Doing Better at Doing Good

Doing Better: Charlotte veteran shows how to reinvent yourself

CorrespondentsDecember 21, 2013 

At 31 years old, Blake Bourne has already reinvented his career three times.

While still a student majoring in political science at the University of Pennsylvania, the current Charlotte resident filled several campaign and staff roles for a Pennsylvania congressman, taking a semester off to work full time. But when he landed behind a desk drafting correspondence to constituents, Bourne, a football player at Penn, decided he needed a little more action.

Eager to serve his country after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which occurred halfway through his college years, he finished his degree and signed on with the U.S. Army.

As Bourne puts it, “I like to test where my limits are.”

Bourne spent six years as an infantry officer, earning Ranger and Airborne badges. He rose to the rank of captain, completed two tours in Iraq and received a Bronze Star. And then, with some pressing family obligations emerging, he decided to look for a new challenge closer to home.

He found it in North Carolina.

Arriving in Charlotte, where his wife works as a pharmacist, Bourne was aided by the Mission Continues, a national nonprofit run by Duke University graduate Eric Greitens that connects veterans with community service fellowships. Bourne joined Hands on Charlotte for six months, helping mobilize volunteers throughout the city.

Time for fresh starts

Having already steeped himself in the government and military sectors, the experience galvanized Bourne’s interest in a third arena – nonprofits. In September, he became director of community initiatives at Charlotte Bridge Home, which specializes in helping veterans find employment.

Bourne’s varied career proves a point made in “Reinventing You,” a new Harvard Business Review Press book by branding guru and Duke professor Dorie Clark. “Professional reinvention is almost never a onetime, fix-it-and-you’re-done job,” Clark writes. “Instead, it’s a way of life and a way of seeing the world – full of opportunity, open to new possibilities, and awaiting your contribution.”

As the New Year approaches, many of us will look back over the past year at what we have or haven’t achieved and ponder what we might do differently next year. It’s a time ripe for fresh starts, and an example like Bourne’s can help inspire us to get started.

It should also remind us of a crucial fact: personal and professional reinventions usually don’t just materialize on their own, no matter how much we wish they would.

“Luck might be with you – or it might not,” writes Clark, an adjunct professor at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business. “You owe it to yourself to take a more systematic approach.”

As his career evolves, Bourne says he finds himself increasingly guided by a few key principles. First, he never tries to plan too far ahead, knowing that it’s impossible to anticipate the future beyond a few years. Second, as an extrovert, he looks for professional roles that require heavy interaction with people. Also, as someone with a public service mindset, he seeks jobs with the potential for broad community impact. It’s a simple framework that helps keep him focused on his core interests and strengths while also keeping his options open.

Transformative change

In “Reinventing You,” Clark provides a step-by-step playbook for those of us who don’t have Bourne’s inherent skill at reorienting but who still, in Clark’s words, “want something different and better in their professional lives – and know there has to be a more strategic way to do it.”

Long before joining the Fuqua School, Clark had already reinvented herself several times. Laid off from her first career in journalism in the early 2000s, she jumped into politics as a spokesperson for gubernatorial and presidential campaigns. That work led her to a leadership role at a New England nonprofit. The business skills she gained there sparked her transition into marketing strategy consulting, where she has assisted Fortune 500s, major foundations and government agencies.

Clark knows the path to transformative change well, and she breaks it down into 10 steps. She starts with self-awareness, including understanding our reputation, skills and gaps and developing a sense of our next destination. An exploratory phase follows, with emphasis on testing options, honing new skills and leveraging mentors. Then it’s time to take action by reintroducing ourselves professionally and building momentum in new fields.

In Clark’s hands, reinvention becomes an energizing adventure instead of a frightening obligation. And in this holiday season, both Bourne and Clark offer us some wonderful gifts – proof that we can dramatically alter the course of our careers and some hard-won instruction on how to go about it.

Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives. Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, blogs at www.messyquest.com. They can be reached at authors@bullcityforward.org and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.

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