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Careers Café

Tinkering with your career

Liz Koblyk wants you to focus on what you can produce rather than on whether you’re qualified to produce it.


I’ve been taken with the Tinkering Studio, where people put together common items in unusual ways. The idea with tinkering is to use what’s at hand, in ways not originally intended, and to focus more on what you can produce rather than on whether you’re qualified to produce it. While light-up jewellery made out of binder rings might not be your scene, tinkering still offers a good way of thinking about career flexibility and exploration.

There’s nothing wrong with a more standard approach, in which your mechanical engineering degree leads to a job as a mechanical engineer. But should there be a shift in the labour market, should your educational path not lead to one obvious likely employment outcome, or should you want multiple career options, tinkering makes sense.

The great things about tinkering with your career are that you probably have a whole store of experiences, skills, acquired knowledge, people you know and approaches to life which are useful; and, that you don’t need to know yet how to fit them together perfectly in order to start making them work.

In practical terms, this can simply mean using skills you developed in one environment and applying them in another, without waiting for a full-time job to appear first. Why wait to complete a certificate in grant writing if you already have some of the requisite skills and can find a market? If that educational software firm is looking for someone with knowledge of sound pedagogy, why not start a conversation about how you could contribute, whether or not you have a computer programming degree or a master’s degree in curriculum design?

Like any analogy, the comparison of tinkering to career management has its limits. Goal orientation can be useful for focus and drive, and if you are getting consistent messages about credentials or career paths from people who hire the kind of professional you want to be, go ahead and follow the steps they’ve laid out. Some people prefer focus and depth to breadth, in which case tinkering may feel superficial – though everyone has to start as an amateur. Taken to an extreme, tinkering could also be less about putting your skills to work now and more about trying to survive in a gig economy.

In the meantime, though, I’d invite you to think about how tinkering might apply to the way you shape your work, especially in terms of giving you permission to develop a skill outside of the twin umbrellas of educational credentials and full-time employment. Look to elements of your day that don’t necessarily fit with your educational pursuits or a full-time job, but still allow you to make the kind of impact you want to have, or to use or develop the skills you want to use.

Think about what would happen if you allowed yourself to have a “tinkering portfolio.” What would change about the way you spend your time over the course of a month? What would you start doing if you felt you had sufficient expertise?  How could you get hands dirty in that now?

And of course, in true tinkering style, if you don’t want to expand your use of certain skills, time in certain environments, etc., you don’t have to. Perhaps tinkering’s main value is in the model is gives for a multi-faceted approach to work, in which progress is not a ladder to climb, but work to be done.

Liz Koblyk
Liz Koblyk is the associate director of the Wilson Leadership Scholar Award at McMaster University.
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