Updated June 10, 2012
In my work, I come across plenty of people who stress about their career path. They worry that a recent job change, personal decision, relationship, or the inability to build some relationship may undo all that great career momentum they’d been so carefully building.
They don’t have career paths. They never have. Neither do you. There is no such thing as a career path. What we have are career stories. And wrapping your head around that is the first step in having a successful career.
Career Paths: Pure Myth
Think about it: if you were in HR, responsible for the professional development of every individual in the company (amongst other things!), how many individuals’ “stories” could you keep straight in your head before they’d start to blur together? Inventing career “paths” lets companies cluster employees into a manageable number of groups: high potentials, management track, technical experts, pluggers (for example). Now, instead of managing all those stories, HR practitioners need only concern themselves with maybe four or five paths.
Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, we individuals forgot that we have the right—nay, duty!—to push the organization to refine its models. Because let’s face it: the average employee is about as real as the average household, with it’s 2.7 people.
But rather than push back, we embraced the idea of the career path and started force fitting ourselves to it. Now, we talk how they talk without giving 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?”
But those “career paths” we follow aren’t us. They’re not even about us. They’re about someone else’s attempt to make managing us easier. (And what a job they’re doing!)
In our race to fit the organization’s models, we’ve forgotten who we are.
Instead of pursuing success, we pursue the path. We focus on gaming the system rather than going after what’s important. We blame The Man for not letting us do it Our Way, blind to the tragic reality that we did do it Our Way, and that Our Way was 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.
You will lose, because in this game, the people who determine your success are the incumbents who get displaced when you win. This isn’t conspiracy theory stuff. It’s human nature. (Even good people who try to do the right thing are still human beings.)
Humans generally do not give up power once they have it. Interestingly, humans generally don’t give up a subordinate role once they have it, either.
Without any coercion from their superior, people who see themselves as victims tend to stay that way. I’m not going to get into the (many well known) psychological studies that show this. Instead, I’m going to share a moment from my own life that highlights this dynamic and how difficult it is to break it:
I was 17, a senior in high school. The details of my story are unimportant. The short of it is, there was a job to do in the house, my dad and I had very different ideas about the best way to get that job done, and right or wrong, I held firm in my position against him. Yes, I caught hell for it, and deservedly so, but my defiance also changed our dynamic. Forever. Looking back, standing up for myself seems like a simple thing, and yet at the moment, it felt like the hardest thing in the world. Stand up to my dad?! Surely, that’s not what I was supposed to be doing, right? Had the world gone mad… or just me? In that moment, I was totally off-script. I didn’t know up from down. And despite all the lessons I learned from books growing up, it’s the lesson from that moment that I remember best.
Despite teasing me mercilessly about it, or maybe because of that, I know my old man was proud of me for making that stand. See, he couldn’t ever tell me to disagree with him. He couldn’t give me permission to fight him. He couldn’t help me fight him. Yet, he had known since the day I was born that such a day would come, and when it did, he’d want to know that as a dad, he’d raised a son who could hold his own under pressure. Sure, on the issue itself, my logic was a clusterfudge of poor judgment, and he let me know that without pulling any punches (figuratively speaking). But in a different part of his mind, he was busy assessing something else: my ability to make a decision and to have the courage to stand by it.The way in which he tested my reasoning also tested my mettle. None of this was conscious, but looking back, the test was unmistakable.
Courage: The Missing Ingredient
When we go along with prefabbed career paths, we lose—entirely—this test-your-mettle half of the development equation. Courage only gets tested in the face of doubt, but when everything is organized as it is with a career path, there is no doubt.
Career paths may present tests and choices, but these are bounded. Controlled. They are not the tests that can teach us to stick to our guns in the face of grave doubts, because these paths have guard rails that prevent us from ever failing spectacularly.
Oh, you didn’t hit your stretch goal? BFD.
Oh, you bet everything on a new program that didn’t work out and you’ll have to lay off 350 people whose only mistake was to believe in you? Now let’s see you get out of bed tomorrow.
People with power cannot help us with these lessons of courage any more than my dad could help me that night of our fight. It’s not because they’re not rooting for us; they often are our biggest cheerleaders. It’s because they are the incumbents who we must displace.
At the moment of our professional coming of age, their role changes from protector to tester.
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: we need to know where we stand when the only thing holding us up are our own two legs. 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 is almost irrelevant for most people, because by the time they’re on a career path, they’re already living in some fictional version of the world where they can pretend such tests are unnecessary anyway.
Write Your Career Story
It’s time, as individuals, to remember that we are each protagonists in our own stories. Not fictional “career paths,” but real, live, actual, here-I-am-in-the-flesh-stories. We are all currently living our own life stories, of which our careers are subplots. For some of us, these are major subplots, for others, not so much. But for none of us should this subplot overtake our bigger life story—especially if the subplot is reduced to a predictable, formulaic, linear path.
In fact, I defy you find any good story in which the main character lives his life start to finish in a predictable, formulaic way, as if led by a guide wire.
Stories don’t start until those guide wires break.
When you’re on 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. C’mon; let’s write your story.
Start by picking a goal. Actually, do this:
- Take a sheet of paper and on it, draw the classic story line curve (known as Freytag’s Pyramid, which I’ve adapted by putting the resolution above the exposition. Because if you’re going to go through all the trouble, the result should be something better than you’re starting point! For the bigger image, click the small one, then right click the big image and select “View image” to get rid of the sidebar.)
- At 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.” Make it a good one.
- Have you written it? Yes? Congratulations: you have now just written the ending to your story. This is not a wish, not a maybe, not a conditional desire. It is the ending to your story. You have scripted the last scene of your movie, so to speak. It is written, and so it shall be. All you have have left to do now is to get there.
- 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 even 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 (unless you are one of life’s specialistsand are living a pre-ordained life a la Owen Meany).In Rocky, Balboa’s moment comes when he gets chosen to fight the world champ in an exhibition fight—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 C3P0′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.
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. Fish are. Ants 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, and you know sure as you’re sitting there reading this that there is no greater thing you can achieve in life than that.
Here’s to your life story.
Jason Seiden is CEO of Ajax Workforce Marketing. Ajax amplifies brands by aligning employees' online messaging.