The Problem of Being Overextended


Seeking a new career forces you to abandon the familiar. Management consulting, politics, business operations, and crime analytics are all jobs I’ve applied for that I never would’ve considered in graduate school.  One of the problems I’ve faced in doing this, however, is that not many businesses have in-house training programs.  Instead, they often seek applicants–even for entry-level jobs–who already know industry protocols and specific systems in use at the firm.  This puts people like me in a double bind.  My humanities background means I lack the hard skills that are usually required for my application to be considered, while my Ph.D. makes me appear overqualified to many hiring managers.

In order to overcome this challenge, I decided at the start of 2016 to say yes to everything.  I enrolled in night classes, started volunteering, and–more recently–accepted a position as a part-time bookkeeper for a friend’s tech firm.  I of course had existing commitments, too.  I’m still working as a Visiting Assistant Professor, serving as Chair of the Contingent Faculty Committee for my professional society, and throughout last year was President of the Crescent City Homebrewers.  This made for a chaotic twelve months.  On the plus side I gained valuable experience in business, non-profit policy formation, and institutional operations. But by the start of 2017–right around the time I decided to write this blog!–I found that I had to map out pretty much every hour of every week in order to keep so many balls in the air.

Despite this, the networking I’ve done over the last year continues to pay off, and new opportunities are still presenting themselves.  So now I face a different sort of problem: I’ve run out of fingers–to say nothing of toes–that I can dip into these untested waters.  For someone trying to show he has practical experience doing non-academic work, this is a major issue!  In effect, my existing commitments have boxed me in.  While saying yes to everything may have made sense in 2016, now it’s time to reassess and be more strategic.

I suspect I ended up in this situation in part because of my training.  Academic research encourages people to run down every lead and possibility as they expand the limits of human knowledge.  This is an admirable trait in a scholarly setting, but can be crippling in the fast-paced world outside the university.  A better procedure is recommended by The McKinsey Mind, a book that attempts to impart key lessons learned by McKinsey alumni during the course of their careers with the world’s premier consulting firm.  Instead of looking into everything, they recommend the following procedure: 1) develop hypothetical solutions to the problem that needs solving, focusing only on those that pass an initial “smell test” of being feasible; 2) drill down into each one, starting with what you think is most likely to work; and 3) stick with the first one that yields the required results.  This sounds simple and obvious enough.  The trick is figuring out how to dismiss ideas that are unlikely to pan out and having the discipline to “kill your babies,” i.e. abandon bad ideas that you have emotional attachments to, as early in the process as possible.

Applying this concept to being overextended is easier said than done.  If you don’t know what sector you’re going to land in, how can you decide which opportunities are beneficial and which ones aren’t?  It’s of course impossible to know for sure, but I think there are a few ways to at least be more strategic in the process, even if you can’t do so perfectly. First, you need to be brutally honest about yourself and about the commitment.  Time is finite, so each new thing you take on entails an opportunity cost.  This is the problem I talked about at the start of the post: you can only do so much, and each new thing increases the risk that you will have to pass on something better in the future.  And what about how to determine what’s ‘better’?  In the current scenario, the potential upsides we’re looking for are the ability to increase your chances of employment in a given field, opportunities to build your network, or both.  Add to that any pay that you can get for part-time work and the public good that results from pro bono gigs.  The last of these may not be tangible, but it’s important to consider in case you have to weigh different service options against one another.  When forced to choose, it’s better to do the most good.

Once you’ve assessed your commitments in those terms, you need to decide which of them can give you the best return.  This is where the honesty with yourself comes in.  It’s fine  to consider any and every position that you might be eligible for when you start looking for a new career. But a year on, with an array of experiences under your belt, you ought to have a clearer idea of what you realistically can or will do.  Management consulting was a sector I considered and took steps towards pursuing for about six months.  The larger firms seek candidates who are first and foremost good analytical thinkers, so they tend to be more open to people from non-business backgrounds.  In time, however, it became clear my efforts in that area weren’t likely to yield returns.  Companies like McKinsey, Deloitte, and PwC have either no presence or only a very limited one in New Orleans, and the number of boutique outfits focused on general strategy is currently shrinking.  Doing case studies and the like was a fun mental exercise, but it wasn’t likely to get me a job–at least not here.  At the same time, as I became more and more comfortable with leaving academia, I ought to have pared down obligations that keep my tied to the field.  But as I wrote about two weeks ago, emotional attachment repeatedly prevented me from doing this.  The advice I got from Brook Manville–himself a McKinsey alumnus–was no doubt right on this point: at certain point you have to rip the Band-Aid.  You can’t do everything at once, and you need to invest your energy where you’re likely to see a payout.

So what does this mean for me?  The first order of business is to stop taking on side projects that don’t improve my odds of getting a job.  New Orleans is a tough market, and I need to focus on developing hard skills that are portable and in-demand.  Secondly, I need to rein in some of the things I’ve already committed to doing.  This is a hard one for me because I don’t like to bail on commitments I’ve already made.  Even so, I know I need to scale back in a few places so I have the option of saying yes to new opportunities that arise.  One area I’ve already targeted is night classes.  After I finish the last course I need to earn a Certificate in Management this May, nothing shy of an MBA is going to make me a more attractive candidate.  Those hours will be better spent on applications and building my network (and hopefully making the occasional batch of beer).  Another area you might have guessed is my work on this blog.  While I have no intention of stopping entirely, I’ll now be aiming to publish one post a week instead of two–at least until I’ve landed a new job and can maintain a more regular schedule.

After a period of branching out it’s almost inevitable that you’ll reach a point where you have to say ‘no’ to something. Finding yourself overextended isn’t catastrophic, but if you’re not careful about managing your time you might find yourself unable to commit when a truly great opportunity arises.  And since the whole point of branching out is to land a new job or career, it’s essential that you be aware of this pitfall and take what steps you can to mitigate its impact.



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