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How to re-invent yourself

(MoneyWatch) After losing her job as a journalist years ago, Dorie Clark reinvented herself as a communications expert. Now she shares her journey, and that of other "re-branders" such as Al Gore, in a book called "Reinventing You," which was released this month by Harvard Business Review Press.

With millions of Americans still unemployed, I spoke with Clark about how people can best re-imagine their future.

You lost your job on September 10, 2001. I'm guessing that was a traumatic week. Part of the problem with reinventing your personal brand is that it's often happening in a tumultuous time in a person's life because of a layoff, personal crisis or other issue. Is there a good way to manage the emotions involved so they don't distract you from the hard work of change? How did you handle this?

Dorie Clark: If an external change, such as a layoff, is prompting your professional reinvention, it's OK to take time to mourn a little bit. When I got laid off as a journalist, my plan for myself had to change, and that requires some adjustment. But the most important thing is to get back into action as quickly as you can; too much rumination can be counterproductive. Take a few days or a week and rest up, relax, cry, be angry or whatever it takes. But the next week, start taking small steps. Update your LinkedIn profile; call your friends and ask for advice or referrals for informational interviews; start a blog so you can demonstrate your industry knowledge. You have to create that initial momentum that will propel your reinvention forward.

One thing people worry about losing in such a reinvention is social and professional status, which matters to us more than it probably should. How do you cope with that?

DC: It's very easy in our society to equate professional status with self-worth. One extremely successful artist I know is crushed when others hear the word "artist" and erroneously assume she shows work in local cafes, rather than having the glamorous, international career she actually does. The first step, of course, is recognizing that a loss (even temporary) in status may be disorienting. If you're an executive used to flying on private planes, that first day in the coach line at LaGuardia can be disorienting.

There are three important points to keep in mind, however. The first is that -- as our moms would tell us -- our job is not who we are. If you're defining yourself based on others' perceptions and how others treat you, it's a losing game. We have to remind ourselves that we're valuable simply because of who we are.

Second, you may sometimes have to take a temporary step back in order to take several steps forward. In "Reinventing You," I profile a woman who was a high-flying investment banker who took a steep pay cut and loss in prestige to accept a policy fellowship at an environmental organization. But the experience she gained and the contacts she made allowed her to leapfrog forward, and at the conclusion of her fellowship she had several plum job offers in her new field.

Finally, status is often transferable -- that's why actors can become successful politicians, and Ashton Kutcher is now considered a Silicon Valley heavyweight. Social science research has shown the existence of a "halo effect" in which, if you're good at a particular skill or field, people generalize and assume you're good at everything. So think carefully about the narrative you're constructing to talk about your background, and the validators you've put in place, such as loyal friends and colleagues who are willing to talk you up. That can be incredibly valuable as you launch into your next act.

What was the hardest new skill for you to learn as you transitioned from journalism to communications and consulting?

DC: A recent study by Intuit estimated that 40 percent of the American workforce will be freelancers by 2020 -- and I'd argue that even for the 60 percent who aren't, you'll need to start acting increasingly entrepreneurial in your own career. Like many people who start their own businesses, I was quite knowledgeable about my field (media relations and communications), but not nearly as experienced at running a business. Learning how to bring in clients and become a "rainmaker" is the most valuable skill anyone can have in the current economy, because it means that, whether you work for yourself or others, you'll always have money coming in the door; you've made yourself indispensable.

What would you tell your Sept 10, 2001, self now?

DC: I managed to land on my feet reasonably well after I was laid off, despite the horror of September 11 and the economic shock that followed. I networked like crazy and got a lot of freelance work from other newspapers and magazines for the next six months, and eventually got a full-time job working as a press secretary on a gubernatorial campaign through another contact I knew. It was old-fashioned pavement pounding. But what's even more critical is what's changed in the past dozen years -- the emergence of social media and the increasingly broad, deep reach of the Internet.

My in-person networking back then got me my next job, but today that likely wouldn't be sufficient. You need to start now to build up a strong Web presence for yourself -- a strong personal brand -- so that others know who you are and understand what you're capable of. That can take the form of everything from a robust LinkedIn profile to a smart industry blog or series of articles you've written. That way, if you're ever laid off or decide you want to change jobs or companies, you won't have to scramble -- people will already be seeking you out.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user woodleywonderworks
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