Turn Any Job Into a Career Catapult – Maximize the Detour


Unless you are among the lucky few who consistently land dream jobs and follow a perpetually upward career trajectory, like many people you will likely experience a detour job or two. You may already be in one. So let’s talk about what to do with it.

A couple of years ago, I was invited to give career advice to fellow urban planners at a public forum at the American Planning Association headquarters. After the talk, several people approached me and, almost to a person, told me the most important advice I had given was this:

Maximize the detour.

So, what is a detour job? A detour job is a job that does not appear to advance you along your chosen career path. For example, you might accept a job offer that sounds great on paper, but turns out to be very different in the day-to-day. Many of the most professionally successful people in the world have had less-than-glamorous jobs along the way. According to Business Insider, Amazon chief Jeff Bezos worked in fast food, and even the POTUS began humbly — scooping ice cream. So, if you find yourself in an uninspiring job, take a deep breath — you’re actually in good company. In fact, it may be hard to realize at first, but virtually any job can provide forward career momentum.

What does it mean, in practice, to maximize the detour? It means getting and giving the most you can, no matter where you find yourself. It also means learning to recognize opportunity. One of my favorite quotes, which has become a professional mantra, is this simple gem by Teddy Roosevelt: “Do what you can with what you have where you are.”

In the spirit of that piece of advice, here are five practical steps to transform a detour job into a career catapult:

1. Find the sweet spot. It’s all connected! Learn your desired industry and the one you’re in now. Identify the overlaps and get the most transferable experience in that sweet spot. Get good at pitching why a conference on Y transfers to your current work on X.

2. Stay connected to your preferred field. Attend conferences, participate in online forums, network at industry events. You might have to do this on your own time, if your current job doesn’t provide flexibility to do these things during work hours. Extracurricular activities in your preferred field are your friend.

3. Make connections in the detour. Having connections with experts outside your preferred field will be essential later. You will have a broad community of professionals off which you can bounce ideas and with whom you can collaborate.

4. Work at it like your passion. Your reputation doesn’t get a do-over because you were in a job that didn’t inspire you. Employers need to know you will deliver consistently. If you work like a star in the job you don’t prefer, you will build a reputation for quality and commitment that will precede you. A strong recommendation in almost any field goes a long way.

5. Find value. Keep two lists: one for skills developed and another for lessons learned. At the end of the first three months, review the lists and separate them into broad ideas and industry-specific ideas, transferable skills and specific. For example: “always get an exec champion for my ideas” vs. “never submit double-sided copies to B office for review”. Keep going, reevaluating at least every quarter. This will help you identify value in what you are doing every day. A bonus: When asked the tough interview questions about how your detour job prepared you for the dream job, you will have a detailed, well-reasoned answer that demonstrates you are someone who knows how to create value.

At some point, you’ll move on – maybe even to that dream job. What you take with you, and the impact you leave behind, can be a major boost to your career. That depends on how you maximize the detour.

If you have been in a detour job or have something to share, feel free to drop a note in comments section.

Crystal Winston is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Hannah Moss

I love tip #4! So true – no one is going to let you off the hook because you didn’t love your job. And being able to commit to even the dullest job really shows you to be a team player. Thanks for the reminder!

Adrienne Nelson-Reynolds

Crystal, this blog is dead-on! I am currently in that detour job, waiting for my daughter to graduate from high school, and I am using many of these tips already. The one thing I would like to add is this…..ALWAYS do more than is required! People remember what you did a lot faster than you what you know or how well you dressed or spoke. I am not in my dream position (yet!), but I will be in that position…..I must be the change I seek.