Last week, my doctor told me that I needed to work on my flexibility. I’ve heard that before – I’m a life-long jock who’s nonetheless always had a hard time touching my toes – and I’ll probably dust off my yoga tapes and work at it a little. But I long ago accepted the fact that my body just isn’t that flexible.
In contrast, I’ve always known that when it comes to work and school, and life in general, I’m a pretty flexible guy. In fact, if there any molecular biologists out there searching for the “career flexibility” gene, you might want to look at my dad’s family. I come from a long line of career-flexible individuals.
My dad’s parents were farmers, or peasants as they called them back then in rural Russia. When they emigrated to the U.S. at the turn of the 20th Century, there’s wasn’t much call for peasants here, so my grandparents made a career change and became shopkeepers. My dad followed suit. He got his B.S. in chemistry after serving in the Army in World War II, and when he couldn’t find a job at a chemical company – anti-Semitism was rampant in the industry in those days – he made a career change and became a salesman. Later, he switched careers again, become a social worker. You’ve got to be flexible in your approach to work, my dad told me then.
That advice served me well. In 1978, when I was finishing graduate school, science jobs were in short supply. Fellow grad students who were far more motivated than I was were having a tough time landing a good job, and the prospect of being a poorly-paid lab technician in an academic lab didn’t sit well with me. But a chance conversation opened my eyes to a relatively new profession – science writing – that would let me use my hard-earned chemistry background in a completely different way. With no trepidation at all, I took that fork in the road and thus was born my career explaining chemistry and other areas of science to the masses.
Flexibility was the key then, and it remains the key in my professional life. Want to write about child psychology? Sure, even though my only exposure to psychology was in a pass-fail class I took my last semester of college. How about authoring a light-hearted column for a women’s health and beauty magazine? Okay, how hard can that be? (Very, actually.) Would you take a job as head of corporate communications for a biotech company? Sure, though I now refer to that experience as a three-year brain spasm. How about blogging? Can you develop a program in nanotechnology for us? Want to do podcast? Yes, yes, and yes. Why not!
Being flexible when it comes to job opportunities can be scary, no doubt about it, but it can also open doors that you don’t even know exist. At a time when job security is a thing of the past, flexibility can make a big difference. And when a non-linear opportunity arises, keep one thing in mind – you’re smart, you have a well-trained brain. If you can master chemistry, you can learn most anything.
Confidence is the key to being flexible. Be confident in your ability to learn and translate knowledge into action. Your career can only benefit.
This article was written by Joe Alper, a freelance science writer and technology analyst in Louisville, CO, who won two National Awards for Magazine Writing from the American Psychological Association after learning to write about psychology.