by Brad Ives ‘86

I’m one of the lucky ones. I didn’t have any expectation that I’d get out of law school, find a great job at a prestigious firm and stay there until I became old and gray. I say I’m lucky because that’s just not how the world works—at least not anymore.

A lot of my college friends thought they would get out of undergrad, MBA school, law school or wherever, and would land that classic “job for life”. Maybe you’ve heard about the mythical place where you start and finish your career in the same building, where you gradually climb the career ladder rung after rung while your salary, your company pension and your office get a little bigger every year or two, and, perhaps most importantly, where you didn’t have to worry about anything? In those days, the term “start-up” didn’t resonate, entrepreneurs opened doughnut shops and headhunters belonged to remote tribes that actually hunted heads.

Those days are gone. And good riddance to them. Life is a lot more fun in the real world of non-linear careers, so fasten your seatbelt and enjoy the wild ride that awaits.

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I’ve gone from structured finance lawyer to institutional money manager to professional fundraiser to renewable energy entrepreneur to being the guy responsible for North Carolina’s zoo, parks and aquariums—and I’m leaving a few things out. And I’ve lived in Richmond, New York, Charlotte, London and Chapel Hill while doing all this crazy, interesting stuff—and my wife still loves me.

My work life has been fun and intellectually challenging, and it sure hasn’t been boring. So what’s the secret to making career changes work? I think it comes down to some key concepts:

  • Plan: Where do you want to be when you are 30, 40, 50, 60 or 70?  Design a pathway to get there. Rethink the pathway periodically and don’t hesitate to change it when needed.  You won’t arrive at your destination by accident.
  • Seek the Best: Find people you admire and work with them. You learn from the people around you, so join a winning team. They will make you better, happier and more successful.
  • Be Opportunistic: Seek opportunities to expand your knowledge, skills and experiences. Be known as the person that wants to tackle new challenges and difficult projects.
  • Pounce: When great opportunities appear, tackle them with gusto. You may not get a second chance. Pounce quickly and decisively.
  • Take Calculated Risks: When you are ready to pounce, make sure you think through the risks. Don’t fear failure, but try to have a Plan B—and a Plan C.
  • Reinvent Yourself: New opportunities are likely to take you out of your comfort zone. You may need to reinvent yourself. If that’s the case, go all-in. Read lots of books on the topic. Get a professional certificate or license. Consider going back to graduate school or at least taking a couple of courses at night.

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  • Learn From Others: Seek out mentors. Identify people that you want to be like when you are their age. Ask lots of questions, but be genuine and not pushy.
  • Help the Next You: As you make your way through your exciting career, look back down the ladder for the next generation and let them learn from your experiences.

Brad Ives has worked in finance, fundraising, renewable energy, state government, and more. Find him on Twitter at @abives.