Sarah Ellis is the co-founder of Amazing If, a company with an ambition to make careers better for everyone. Together with her business partner Helen Tupper, she is the author of The Sunday Times number one bestseller The Squiggly Career (Penguin) and host of the Squiggly Careers podcast. In January 2021 they recorded their TEDx talk Why a squiggly career is better for everyone at Abbey Road Studios in London. Find out more about the future of modern careers below.
“Squiggly careers are personal and full of possibilities. Everyone’s squiggle is unique to them, and we need to decide for ourselves what a ‘successful’ career means to us.“
I met my co-founder, Helen, over twenty years ago at university. She’s much more extroverted than I am, so we weren’t an instant friendship match made in heaven. She’s the life and soul of a party, and I’d rather be reading by myself! We have two things in common, though, that kept bringing us back together over the years: we love to learn, and we are both ambitious about what we wanted to achieve in our careers. Amazing If was never really intended to be a business; it came from a coffee and a chat back in 2013.
We discussed all the interesting and unanticipated twists and turns in our careers but felt frustrated that there wasn’t more practical and relatable career advice on offer. So, we decided to do something about it, first launching some workshops, then our podcast, book and most recently our TEDx talk, which has now had over 1m views – it’s amazing where a coffee can take you!
The old way of working is no more
Career ladders were created over 100 years ago when people first started working in offices, and there was such a thing as a ‘job for life.’ That world of control and conformity feels very different to the unpredictable and ever-changing careers we find ourselves in today. And personally, as I started to progress in my career, I realised that the idea that we should all have the same view of success and be fixed to one future didn’t match my experiences or aspirations.
The Squiggly Career is personal and full of possibilities. Everyone’s squiggle is unique to them, and we need to decide for ourselves what a ‘successful’ career means to us. We encourage people to move away from feeling fixed to one future to instead being open and curious about where your career can take you.
You are more than your job title. Everyone has many different talents, skills and strengths, and we don’t want to limit ourselves or our learning by feeling constrained to one thing.
I discovered the idea of the multi-hyphen method from Emma Gannon, who has an insightful and practical book exploring what it means (the upsides and the challenges). My perspective is that the most crucial transition in today’s careers is that rather than learning about a job, learning now is the job; we all need to be continually developing and adapting to do work that we find motivating and meaningful.
On learning to navigate important career transitions
Focus on direction rather than a destination. Consider what opportunities you could create now to help you head in the right direction rather than waiting for the perfect role to come your way. That might be doing some job shadowing, volunteering to get involved in a new project or joining a network or community. We know that taking small, consistent actions is the most successful way to make any career changes.
There are times in our careers where they feel more knotty than squiggly, and this can be really overwhelming. It is why it’s so important that we all feel confident about asking for help when we need it. Asking for help is a strength, not a weakness, and all the best people I’ve worked with are great at it. If you find asking for help hard, it’s worth remembering how you feel when someone asks you for help – the answer is usually: valued, useful and supportive. So, whenever you’re hesitating before asking for help, don’t forget you’re allowing someone to experience that ‘feel-good factor!’
Remember, the most obvious next move is not always the one where you’ll learn the most. One of the best career choices I made was to move from Marketing into Corporate Responsibility, even though it was an area I had no prior experience in. I learned so much and met some brilliant people I’m still connected with today, and it gave me an increased sense of meaning and purpose from the work I was doing.
Stop thinking I’ll be happy when and focus on understanding your values. Your values are like a career compass; once you know what they are, you can use them to guide your decisions. Values can feel like an abstract idea, so an excellent way to get started is to ask yourself some ‘what’s most important to me?’ questions. For example, what’s most important to me about what I work on, who I work with, where I work and how I spend my time. It’s also important to remember you don’t have work and personal values. Your values are what makes you, you – they’re the things that motivate and drive you across everything you do.