The career experiment
Jobs tried and tested
By Chin Hui Wen, 17 April 2016
I am a millennial cliché.
Like an increasing number from my generation, I’m self-employed. I run a small business, Eastern Granola, producing handmade cereal infused with Southeast Asian flavours—think curry powder and calamansi zest. It might be labelled a “hipster” enterprise and may be a little twee. But it’s been a great learning experience, and I do love it.
It must be a sign of the times but almost everyone I know has taken this unconventional career path or is about to take the plunge and leave their day job. Independent contractors, corporate workers moonlighting in passion projects, diversified workers (balancing a variety of roles), temp contract workers and small business owners—we’ve all taken our work lives into our own hands.
Because more than jobs, we want to design careers that we love. (Whether this is a self-indulgent exercise is an argument for another time. But it’s not difficult to understand the desire to build a career with purpose and progression.)
It hasn’t helped that the pool of “good jobs” has shrunk. With inflation as it is, entry level salaries haven’t caught up with the cost of living. When my baby boomer parents entered the workforce in the late 1970s, they could expect wages of $1,800 to $2,000 a month. Admittedly, they weren’t in publishing. But that is still the starting pay for many writers today. Splitting the $175 rent on an executive HDB flat among three friends, they spent only about $60 on housing each month. That number wouldn’t make a dent in the average 20-somethings rent today.
Though it’s easy to complain about the situation, there is an upside: It forces people to be creative, thinking up new ways to cobble together the lives they want. We can’t be complacent. We have to continuously update our skills and seek out new opportunities without the security of safe, “good enough” occupations.
In my, admittedly limited, working life of the last five years, I’ve done my best to refine and test my hypotheses about what I might do for work through what I call career experiments. I’ve tried lifestyle writing, independent publishing (printing an annual food culture magazine, Crust Catalog), start-up life, dabbled in events and, of course, started my food business.
Much like my cooking experiments - such as the idea to mix chicken floss into chicken rice-inspired granola - my career experiments have me working backwards from a known entity (i.e. something I have been told I’m good at, let’s say writing) and then validating or disproving my assumptions about the career paths that might allow me. Writing could mean hard news, lifestyle editorials, fiction or copywriting. I just had to figure out which, if any, was for me.
EXPERIMENT 1: LIFESTYLE EDITORIAL
My experiments started with food writing for a local lifestyle publisher. Now, being a dining editor is a fun job. You get to eat at the newest restaurants as part of your work. But it’s not the best-paid industry and progression within that niche field can be limited. While money is not the only thing to consider when choosing a career, it is necessary to buy freedom.
A good salary, benefits and set hours can allow you flexibility to make choices. Whether it’s independence, home ownership, raising a child or living abroad; we all have different life goals. Those things were important to me and, barring finding a rich husband to finance my lifestyle, I learned that food writing alone couldn’t be the way forward.
EXPERIMENT 2: SMALL-BATCH FOOD BUSINESS
Next, I founded my food business, Eastern Granola.
My friends and contacts in the media helped me to start the business by providing some coverage to get my first customers in. I got to know other small-batch food makers and found a great sense of camaraderie within the community. We met and got to know one another at farmers markets and pop-ups. It was great, but I knew that the fun (for me, at least) came largely from being a small outfit. It meant I could be hands-on.
If I wanted to scale quickly—essential to making this my main source of income moving forward—I’d have to miss out on the relationships that being a sole proprietor allowed me to build.
EXPERIMENT 3: TECH START-UP
So, I thought perhaps the granola business could be a side hustle to another job and got involved in building an online storytelling platform. The modest income from Eastern Granola helped me along as I worked on the new venture. Even so, it was still a stressful, anxiety ridden experience. Working with co-founders, I learnt that good people can be a bad fit as collaborators. We can all want to do “the right thing” but have very different ideas of what that really means.
And as tempting as it is to believe you can make things work if you only try hard enough, sometimes that just isn’t true. I learn that work culture and value alignment are essential to any partnership. Cultural alignment is now among my top priorities in the career hunt.
Wishing the team well, I left last month.
PULLING IT ALL TOGETHER
Exploratory experiments aren’t for everyone. But once you age out of the career shopping phase of life—otherwise known as internships—it can be hard to make time to think about a career strategy. And often financial constraints mean we can’t just hop from job to job.
But if you’re lucky enough to swing it, experimentation can give you a breadth of experiences and contacts you’d never have expected, while also helping you prioritise what it really is you want from your career. Because ultimately, your career will help direct the kind of life you lead.
And no one wants to reach the end of their life thinking “what if”.
If you don’t try, you don’t know.