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Curiosity is the spark behind every leading innovation. Without it, we would never have harnessed electricity, shot to the moon, or developed a Covid-19 vaccine in record time. But while it’s easy enough to come up with a good idea — they’re everywhere — those that are revolutionizing entire industries and professions require us to keep our eyes peeled for the challenges in our daily lives and then ask, “How can I change that? How can I make things better? How can I use my curiosity for good?”
That’s exactly what I discovered when I transitioned from full-time professor in the Department of Medicine at McMaster University to entrepreneur, co-founder of Acuity Insights, formerly Altus Assessments, a Toronto-based company that now employs 150 people. It all started with a review that challenged the concept that book learning was all it took to be a good doctor, nurse, teacher, or businessman. The test measures social intelligence and professionalism used alongside measures of knowledge – and we’ve found that the more holistically we can assess someone, the more we’re able to understand and support them.
I saw a problem and realized there was a potential for a breakthrough innovation. We’ve now expanded to a full suite of products for higher education programs that connect key data throughout the learner’s journey from application to graduation and provide key data to inform decisions. Acuity partners with more than 530 higher education programs worldwide.
And my experience shows that almost everyone can see an opportunity in their day job and turn it into a viable business. Here are five things to do when the opportunity arises you can knock that new venture out of the park:
Related: How to know when that business idea is good enough to pursue
1. Watch out for workarounds
Do you know how if we leave a pile of books on the floor, the longer they stay there, it becomes easier to walk around? As time passes, we forget they’re even there because we’ve become so used to finding an alternate route.
The spark for my company started with the realization that an ineffective solution—relying on letters of reference and personal statements when reviewing student applications—just wasn’t enough. They were inherently biased. Medical schools, including mine, had to outperform in accepting students. Being an excellent doctor is more than academic scores, high grades or knowledge. What matters is how you apply that knowledge to serve your patient using communication skills, empathy, collaboration, professionalism and ethics.
So we did our due diligence: We spent more than five years collecting data and refining the assessment tool to make sure we measure what matters. Then other programs and institutions started to get interested in what we were doing. But we wondered: can we give them access to our innovative software? Should we make money with it? Soon after, I realized that our pioneering business idea, locked in the ivory tower, was ready for the real world.
2. Listen to yourself
Sometimes it’s hard to figure out what we’re most passionate about, especially when we’re juggling a lot of priorities. To zero in on the one idea that could keep your interest and enthusiasm long-term, listen to yourself. Years ago, if I had recorded myself talking about the need to revolutionize medical school assessments, I’m sure I would have realized it was a real passion.
So talk to a friend or someone in your network about your project. Do you light up? Get more animated? Feel free? These clues could be the starting point for turning a side job into a new career and maybe even revolutionizing your industry.
Related: How This Entrepreneur Kept His Day Job While Starting a Business
3. Watch where you spend your extra time
How do you spend your extra time, even if you don’t have time to give? Feeling passionate about a side project and can’t stop doing it? Do you tend to lean in at certain meetings or ask more questions about specific topics? Pay attention to what drives you.
However, the leap from a highly respected career in academia to the wild unknown of startups wasn’t easy. For years I worked long hours in college as a professor before working even more hours at night and on weekends for the company. I was at a tipping point and realized that if I wanted to make a difference, I had to switch my priorities. Ultimately, I traded a secure career in academia for a full-throttle existence as an entrepreneur when I was seven months pregnant, building Acuity Insights with my co-founder, Harold Reiter, a radiation oncologist with an equally demanding job. Because I could follow my curiosity, I never gave up, even when it was difficult.
4. Prepare for pushback
When I first decided to leave my full-time college career for business, I emailed co-workers telling them — and some of them accidentally CCed me on their reactions to others about my decision . That was an eye opener; but I understand that many of them may not have thought of a profession outside of academia. But later at conferences I was able to share with them why I was so passionate and excited. I could tell them my ‘why’. I had realized that my “why” wasn’t tied to my profession – it was about how to make the biggest impact.
If you’re experiencing opposition to a career change, reach out to people who have made the same leap or work in an area you want to move into to learn more about the barriers and opportunities you may face. And don’t forget to take some time and dig into your own “why”. When you know what really drives you, you keep working towards your goals.
Related: 10 things to do before quitting your job to start your business
If you had told me ten years ago that I would become a VP and co-founder of a company, I wouldn’t have believed you. I thought I didn’t have the right skills. Sometimes we assume that we can only fulfill the role we are currently in and have a very fixed idea of what is possible for us. But as someone deeply entrenched in an industry, you likely bring valuable perspective and expertise to a broader issue. There are many people with degrees in sales, marketing, and accounting that can be hired. But innovators bring vision. Understand that and get out of your own way. And over time, your vision, curiosity and passion will spark innovation in those around you as well.
Pay attention to what’s going on around you at work – and what gets you excited – to discover the next industry-changing business idea. Because when it comes to charting a new professional path, passion and curiosity reign supreme.