Creating an Extraordinary Career Path

April 21st, 2008 by gvanourek

Lately we’ve been giving talks to students on college campuses.  The question arises: what does life entrepreneurship offer students as they plot their career paths?

Let’s start with the common traps that students fall into as they set out on their first jobs.  First, they walk a path that others have chosen.  Whether it’s to obtain their parents’ approval, gain the acceptance or admiration of their peers, or please a mentor, they set valiantly off on someone else’s career path and only later come to realize that it may not be right for them.  Sometimes years or decades down the road, they stop and wonder: How did I get here?  Why did I choose this path? 

Second, they stick with the first path they came upon.  They commit too soon.  They start telling all their family and friends about their respectable decision for a career path and then all of a sudden, they’re locked.  According to the late Peter Drucker, “The probability that the first choice you make is right for you is roughly one in a million.  If you decide that your first choice was the right one, chances are you are just plain lazy.”  Yet, some people dutifully continue marching down that path. 

Why is that?  To begin with, the switching costs are high.  We earn salary increases and promotions.  We develop expertise and a network.  We are needed in our roles and appreciated for our contributions.  Most importantly, we adopt the persona of our work, with our whole identity sometimes subsumed by what we happen to be doing (even if it’s the wrong thing).  

Third, we postpone happiness.  The common view one generation back was that work was something you did until around age 65, or earlier if you’re lucky, and then you retire and enjoy life.  So we sacrifice today to obtain happiness tomorrow.  Or we just take this brutal job today with these brutal hours “for our family” with the comforting notion that it’s only temporary and that we’ll pay our dues now and start doing what we want in five years, or ten, or…. The problem is that we get into the habit of postponing happiness and those glory days never appear.

These are common traps, but what to do about them?  What is needed is a psychological holding environment for career experimentation and change, recognizing that our path is likely to be winding and cutting ourselves a break for not having all the answers out of the gates. 

Sure we must choose wisely—and for the right reasons.  But when you’re twenty and in college and lacking much professional experience (if you have any at all), that’s hard to do.  So let’s posit that most of us won’t hit the jackpot and figure it all out right up front.  And that our career path—and life path—will be winding.  One of the themes we heard from the people we interviewed—all successful business and social entrepreneurs or leaders—was that their path made more sense looking back than it did looking forward.  Many were surprised by where their path took them.  None ended up in the exact position he or she envisioned way back when. 

That argues for building flexibility into our planning and thinking.  That’s what I mean by the right psychological holding environment.  We need to make decisions based on an elegant combination of what our head dictates makes sense and what our heart reveals to feel right.  Most important, I think, is the latter.  We need to evaluate with brutal honesty how things are working out—after giving it a fair shake—and listen to our gut without having overcommitted by adopting that work persona and subsuming our identity to the current job or our current role.  Does this feel right?  Am I leveraging my strengths and deploying my passions? Am I making meaningful contributions?  Through an iterative process of action and reflection—with a heavy dose of searching conversations with loved ones, friends, and mentors—we can begin to find our direction in life, the wide swath on the horizon that we can steer toward and feel like we are on a true path. 

Second, we must “own” our career path.  That begins with planning with our whole lives in mind, as Aristotle urged us to do, and discovering our core identity: What are our values?  What do we want in our relationships?  What will our legacy be?  News flash: career planning = life planning = career planning = life planning.  Our work and life must be integrated pursuits, grounded in a solid core identity that fits with who we really are and what direction we want to head with our lives—a choice that is ours to make (or delegate or duck). 

Owning it also means “managing up,” if we happen to have a boss, and specifying clearly what we’re hoping to do and learn, as well as remaining “switched on” to opportunities for advancement and growth.  That also means evaluating and tweaking our career path in an ongoing process.

If we are contemplating a career change, sometimes we fall victim to the assumption that we can think it through perfectly.  New research is indicating that we should instead “craft experiments,” taking action in small ways to gain valuable exposure to fields of interest before jumping in head-first.  When we’re ready, though, we must be willing to jump off the train we’re on in order to find a truer path.

Sometimes plotting an extraordinary career path means allowing ourselves to try things and see what happens.  Allowing ourselves to not have all the answers.  To go down a path and discover that it was a road to nowhere.  To take risks and be unconventional.  To listen to our inner muse.  It’s more art than science.  It’s a messy process.  But the price of not getting our hands dirty this way is too often a life of regret, a career path that’s respectable but not remarkable, productive but not true.  Which will you choose?

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