in my work, I come across plenty of people who stress about their career paths. they worry that something they’ve done or some relationship they’ve had threatens to undo all the great career momentum they’re so carefully building up.
newsflash: these people don’t have career paths.
they never will.
and neither will you.
there is no such thing as a career path.
career paths: pure myth
their intentions in maintaining the illusion of the career path are noble.
think about it: if you were in HR, responsible for the professional development of every person in the company (among other things!), how many of those individuals’ life stories could you keep straight in your head before they’d start to blur together? not many. career paths let corporate leaders cluster employees into a manageable number of groups. groups like “high potentials,” “technical experts,” and “on an improvement plan,” for example.
instead of remembering dozens—or hundreds—or thousands—of individual, constantly changing stories, HR practitioners and managers can focus on maybe four or five paths.
from management’s perspective, career paths are necessary and good. they help keep management costs low. they help make sure everyone moves forward at least a little bit. they limit the risk that a few people soak up resources meant to be shared by all.
things look different from the employee’s perspective. for starters, employees can shoehorn themselves cleanly into a “career path” about as easily as a family can sit around a table built for the average, 2.7 member family.
and it gets worse. as individuals, we have forgotten that we have the right to advocate for ourselves, to push the organization to refine its models and address those pieces of us that aren’t accounted for in the average career path. not all of us. but those who tend to advocate for ourselves tend to get rejected by many corporate cultures.
(like mignon mclaughlin said, “every society honors its live conformists and its dead troublemakers.”)
many employees do more than forget. we go further. we embrace the idea of the career path and start force fitting ourselves to it. we start talking how they talk and never give it a second thought.
we get excited about “high profile assignments” and “high-potential programs” as if those are the only things that matter. we collect our gold stars and then ask how to get the next one: “what’s the next step in my career path after this?!”
in our race to embrace the paths we’ve been handed, we’ve forgotten who we are.
this leads us to accept careers that never quite fit. to game the system rather than create a better match.
to blame The Man for getting in our way and not giving us the space to do things Our Way, when the tragic reality is that we are doing it Our Way, and that Our Way is to give up control to The Man and bitch about his dumb rules.
you can’t game your career development while following someone else’s rules.
in this game, the people who decide your success are the incumbents who get displaced when you win. and humans generally do not give up power once they have it.
this isn’t conspiracy theory stuff, it’s human nature stuff. even good people with your best interests at heart are still subject to human frailties. as are the people seeking power: interestingly, humans generally don’t give up a subordinate role once they have it, either.
science has shown that without any coercion from their superior, people who see themselves as victims tend to stay that way.
logic shows the same thing: no one can make you stand up for yourself. if someone makes you do it, you’re not doing it for yourself. (it’s axiomatic!)
no matter how much someone want to see you succeed on your own, no one—even someone with power—can make you to disagree with them. or give you permission to fight them. or even help you once you get going.
for example, every dad knows, from the day his son is born (and now more than ever this applies to daughters, too, which is a great thing and an entirely different blog post), that the day will come when that son stands on his own two feet. some dads can’t wait for that moment, others dread it, but they all know it’s coming.
when it does, all dads—supportive dads and mean dads alike—fight back with everything they’ve got. mean dads do it to keep their own status. supportive dads do it to make sure their sons are really ready for the power they’re flexing.
it’s no different at a company. even if your boss loves you, there’s still a risk that you’ll take her job, or make a mistake in the future that will come back to haunt her. so when you step up, she’s going to test you and make sure you’re ready for that next level.
you’re not going to see the test coming.
courage: the missing ingredient
when we go along with pre-fabbed career paths, we expect tests of ability, but get blindsided by tests of courage. yes, career paths are filled with tests and choices, but these tests are bounded. controlled. they are not the tests that teach us to stick to our guns in the face of grave doubts. they teach us to handle the uncertainty of not knowing the answer to a question, but rarely do they prepare us for what to do when we can’t fathom what question to ask.
courage—the ability to persevere in the face of this sort of insurmountable odds—is impossible to test in a progression-by-guidewire career path.
courage only gets tested in the face of doubt. to make sure we have it, leaders have to create doubt.
the easiest way to do that? remove the career path.
at the moment of our professional coming of age, our leaders change from protectors to testers. it has nothing to do with whether they’re rooting for us. even if they’re our biggest cheerleaders, they are still the incumbents who we must displace, so they must make sure we’re ready to do at least as good a job as they do.
they become dangerous adversaries with advantages in both knowledge and experience. and once they switch roles, they cannot take it easy on us. which is ok in one respect: we want to know where we stand when the only thing holding us up are our own two legs, too. but in another respect, it’s not ok at all: having our mentors turn on us at the moment we feel most assured of “breaking through” creates feelings of confusion, abandonment, betrayal, and doubt.
which is the point, but also the thing that sinks so many people. they step up, only to find that their path is stripped away, their mentor has vanished and their champion has turned against them. no way back, no help, and blocked way forward.
greatness is not a club that lets us in easy. we have to earn our way in, and those inviting us to apply are often the very same ones guarding the gates.
of course, all this stuff about courage and greatness is almost irrelevant for many people, because once they start down a career path, they committed to a fictional version of reality in which they can pretend such tests are unnecessary anyway.
they’ll read this whole section and wonder what it’s doing here.
so let me make it plain: not hitting a stretch goal or blowing your corporate budget is nothing remotely close to betting everything on a new program that doesn’t work out and leaves you having to lay off 350 people whose only mistake was to believe in you. living your story prepares you for the latter. your career path, the former. and the further along your career path you go, the harder it becomes to close the gap.
write your career story
you are here on earth to be the protagonist in your own story.
not a drone along some fictional, averaged-out “path,” but a real, live, actual, here-I-am-in-the-flesh-story.
our career stories are subplots in our life stories. for some of us, these are major subplots, for others, not so much. but none of us should give up our career story for a career path, laid out and controlled by someone else.
stories don’t start until we step off the path.
when you’re following a path, as if led by a guide wire, you can’t have a story. you’re nothing more than a supporting character. you’re a flat, boring, two-dimensional device that exists only to highlight someone else’s excitement.
only protagonists can know surprises, friendship, obstacles, twists, victories, villains, daring, love, temptation, loss, luck, setbacks, choices, laughter, tears… only protagonists can know success.
so screw your career path, cut your guide wire, ditch the path.
write your story.
- take a sheet of paper and on it, draw the classic story line curve (known as Freytag’s Pyramid and pictured below).
- tt the end—not at the climax, but at the very, very end, at the conclusion/resolution—write your ending. this is what you used to call your “goal” back when you thought you had a career path. make it a good one.
- you have now just written the ending to your story. this is not a wish, not a maybe, not a desire. it is the ending to your career story. you have scripted the last scene of your movie, so to speak. it is written, and so it shall be. all you have left to do now is to get there. (don’t worry: when this story ends, the next one can begin.)
- a little scary, right?
- at the left side of the page, draw yourself as a stick figure. You have now begun your journey.
- put a dot on the curve where the rising tension starts. This point is called the inciting moment, and it’s where the guide wire snaps. as with any story, you can’t possibly know what this trigger might be. often, it’s a small thing you don’t think twice about. sometimes, it’s something out of your control. just know that it’s out there somewhere, and that someday, you’ll look back and recognize it. then stop thinking about it. seriously, you couldn’t possibly create that moment if you tried. in rocky, balboa’s moment comes when he gets chosen to fight the world champ in an exhibition fight—a decision made that’s out of his control. in star wars, luke’s story starts when the droid his uncle chooses from the jawas breaks, and they pick r2-d2 instead—at c3po′s urging. in charlotte’s web, a book filled with important moments, the turning point is an innocuous scene in which fern sells wilbur to her uncle for $6—a move the pig knows nothing about. none of these scenes feels terribly important when they happen, yet these are the moments that unlock the stories as we have come to know them. what unlocks your story will likely surprise you. don’t fight it. let your life unfold.
- rising conflict. look at that slope you have to climb. have you ever enjoyed a story where the protagonist whined the whole time about the tasks ahead of him? of course not! even in romeo and juliet, a tragic tale filled from start to end with regret, the characters are always pushing forward.
rest assured, there must be conflict. no conflict, no story. be the protagonist who embraces his journey and relishes the obstacles he faces—whatever they may be—as natural and expected parts of the story.
but I like my job
great. then keep it! there is nothing in this post that’s incompatible with having a job. my point is to not mindful. I don’t want you blindly quitting your job because of this post any more than I want you blindly following a career path. if you’re doing this right, it’s not hedonistic at all. in fact, it’s a lot of hard work. but it’s purposeful work. it’s meaningful work. it’s work that uplifts, inspires, and tires you out in a good way. if you love your job, then do your job. really do it. not for the gold stars or the assignments in foreign countries, but for the intrinsic joy you get from it.
how does it all end?
look, I don’t know if your story has a happy ending. I have no idea how steep your path will be to your ending, or how spectacular your climax will be.
but I do know this: humans are not meant to follow career paths. we are not built to follow guide wires. birds are. ants are. fish are.
humans. are. not.
we are meant to live our stories. it’s when you let go of trying to control the path and simply live the story ahead of you that—win, lose, or draw—you ensure your own success.
because when it comes time to walk out of this theater, regardless of whether it was a comedy, tragedy, adventure or drama, you will turn to the people around and say:
“wow. did you see my life? now that was one helluva story!”
and you will, at that moment, know what it means not just to have lived but to have loved, too, even if the only thing you loved was your story, which will make the moment that much more powerful.
screw your career path.
here’s to your life story.