July 24, 2015
These days, people are no longer satisfied with punching the clock at the same company for 25 years. They’re changing not only their jobs, but also their entire professions multiple times.
For me, changing careers was a great move, but it was, no doubt, a challenging and enlightening endeavor. I went from pursuing a career in professional dance to building an accounting company — a path atypical of any creative professional.
Here are six lessons I learned on my journey:
1. Building a business is creative work
Despite their inherent differences, dancing and starting a business share the need for creativity. As a dance artist and choreographer, you’re asked to solve problems with your body — to find ways to explore the potential within the constructs of the human frame and to push your creativity to its limits.
I saw building a business as an opportunity to continue my exploration as a creative person. A new business is a blank canvas, and it’s all a matter of leveraging your creativity to create something worthwhile within the context of your resources.
2. Huge transitions happen in stages
I didn’t simply pick my next career out of a hat. After college, I worked at a nonprofit while I honed my dancing. That nonprofit taught unemployed and low-income individuals how to enter the world of accounting through a comprehensive training program. That program, DISCOVERBOOKKEEPING, introduced me to the world I’m in today.
They say accounting is the foundation of a business, but I think of it as the architecture. Both are calculated and precise, but there’s an art to them.
My specialty as a dance artist was choreography, which focuses on the way in which you build your dance. Choreographers move and organize bodies in space and time to produce the experience the audience is left with — this experience is your “output” as an artist.
Discovering the overlap between the outputs of dance and accounting paved the way for me to effectively take on a CEO role. I choreograph the dynamics of my business to achieve a desired output and experience for my customer, and I work with the “dancers” of my company to provide an experience that delivers not only meaningful and compliant financial systems but also a branded customer experience.
3. Boundaries are there to be crossed
I went from working with dancers in leotards to managing CPAs in three-piece suits.
Because I wasn’t tethered to the status quo like more experienced people, I had no preconceptions of how things should be done. As a result, I found it easier to be creative and innovative. My blank slate made it easier to run a business with a commitment to the unconventional.
4. Your “why” keeps you going
You have to define your “why” if you hope to persevere when the going gets tough. It’s what makes your efforts fulfilling and keeps you grounded when all the new experiences threaten to sweep you away.
For me, it’s as simple as an unrelenting curiosity. The desire to try and know everything is what drives me forward. I can’t know everything, of course, but it’s the thirst for knowledge and the desire to put my best foot forward for my customers and my employees that drives my success.
Understanding your own drive will help you survive a big transition. The unknowns can make you doubt yourself or feel discouraged, but taking a moment to journal or talk through concerns can help you get rid of the clutter and remember your “why.”
5. You have to discover how you learn best
There’s a lot of new information to absorb during a career change, and because you’re playing catch-up, you have to quickly determine how you learn best by exploring a variety of ways. One day — after constant studying — you’ll find that you may just know more than the next professional.
Remember: You must be aware of what you don’t know. You’re already starting off two steps behind with a career change, and being ignorant of your ignorance puts you another step behind.
6. Just because you should do something doesn’t mean you have to
My life coach once told me that “should” can become a dirty word when you’re taking on a big endeavor. I know that I should, for example, get an accounting degree, but I’ve discovered that I don’t have to. “Should” tasks generally come from someone else’s expectations, but the only expectations that matter are your own.
When you get good at something, it’s natural to start to form your identity around your skill set, but you have to be careful not to pigeonhole yourself. Instead of seeing myself as only a skilled dance artist, I looked at what made me a choreographer and found that my talents applied to more than just the stage. That’s what a career change is all about: finding how your skill set translates across industries and learning what you’re really made of.
Dancer-turned-accountant Mathew Heggem is CEO of SUM Innovation, a company that assesses, designs, implements and manages accounting solutions for fast-growth startups, international businesses, established and growing businesses, and nonprofits across the U.S. Mathew is also the founder of the #SUMTech Summit and the #AccTech Cooperative meetup group in New York City, which explores the intersection between accounting, technology and entrepreneurship.