheme. Can you describe what you were doing in that role and what prompted you to make a career change?
I joined the civil service on their graduate scheme, which I was lucky enough to get onto, and it was literally my dream job – it was exactly what I wanted to do. My main incentive for the work I wanted to do then and now is to make some kind of a positive contribution to society. So joining the government seemed like an obvious option, to work on big issues like education or health care and implementing those policies.
The Fast Stream was a relatively well-paid graduate scheme, it was a secure job, it used all the skills I’d honed at university, and to top it off my parents were really proud of me. Essentially I ticked all of the big boxes that were expected of me as outcomes from my education; this was the reward for working really hard for years through school and investing tens of thousands into a university degree.
But then…I started the job and within about two weeks I thought “What have I done?” It wasn’t one thing in particular that made me hate the job, but part of the issue was realising that I wasn’t well suited to a graduate scheme. I’ve since realised that I’m someone who needs to be in control of my working life. A graduate scheme offers great access to training and development, but in my experience it meant that someone was micro-managing my career for me by dictating what projects I would work on and what skills I was using day-in, day-out. It became clear that self-discovery and independent learning were really important to me. Also, it was the first time I had worked in a permanent role and it dawned on me that my job was so stable and predictable that I knew what it would look like in 50 years time. I knew that years could pass by and I could still be sat in this same office….that freaked me out!
In addition I realised that I had never taken the working environment into account when thinking about my career. I’d always assumed that I would work in a 9-5 office job, and had never even considered the possibility of working in another environment, yet the reality of being bound to a desk in an office wasn’t suiting me.
That all said, I didn’t up and leave straight away. I stuck it out. I changed roles and worked in a different department, before eventually accepting that I was still really unhappy. This unhappiness was affecting the quality of my work, my relationships with friends and family, and my weekends were impacted too because I became less social and spent more time worrying about Monday morning.
It left me with a question: if this isn’t for me, then what is? I didn’t know the answer so I set out to try and find it – I read lots of blog posts, newspaper articles and so on around the topic, but nothing really helped. One night, more out of desperation than inspiration, I wrote a list of every job that I’d ever wanted to try just to see what came up. I ended up with a list of 25, and since I was just about to turn 24 years old I came up with the idea of ‘25 before 25’, which sounded catchy, giving me the opportunity to try out all these jobs I was interested in. I saw it as a project with a definitive start and end point and I planned to write a blog along the way, to document my portfolio of work and skills. My intention was that I would be able to present the year-long project to a future employer as a worthwhile sabbatical that allowed me to focus on my career development.
How did your friends, family and colleagues respond to you quitting your ‘dream’ job to take on the 25before25 project?
Some people were surprised and a bit confused, but I found that people closer to my age bracket immediately understood where I was coming from. Through sheer coincidence I met a journalist at The Telegraph who asked to write a profile about my project, and once it was written up in print it seemed like the project had credibility, so then everyone was on board! The piece confirmed that other people could relate to my experience – this was no longer just about me but connected to a wider issue.
There were also many steps I took between coming up with that list of 25 jobs and actually getting going with the project, so for example I set up the first three or four placements and launched my website before even handing in my notice, to help give me some structure and reduce the risk factor.
Talk through one or two of the challenges you faced along the way during the project and how you overcame them.
One obvious challenge was money. I’d managed to save while I was working in the graduate scheme so knew that I could make use of that pot, but I quickly realised that I needed a part-time job to support myself, so I did freelance work in things like writing and website design. It meant I was burning the candle at both ends working 7 days a week to make ends meet. That was tough, but I knew that I’d only be working like this for a finite period.
One of the other challenges was that some industries were harder to break into than others. While none of them were impossible and I never hit a brick wall, some required more perseverance and resilience. I received 50 rejections from one industry but didn’t let that deter me. I knew it wasn’t an unsolvable problem; I just hadn’t solved the problem yet. One of the things the year taught me is that if you keep going, someone always says yes.
What tips can you offer in relation to contacting people cold to secure work experience?
First off, approach smaller businesses as their decision making chain will be much smaller than a larger or international organisation, as there will be less people for your request to go through, and in some cases you might be able to contact the CEO directly.
I recommend adapting your cover letter/pitch and CV depending on the business you’re contacting or the role you’re hoping to gain experience in, ensuring that whatever you’re sharing is relevant to the person you’re asking for help from. In my book you’ll find a template email that you can use when approaching a business.
In some cases I offered to take the person out for coffee or arranged a phone call first off, rather than asking for a work experience opportunity straight away. It was also useful to think about what value I could offer people in return for their investment in me – for example managing social media channels or building websites on their behalf.
Since finishing the project you’ve worked in several contract and freelance jobs, and now predominantly work as a writer and speaker. How did you manage the transition between going from fixed-term work experience placements to earning a sustainable living from multiple roles?
It didn’t happen overnight and it would be wrong for anyone to think that going from full-time work to a portfolio career is an easy transition. But luckily I was offered a part-time contract role shortly after the 25before25 project finished, working in communications for an international development organisation, which aligned nicely with my communication skills and my interest in international affairs. I worked in this role three days a week for 8 months, and spent the rest of my time writing a pitch proposal for The Radical Sabbaticalbook, and reflecting on the year that had just passed – what I had learnt, what career(s) I wanted to pursue, and so on. Once I was lucky enough to be offered a book deal, that supported me for the next few months while I concentrated on writing the book.
I’ve built up speaking work over the last 18 months, but I also have the flexibility to pursue short-term jobs that I’m really interested in. For example last summer I spent two months working as a ghost writer for an endurance swimmer called Lewis Pugh, who’s the UN ambassador of the oceans, while he swam from Land’s End to Dover. This job ticked every appeal box for me, yet I never could have anticipated that I would end up doing this role.
I’ve certainly learnt to manage uncertainty better, and even enjoy it now to some degree. The fact that I’m not working in one permanent full-time role offers me variety, as I have the opportunity to take on different projects alongside my baseline work of writing and speaking.
What websites or communities do you use to find and apply for jobs?
I concentrate on sites which are specific to my interests, in creativity and adventure. So on Facebook there’s a few groups which I keep a close eye on, such as Love Her Wild, Creative Queens, and Creative Networking, and actually I came across the ghost writing role and a job in social media at Carluccio’s through these Facebook groups. I follow quite a few hashtags on Twitter too, and I’ve noticed that my Instagram and Facebook adverts have become much more effective in terms of targeting.
Thinking about passive job seeking, I have email alerts set up with a couple of job boards so that I’m notified about projects that might interest me, without having to hunt them down myself. For example Escape the City is a great job board for non-traditional jobs, The Dots specialises in creative jobs, and Explorers Connect is another useful site.
Portfolio careers are on the rise – what are the main upsides and downsides you’ve experienced in your own portfolio career so far?
I’ll start with the downsides. Firstly I work a lot harder – in fact I’m not great at switching off or taking a proper holiday. I feel like I need to be ‘on’ all the time. My work email and my personal email are the same account, so whenever an email comes in I’ll respond to it as quickly as possible, often because the person asking something of me may not be aware that I’m working on another job that day.
Because I’m now working in a field that I passionately believe in and I want to push the message about work experience as widely as possible, it can mean my work/life balance gets out of kilter. It’s taken me a while to become more protective about my time by setting boundaries about what I will and won’t do, and I’ve now carved out the weekend as my non-working time.
Of course you rarely get sick pay or holiday pay, so when you’re not working you’re not earning, which can feel a bit scary, but on the flipside when you’re paid a day rate as a contractor, you’ll likely earn more.
Having two parents as accountants has also really paid off because they’ve been able to advise me on how to do my taxes correctly! Truthfully, without that help I would have been really stuck.
The good stuff is what you get in exchange, including flexibility, variety and creativity. As an example, last year I spent a month in a coworking space in Bali, sipping from a coconut while sat in a swimming pool with my laptop on the side. Believe it or not, it worked out cheaper for me to travel to Bali and pay for a month’s expenses there, compared to spending the same amount of time living in London. Back then I was working in three part-time jobs so I broached the idea of remote working with each of my bosses, explaining why my change in location wouldn’t affect the quality of my work and how it could be beneficial (for example being in a different time zone meant I could complete tasks they set me at the end of their working day while they were asleep), and amazingly they all agreed to me going.
What this ultimately means is that I am in control of my own life – I have the freedom to work from wherever I want without being bound to a location that someone else has decided for me, and I have been able to transform my areas of interest into paid work. I no longer get the Sunday night blues feeling, and now every day is a joy because work doesn’t feel like work. I love what I do.
What advice would you give to someone who’s considering making a career change or thinking about gaining work experience in a different field?
Obviously I’d say that you should buy my book! The Radical Sabbaticalis designed for people who are interested in gaining work experience in new areas.
I’d also advise that quitting your job to make a career change isn’t right for everyone. Instead you can start small and use your annual leave to do two or three-day long work shadowing experiences – you will very quickly get a sense of whether something is right for you or not, and there is nothing more valuable than getting out of your head imagining what a role couldbe like and actually experiencing it for yourself. Those two or three days will help you identify whether this area is something you want to explore further through more research or longer work experience opportunities, or whether it’s not right for you after all (which is a learning that’s just as important).
Lastly, network as much as you possibly can – use your lunch breaks, evenings and weekends to meet people working in areas that interest you. Make sure you ask them for a full picture, so understand the good and bad things about their role because it’s better to know about these things now, compared to several years down the line after you’ve re-trained in a new field.
Finally, what are you excited about in 2019?
I’m excited about setting up my business, Radical Sabbatical, which will support millennials in their career development by placing them in work experience placements. We’ll be running a pilot in the next few months and then seeking investment, so the plan is to launch by the end of 2019. I’m also working on my second book proposal so will be pitching that to publishers in the next few months. My speaking work is gaining momentum and I’m being asked to speak at more conferences and events, so I hope that continues to grow.
To learn more about Emma and her book, visit her website or follow her on social media.