How to create your own career-defining moments

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In your career, you'll face a handful of crucial moments over time. These moments will have far more impact on the trajectory of your work-life than other, normal moments. You may not be aware of them as they’re happening, though you’ll often be able to pinpoint them in hindsight. Moments like these can be positive or negative, but in either case, they're almost always memorable.

I've had a diverse career, logging time at every level of the technical org chart from junior tester to CIO. By doing so many different things, I eventually figured out what makes me happy. Now, I work for myself; writing, building and teaching. I worked hard to get here, and I'd like to pinpoint some of the things that helped along the way, so that you might get a better idea of how to create your own career-defining moments:

  • Career review: When asked in a career review whether I wanted to pursue the management track or the architect track, I chose architect.

  • Training: I enrolled in a graduate program via night school, choosing an MS in computer science instead of an MBA.

  • Productive downtime: >After grad school, I reinvested my new spare time in starting a blog.

  • Pluralsight: After I'd been blogging for a while, I applied to become a Pluralsight author.

There's nothing particularly special about me and yet, in a series of moments that would turn out to be defining ones, I took leaps that helped my career immensely. And here's the thing: You can do it too. Sure, there was a lot more to achieving my goals than simply deciding I wanted to do those things. But even when I felt I was in over my head, I put myself out there and wound up reaping better rewards than I even imagined. Maybe you've already experienced moments like these, or maybe you're just getting started. Either way, it's never too late or too soon to put yourself in a better position. Let's take a look at four big things that can help you give yourself an edge, whether in your current position or an entirely new venture.

1. Overcome impostor syndrome

Wikipedia has a definition of impostor syndrome, but I much prefer this post by Scott Hanselman. The easiest way to identify it in yourself is this: If you experience fleeting, irrational suspicions that you're about to be called out, you probably have impostor syndrome. And if you do feel this way, you're not alone; this has happened to me my entire career. After applying to be a Pluralsight author, I was convinced that someone was going to figure out I didn't belong -- and I was still convinced of this after I had my first course commissioned. It's important to learn not to listen to this voice. As put together as everyone around you may seem, keep in mind that they're muddling through and figuring it out as they go, exactly as you are. Don't let the feeling of intimidation stop you from getting outside of your comfort zone and seeking new challenges.

2. Put in sustainable overtime

Anyone in and around the software industry is familiar with the term "death march" to describe endless overtime to save an at-risk deadline. Overtime burns people out and can't be sustained, but that doesn't prevent you from using it tactically to further your cause. Agree to a freelance project for five hours a week, contribute to open source, take a class -- heck, become a Pluralsight author. All of these things are potential door-openers for you, but they're also all things your employer isn't going to pay you for. You need to make time, and do it in a way that you can sustain.

3. Be patient and opportunistic

If you look at those defining moments I mentioned earlier, they all involved starting long processes with a payoff coming much later, if it came at all. Being willing to put in extra time is important, but so too is being strategic with your time. When making decisions or opting into new initiatives, make sure you're paying attention and asking yourself key questions:

  • How can this help me?

  • How likely is this to help me?

  • When should I start seeing results?

  • How will I know I've succeeded?

If you're applying these critical questions to opportunities, decisions and new initiatives, you'll find yourself better equipped to recognize and capitalize on potentially important moments in your career.

4. Be a little scared

Finally, make sure you're often a little scared. If you're only guided by what's comfortable, you'll find that you look back on moments in your career and tend to think, what if…?  What if you'd taken that promotion, even though you knew it'd be a reach? What if you'd spoken at that conference? If, instead, you find yourself nervous and wondering how something will go, you're probably on the right track.  Moments that equate to a leap in your career are not for the faint of heart.

So, now that you've hopefully had the push you needed to start working on those things that will really benefit your career, get out there and take action. Use these tips as a jumping point and weigh in with your own achievements in the comments below.

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Erik Dietrich

, founder of DaedTech LLC, is a programmer, architect, development coach, writer, Pluralsight author and technologist. You can read his writing and find out more about him at his website below or follow him on Twitter @daedtech.