There is a tendency to assume our careers need to be linear: always building to bigger and better things. In fact, for most people a career path has a few more twists and turns…
One of the biggest fears high achievers have in their careers is not following a linear career path that steadily moves on to bigger and more prestigious opportunities. If you were to visualize that on a chart, it looks like a graph that steadily moves up and to the right.
However, more often than not, the career path of successful people is quite a bit less linear than that. In fact, it is often the steps back, to the side, or even in the wrong direction that help build the skills and perspective that enable long term success.
An Astronaut’s Career Path
I recall reading “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth” by Chris Hadfield, in which he shares his career experience. He mentions that his career actually looks very linear from the outside looking in: Canadian Armed Forces, engineering degree, flight training, fighter pilot, test pilot, masters degree in aviation, astronaut, NASA director of operations, commander of the international space station, etc.
Yet from his perspective these stepping-stones, while not arbitrary, were certainly not all done with the intention of one day commanding the international space station. Rather they represented unique challenges that truly excited and engaged him, without any clarity on where they would necessarily lead.
In essence he was enjoying the present while building skills that would benefit him in the future, though he wasn’t always sure how.
I share this example because all too often ambitious, high potential people focus so much on achieving the end goal that they are willing to endure great sacrifice in the present. The problem is that people are very poor at predicting what will make them happy in the future.
Dan Gilbert of Harvard has done extensive research on this and concludes that if you want to understand what it feels like to accomplish a certain goal, ask someone who has done it and you will have a far better sense of how you will feel than if you rely on your own expectations.
The Challenge of Career Achievement
Dr. Steven Berglas talks about an aspect of this in his book Reclaiming the Fire:
“Achieving what you want and realizing that no favorable psychological changes have automatically ensued is far worse than failing to reach a goal.
With failure you can always go back to the drawing board, or “try, try again” -these are actually energizing conditions.
With success that forces you to ask “Is that all there is?” no such second chance exists. The disappointment of exposing the myths that surround success is devastating because we are obsessed with success.”
For those who have found themselves highly successful in their chosen field, these lines can have a biting truth to them. For those still on the journey to success as they have defined it, these lines mostly ring hollow. They fall into the category of, “easy to say when you’re already successful.”
Yet, if you are like most people, you’ve probably been telling yourself a story for quite some time. It’s something along the lines of, “when I ________(fill in the goal), then I will be happy (or feel successful or whatever).”
“When I make $500,000 a year I will be successful.”
“When I finish my Ph.D. I will be happy.”
The problem is that once you achieve that goal, you simply return to your baseline level of happiness. -And as the quoted paragraph above illustrates, when you do finally achieve whatever your ambition is, you may experience a tremendous sense of disappointment.
Lamborghinis and Disappointment
It reminds me of the first time in a Lamborghini. I had a poster of a Lamborghini on my wall when I was a little kid right on through high school. I thought they were something magical, and owning one… hell, even sitting in one, was like a dream.
Then, one day, a friend had one that he brought by… and the emotion I felt as I sat in it was… disappointment. It was cool, to be sure, but it was incrementally better than other cars I was much more familiar with. I had expected something amazing… and it was a let down.
The point of this is that it is essential to create a career, in fact a career path, in which you are both enjoying the present and building for the future.
Analyzing Your Current Career Path
Let me illustrate this using a simple framework created by one of my former colleagues, Tal Ben-Shahar:
First: consider how much you enjoy your job in the present. Imagine it on a scale of 1-10, where 10 being the absolute best and one being the worst. Think about how much you enjoy each day, how fast the day seems to go by (see my post: How to get in the zone), and how you feel at the end of each day.
Got a number? Good. This is your present enjoyment.
Second: think about how well this job will pay off in the future. This could be in terms of extrinsic motivators like status, power and financial well being (e.g. income, stock options, asset ownership, etc) or in terms of more intrinsic motivations (feeling good about yourself, making a difference in the world, etc).
Now imagine it on a scale of 1-10, where 10 is the best you can imagine and 1 is the worst.
Got a number? Great. This is your future benefit.
Now let’s look at the career analysis chart below:
Your first number (present enjoyment) should go on the vertical axis (imagine 10 at the top and 1 at the bottom) and your second number (future benefit) should go on the horizontal access.
The place where the two intersect is where you show up on the career analysis chart.
The ideal place to be is in the top right corner, which is where you love what you do today and it will pay dividends in the future. Your distance from this ideal gives you a sense of just how far you are from the ideal role.
Let me take a minute now and explain the boxes in the 2×2:
Ski/Surf Bums: High Present Enjoyment, Low Future Benefit
We all know this guy. My friend who did this for a while graduated from one of the best colleges in the country then went off to be a ski bum for a while. He got bored with it and now does something different that he enjoys but still isn’t going to pay off in the future. There really isn’t a career path here over the long term.
When you like what you do (maybe really like it) but know that it isn’t going to turn into much more than it is today, you are here. (Check out my post: the perfect job)
Dead End Job: Low Present Enjoyment, Low Future Enjoyment
This is the dreaded role. You hate getting up in the morning, work for the weekends, and can see this isn’t going anywhere. If only you could find a better job…
In some cases there is a real sense of resignation when you find yourself here. You are stuck in the bottom left corner of the 2×2… not a good place to be on any chart. The key question is what will you do to move out of this place?
Rat Race: Low Present Enjoyment, High Future Benefit
This is where a great deal of us live. When you find yourself in a role primarily because it offers great pay, a good retirement package, and potentially is very lucrative as you rise through the career ranks, you are here.
This is the place where you keep telling yourself, “if I just do this 10 or so more years I will be able to retire and do what I really want to do…” It is really easy to get trapped here, and it is almost what our society expects… but at least you drive a nice car! (See: 7 Signs it might be time to quit your job)
When you keep buying things to feel better about how your professional life is going, this is probably where you are.
Live Your Passion: High Present Enjoyment, High Future Benefit
Now this is the good stuff, and frankly I think most of us only know a handful of people who find themselves here. You are doing something you love, you enjoy the journey of the day to day, and you know that in the future it will pay off for you and your family.
This is where you want to be, and where my career coaching clients are working to get to.
What it feels like to be here is best exemplified by a client of mine who recently took a position as CEO of a company that she is helping transform, “George, I’m so happy I’m like a pig in the mud.”
Was the position going to pay off in the future? Yes, and even better, she loves what she is doing today.
There is a myth out there that when you take a role in corporate America you are in the rat race, almost by definition. This simply isn’t true: for a lot of people corporate America is a wonderful place where they can really thrive. The challenge is most people simply haven’t found that place yet.
I challenge you to find the career path that is right for you.