New job, who dis? (and a lesson for your next career move)

I'm a senior in college, presenting my [statistically insignificant] behavioral economics research poster to New York Times' bestseller Dan Ariely. At the end of our discussion, he offers funding to continue my research. I decline, telling him that I want to be a folklorist and poet. 

I'm a year past graduation, staring at two offer letters for graduate folklore programs. After a year of ethnographic research into the folklore of hookah smoking, my resume is finally strong enough for a yes.

I'm 23, and a year into my graduate program, but far from my campus. A new medical diagnosis made grad school feel insurmountable, and I craved the support system I called home. In one browser window is my draft withdrawal letter, and in another is a list of local job postings.

I'm 25, filling out a background check for a new job: business intelligence consultant. I have no idea what this means. My walls are still lined with my inelegant attempt to teach myself SQL: presentation poster paper depicting hand-drawn tables with rows and columns, and strings stretching between papers with tags that say "LEFT JOIN", "OUTER JOIN", "INNER JOIN".  I passed a SQL test, and this company was going to teach me how to business, intelligently. 

I'm 26, eating lunch with the executive leaders of the data science team. They ask about my progress teaching myself R and machine learning techniques. Shop talk weaves through small-talk about bar food, boxing matches and Ohio weather. When our plates are empty, they ask me to join their team. 

I'm 27, sitting around a coffee table with the COO. We talk about the weather, and my latest few projects: a collection of dashboards, a data science presentation, a client training. He notes that my skills are quite different than the traditional resume, and that our customers appreciate my focus on user experience. He then asks me to lead the data visualization and storytelling practice. 

I'm 29, sipping a coffee with my advisor in the biostats program. I'm telling her about my new job managing data products to help health systems understand the economics and epidemiology of the patient populations they serve. I also mention that we're expecting a little one in our family. After a few quiet sips of coffee, my advisor suggests that continuing in my graduate program -- right now -- probably isn't in my best interest. We finish our coffees, and say goodbye. 

I'm 31, and I'm meeting my new analytics team. We review a GIF-driven offiste agenda to assess our current capabilities, review our products, and develop our roadmap. But, before we start the formalities, we shuffle and deal out cards for a game of "Charty Party". 


The paragraphs above aren't just a narrative resume, they're a pattern. Back and forth. A dizzying metaphorical left-brain, right-brain oscillation from the sciences to the humanities, and back.

Fantasy writers love to situate the reader by including a map. So, reader, here's a map of my journey based on the work I did in each role: 

Alt text: a line chart with the years oriented vertically. Further to the left indicates more quantitative roles, further to the right equates to more qualitative roles. The chart includes a point for each paragraph above. The overall trend shows a back and forth horizontally as the years progress, but the back-and-forth narrows as over time.

Each step forward in my career has been a reaction to what I've been missing, but not necessarily a thoughtful step toward what I want. The result is this oscillation. 

My last team called me a polymath. I had to look it up: a person of wide-ranging knowledge or learning (from Oxford Languages). 

Multidisciplinary. Jack-of-all-trades. 

But you can see a narrowing, a sort of progression toward a "sweet spot". Western societies cleaved the quantitative and the qualitative as distinct ideas -- but I've craved both

I've taken to calling this my "convergence", because this looks like so many convergence plots I looked at as a data scientist. Where is this model going?

If I draw out common themes, three dominate: stories, experience, data. 


In a recent call with a recruiter, she listed off the skills I highlighted on my resume: "Leadership. Statistical modeling. Ethnography. Data visualization. Design.

"If you had to pick one skill as most important to your next role, what would it be?"

"All of them," I say. "I don't want to do just one, I want to work at the intersection of them all."

We talked a bit about jackalopes. She laughed at the disarming metaphor, but I think she came to see how a rabbit with antlers makes for an interesting story. 


Enough with the slow reveal. The conversation with the recruiter went very well, as did a number of subsequent conversations. 

My map includes a new destination for this protagonist: 

Same as the above chart, but with a final point for "UX design for data", which resides in the middle between quantitative and qualitative.

As of Monday, March 22nd, I'm going to be an experience designer. 

More formally: UX Design Lead, Storytelling and Visualization. 

I'll do the full spectrum of design work, from research to design, to create meaningful data experiences.

I'll be working at 84.51°, a data science company. Data and data science will become my content. Data scientists and their customers will become my users.  

Qualitative and quantitative. 



This post isn't meant to be a simple new job announcement. 

It's meant to be encouraging.

I've talked to a number of other peers with "unusual" backgrounds, and we're always plagued with the consequences of sunk cost. It isn't the sunk cost that's holding us back, but rather the void left by it. 

"I currently have a career in this, but I want to do that. But, everyone will look at how I have no experience in that."

That: business intelligence. This: education.

That: data science. This: hospitality. 

That: UX design. This: logistics. 

The thing is, we grow, and we change. It's a matter of entropy: you're devoting energy toward organizing and re-organizing your life, to keeping the universe of your organs and your cells and your history and your experiences in a coherent pattern. 

Use those patterns. 

How does your unique background create unique ability? 

Education makes a great paradigm for training and communicating complexity. Hospitality makes a great paradigm for navigating difficult customer relationships and balancing competing priorities. Logistics makes a great paradigm for systems thinking and identifying workflows and bottlenecks for process improvement. 

Your background isn't a sunk ship. We have a tendency to think that our old ship won't work for our new destination, because ships are large and cumbersome and hard to steer -- and often, we feel like we're trying to steer our ship with an oar. 

But our lives, and especially our professional lives, aren't speed boats. 

If you want to do something new, start learning. Read books. Read blogs. Listen to podcasts. Take online courses. 

But don't listen to what the authors and teachers want to tell you: look for what you need, and how it relates to what you have. 

Connect dots. 

In order to be competitive and prepared for this new job, I read 21 books in 3 weeks. I didn't do this by reading every page (and speed reading is a skill you learn in a humanities grad program). I read that many books by searching for the important links between my background and these new skills. 

I wasn't trying to learn something new, I was trying to grow skills and knowledge I already had. 

It's really hard to start a tree from a seed, but trees that are already grown can be shaped.

If I can figure out how the skills I learned in folkloristics give me a unique capability to work with data, you can figure out how your that relates to your this

If you can connect those dots, you'll have something that few -- if any -- others have. 

Be you, better and more than anyone else could.

Love y'all. 


The postings on this site are my own and do not necessarily represent the positions, strategies, or opinions of 84.51° or the Kroger Family of Companies.