In today’s world, many of us are trying to constantly push ourselves forward, lean in, and keep climbing up the ladder of whatever field we’re in. We have to make it count, after all. But, while it may sound counterintuitive, I think one of the best professional steps I took was a step back.
In my last job, I was working more than forty hours a week at one of the most prestigious high schools in South Korea. As far as English as a Foreign Language teaching positions go, it was a dream job. I worked with brilliant teachers and perhaps even more brilliant students, and I felt like I was making a difference when students told me their English was improving. The fact that I had to work my way up from some of the most undesirable positions in Korea to get there made it all the more fulfilling. When I was offered an even better position, I was tempted to take it. But instead, I moved back to the United States and accepted a far less glamorous (and financially, less generous) position: intern.
Was I simply homesick for the States? Perhaps a little, but that wasn’t all. I had applied to numerous U.S. jobs and had received an offer with a similar income to what I was making in Korea, and I almost accepted it.
But then I realized that I didn’t really know exactly what it was I wanted from this position or where I could see my career progressing by taking it. There was the potential for money, but not much else. I could see myself accepting it, getting wrapped up in everything it took to climb the career ladder within it, and then finding myself in a position years later with no idea how I got there or what I actually wanted.
So I accepted a position with little pay and absolutely no prestige instead—an internship at the corporate office of a successful company.
I was working under people my age (and a few who were younger and had less job experience than me). But I tackled every task given to me with enthusiasm and extra effort. Say what you will about an unglamorous internship; the opportunity to learn new skills with very little responsibility on my shoulders proved to be the combination I needed to find perspective and pursue a more desirable career path.
If you are finding yourself at a time of transition in your life or career, perhaps moving to a new area or finishing your degree, accepting a position with less responsibility or pay than you desire could seem like a huge downgrade. But sometimes, it can actually be a valuable opportunity in disguise.
Here are five tips to help you consider whether taking a step back will allow you to redefine your career direction and pursue new areas of opportunity previously unseen.
01. Consider whether it’s feasible financially.
Probably the primary concern for working fewer hours or in a position that pays less is financial. This is where having a budget is crucial—will you still be able to pay the bills? Do you have some money saved up in case things go south? Only you can decide if the reward outweighs the risks. The decision gets even trickier when there are dependents to consider.
This is also where the side hustle comes in handy.
02. Take advantage of more opportunity (and drive) to develop a side hustle you’re passionate about.
The question these days for many women is not “do you have a side hustle?” but “what’s your side hustle?” A reality of working for most of us is that we don’t make as much money as we want to (or even deserve) in our primary jobs.
Whether your side hustle is an Etsy store for selling your creations or a side photography business, how much time do you really have to devote to it? If you had more time, could you make it a thriving business? If your main gig paid less, would you be more driven to make it more successful?
Of course, the key part of this is “passion.” If your side hustle is Uber, for example, and you hate driving . . . maybe put more time into finding a part-time pursuit that you really enjoy and see long-term potential in pursuing.
Which brings us to the next item to consider.
03. Perspective and space can help you decide what you really want.
In a normal work week, how much time do you have to really step back and consider your career progression and goals? Probably little to none, if your job barely gives you enough time to breathe.
When you’re solely focused on an employer’s wants and needs, it can be easy to lose focus on what is ultimately important to you. Sometimes, the enticing appearance of a promotion at work for more pay or a more exciting title could have you working towards something that is not in line with your larger career and life goals.
Spend time considering where you’d like to be a year from now professionally and personally—write it out, even. Taking time to really reflect on your goals can help diminish anxiety when you say “no” to one opportunity, if you know you’re saying “yes” to another goal.
04. Factor in time to develop new career skills.
If you’re working forty hours (or more) a week, the thought of spending the free time you do have on learning a new skill feels, frankly, almost impossible when Netflix and the couch are calling your name.
But if you are able to negotiate a part-time schedule with your employer, or accept a position with fewer hours, you could find yourself more motivated to, say, start on that Code Academy course or study for that foreign language certification. Even if you can’t diminish your hours in a typical work week, perhaps you can find less demanding ways to take courses or learn new skills—like dedicating one Saturday a month to skill development, or using some PTO time to take a course.
Learning skills that are in-demand for the position you do want is one way to make sure your extra time is well spent.
05. Don’t be afraid to step down in one career, if it means stepping up in something you’re more interested in.
I would argue that sometimes taking a step down in a certain field could actually help your career or even provide the potential to find a new career path that you truly desire—especially for those of us who went into the workforce right after (or even during) school. As someone who has been consistently working since high school, I find it difficult to take breaks in employment; even accepting a position with significantly lower pay and less prestige felt counterintuitive at first. It hurt my pride for a bit, but it helped my career.
Particularly if you’re feeling ho-hum about your current field, the flexibility to take an entry-level position in your desired new field can be a chance to learn the skills you need to get your foot in the door for your dream job down the line.
As a graduate-level intern in a marketing department, I was trusted with a lot more than undergraduate-level interns, and as a result I was able to add new skills to my resume: copywriting, SEO content writing, building a social media campaign, and so on. Treat every new opportunity as a learning experience, and you will always leave with something worthwhile. I was able to learn new skills in an area I had absolutely no experience in previously, making me a more enticing candidate for future positions I apply for. Plus, I found the time and mental space to pursue something I’m passionate about with unlimited career potential.
So if you’re having second thoughts about your current career path, let these tips be a reminder: under the right conditions, a step back could be fertile ground for a leap forward.