This does not surprise me. Career is one of the great obsessions of our age. Our careers are among the primary vehicles we have to make an impact, find fulfillment, and interact with other people. This is neither good nor bad—it’s just part of our culture.
Yet we receive no meaningful training in how to frame and develop our careers, the advice we get from parents and teachers is often just plain bad, and the economy changes so rapidly that it is unclear which lessons from the past or from current conventional wisdom are relevant.
This is a problem because our careers do matter. We want to be successful and, perhaps even more than that, we want to be fulfilled. But how to do it?
The Blocks that Inhibit Us
Without realizing it, we create barriers to our own career progress. There are three major blocks and all have to do with our frame of mind.
The first is that we tend to take action on career matters only when we feel it’s absolutely necessary—when a crisis hits. Let’s call this the “medical” model. You lose your job, or get a new boss or project you can’t stand, or you wake up one day and don’t recognize yourself in the mirror. Help! So you revise your resume, try to resurrect your network—or build it up for the first time—and along the way somehow figure out what you should really be doing with your life. Not pleasant. And not very effective, either.
The second block is that we overdramatize. We obsess about the big changes that we think are required to move us forward, whether that’s changing careers, moving geographies, or becoming a new person. But rather than whipping us into enthusiasm, this approach just makes us scared and stuck.
The third block is that we value thinking over doing. We believe that career fulfillment is all about insight. Once we have that magic answer, our path will be clear. But career growth and change don’t really happen through thinking. There are too many variables. And, in another irony, the more we think, the more likely we are to kill all our new ideas with our treasured analytical faculties. Then we congratulate ourselves for doing nothing. “At least I didn’t fall for that lame idea,” we tell ourselves.
Shifting Your Perspective
Don’t stay blocked. Try some more useful perspectives.
First, instead of sticking to the “medical” model of careers, adopt a “wellness” model. A wellness model holds that your career isn’t something you work on only in a crisis. It’s something you work on all the time. You develop a method for fostering career wellness and work this plan as part of your normal life. You might then avoid some of those crises, and definitely will be more equipped to deal with the ones that do occur.
Second, instead of the opting for the drama of big changes, push yourself to define concrete actions that will move you forward. Not grand steps that take weeks to work up to, but small steps that you can do today, or any day.
Finally, I’m going to suggest you adopt a bias toward action. You’ll learn far more from doing and experimenting than from reflecting. So the program starts not when you think you’re ready, but now. Act before you’re ready to act.
You need a map to know what to focus on, and individual coaching can provide this. But there is plenty that you can do on your own with a little bit of direction.
5 Core Factors to a Fulfilling Career
You need to work hard and do well at your actual job. No tricks will allow you to get around that. But that’s not enough.There are a number of areas that are crucial for ongoing fulfillment and success that have very little to do with your actual job. These are described at length in my forthcoming book, “20 Minutes a Day to Career Fulfillment,” but for now I will bring it down to five specific things:
- Values | You need to understand who you actually are, name what’s important to you, and find ways to fit your core values into what you do. To the extent your core values cannot be expressed in your career, you find other ways to express them.
- Vision | You need to be working toward something that is compelling for you. This might be consistent with what you are doing now, or seem quite far off. Either way, if you have a future vision – no matter what your age – you will be more effective in achieving your goals and far happier in the process, including through low periods.
- Competency growth | Forget what your resume says. What’s actually important for your current and future prospects is what you bring to the table. In the words of Marshall Goldsmith, “What got you here won’t get you there.” So how are you going to prepare the skills you need for the next level or for a different role entirely—before you get there?
- Relationships | Other people are your primary sources of learning, a major form of personal sustenance, and usually required to make progress on any professional goal. If you know how to form meaningful professional relationships, take time to do so, and work to expand your circle, you will be far more powerful and likely happier.
- Communications and brand | It matters how you talk about yourself, your interests, and your capabilities. What you say partly determines what other people think of you and whether they can help you. Effective communications includes being coherent in professional settings, but it is equally important in situations that do not seem to count, such as meetings with old friends and new social acquaintances. How do you talk about what you do? How do you convey what you want? You can do better than just winging it.
Each of these is a large, complex topic and each is also amenable to small, discrete steps. You need to attend regularly to all of these core factors. But you don’t have to do everything at the same time.
Career Development Sprint: 20 Minutes a Day
If you want your career to be anything other than a hamster wheel, you need to make a habit of investing in your career with the same commitment you bring to investing in your retirement. A steady stream of bite-sized investments grows exponentially over time.
Everyone knows that career development is important. “Obviously,” you might be thinking, “I know that it’s important to reflect, strategize, and establish priorities. I’ll get to all that just as soon as I have time.”
The problem is that you will never have time. As long as working on your career is something you do after you’ve finished working in your career, you won’t make progress. You can’t define the project of making the life you want as something that only happens in residual time.
And strategy alone isn’t enough. You need to take action, every day.
The only way to make time for working on your career is to make it your top priority—to pay attention to yourself first, before anything else. Devote 20-minutes a day to working on your career. Everything else happens after that.
Here are the basic principles behind the Daily Career Development Sprint:
- If you don’t commit to working on your career, you probably won’t.
- You can accomplish useful activities in 20 minutes that will make meaningful contributions to your long-term happiness and success.
- You can always find 20 minutes in your day. Let me repeat that last one: You can always find 20 minutes in your day. I swear.
What can you do in 20 minutes? A LOT. We have some bite-sized suggestions to get you started.