Tech & Work

10 career risks you should be willing to take

Career in a rut? Sometimes you need to take a chance or two to get things moving in the right direction.

Image: iStockphoto.com/gheo

One of my favorite guilty-pleasure films is Hackers. There's a great line in it, where the gang is hunched over a new laptop. Dade and Kate have a quick exchange that says it all:

DADE: Yeah. It's not just the chip. It has a PCI bus. But you knew that.

KATE: Indeed. RISC architecture is gonna change everything.

DADE: Yeah. RISC is good.

Of course, they were talking about reduced instruction set computing -- not about taking a chance on the unknown. But the subtext was clear. In some cases, risk is good, too. In fact, with many a career, taking a chance with the unknown could be just the thing to launch you into a brilliant future you might not have had otherwise.

But what risks should you consider taking? Here's my list of possibilities.

1: Choose culture over salary

Some companies, such as Google, are well known for their culture. The right culture can go a long way toward helping you build with a long and healthy career. But on the opposite end of the spectrum, if you choose salary over culture, you may wind up with fat bankroll that's offset by stress levels your mind and heart can't handle. If the scale seems balanced, and one choice offers you happiness and the other a higher salary, the risk of the lower salary should pay off.

2: Move away from the "known"

When you think of technology, you might think Silicon Valley, the Research Triangle, the Bay Area, and similar tech meccas. But there are upstart companies all over the world. If you don't risk venturing outside the known entities, you could lose out on the opportunity of a lifetime. You can apply this along with choosing culture over salary and wind up in a locale that suits you personally as well as professionally. Begin your search with where you might want to live with regard to your social and personal life first. Once you've narrowed that down, consider the professional opportunities.

3: Go it alone

For many people, the idea of breaking out solo brings feelings of fear and failure. Yes, when you become a freelancer or contract worker, layers of complication may be added to your world (taxes, insurance, bills, budgets, etc.) But along with those possible pitfalls comes the freedom of being your own boss. It's a giant risk to take, but the payoff can be far greater than any other you might enjoy by sticking to the safe route.

4: Pursue what you love

I've always had one problem with the standard corporate fare: I have no passion for it. Because of this, I've walked the path less traveled, and except for a short exception, I've been lucky enough not to have "worked" a day in my life. If you have a passion, follow it. Even if that passion leads you to a dead end, you will have at least tried -- which is more than what a lot of people can say. There is a chance that your passion will lead you into a success and joy you would never have experienced otherwise.

5: Network beyond your niche

If you network, most likely you do so within a small circle of people -- and most likely they're doing the same thing you do. That is shortsighted. When you network, reach well outside your niche. Beyond the known there might well be an opportunity waiting for you. You never know what one connection could lead to. You start discussing your work outside your standard circle of contacts... and opportunities arise. "I have a friend who has a friend," is a great way to retool your career trajectory.

6: Go with the startup

If you were in the IT industry during the 1990s, you know how powerful the startup was. Anyone who was anyone was joining startups. Things have changed, and startups don't offer the same potential for the quick-hit payoff they once did. However, they're still a solid risk. You never know when a startup will become the next big thing. If you aren't willing to take a risk with The Little Company That Could, you may lose your chance to be part of something special.

7: Be heard

Not all risks are about leaving your current job. Some risks are internal and involve making yourself be heard. You might have a brilliant idea that could save your company millions of dollars. But if you're afraid to speak up, that idea will go unheard. Never fear risking an off-the-wall idea. Worst-case, it will show the powers-that-be that you're a forward-thinking employee, and that risk will pay off by getting you the positive attention you deserve.

8: Break through conventional wisdom

The standard line of thinking tends to trap you inside a bubble. That "beige bubble" will get you nowhere. Instead, risk thinking beyond what is traditionally held as truth within the world of your department, your company, your career. Think differently and focus your attention on using your skills in a new way. Take your talent off the beaten path to create something unique. A lot of great advancements in technology were launched by individuals reaching beyond convention thought.

9: Say "no"

This one is tough -- especially in a world where companies are downsizing and heaping responsibilities onto fewer and fewer employees. But when your boss asks you to take on a task, risk saying "no." Yes, doing so could find you unemployed. However, always saying "yes" could land you with a workload no one should have to bear. As your company continues to pile work onto you, the likelihood that you'll get your tasks done grows smaller and smaller. Stress will build, and eventually your mental or physical health will suffer, along with your productivity. Is it worth always saying "yes"?

10: Change careers

The days of living your life with a single career are over. Personally, I've had four -- each one an evolution of the combined previous paths. People tend to suffer burnout. When that happens, they grow resentful and, in worst-case scenarios, wind up in the unemployment line. IT is a stressful and demanding career. If you find yourself on the short end of a long-burned candlewick, maybe the risk of a career change is exactly what you need. Even a shift -- say, from network security to development -- could help get you on the right track.

A chance worth taking

Risk can be good. But if you aren't willing to consider what lies beyond your comfort zone, you'll never know what opportunities await. Taking even the slightest risk to retool your career could pay off. And maybe, just maybe, the rewards will far exceed that risk.

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Other suggestions?

What risky career moves have you made? What worked -- and what didn't? Share your experiences and advice with fellow TechRepublic members.


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