It’s Your Career

March 19, 2007

“It’s Your Career”

My first few posts have been a bit philosophical with topics like “dreams” and exploring what we want and why. This post is intended to start laying out some more practical suggestions for career management. I will gradually lay out a basic framework for thinking through the way you work, relate to people and the choices you make.

The first step towards effective career management is to be proactive and accept ownership of your own responsibility. I feel the most important idea is that this is your career, it’s up to you. No one else will “make it happen” for you if you don’t. Everyone has a different style and may operationalize this differently, but ultimately it’s up to you.

Don’t be a victim

I can envision lots of examples where someone might say, “so and so got promoted because they sucked up to the boss” or “I posted great numbers and didn’t get credit”. I tend to tell people “don’t be a victim” in these types of situations. It is naïve to believe that things take care of themselves. Nothing does (at least not consistently). The people who got underserved credit understood the system and managed others’ perception of them within that system. The person who didn’t get credit didn’t do the same. This isn’t to say that things should work this way. But they often do. You need to understand the environment you are operating in, whatever it may be.

If you need to be the boss and aren’t tracking towards it…

It’s OK to accept that you don’t want to do what it takes to be successful in a given organization. There are a limited number of outcomes in this situation. Settle for being marginalized, leave and go to a place where what you offer is more valued, change your behavior to model what is rewarded or stay and try to change the culture to meet your needs. Those are the choices. Understand them, be clear eyed about it and commit to a path. Any of them is reasonable and can possibly lead to success if you are committed. But understand the implications of each. Staying and accepting marginalization is difficult emotionally, but may be worthwhile financially and from a lifestyle standpoint (eg; flexible hours, great benefits etc.). Leaving may be emotionally rewarding but cost you perks and long term incentives at your old employer. Staying but behaving differently or trying to change the culture may be difficult emotionally, but rewarding in other ways.

 But everyone doesn’t want to or need to be the boss…

This goes back to goal definition. If “success” for you means upward mobility in an organization, then maximizing your performance reviews and understanding all the politics are important. But if you genuinely don’t care than you have the luxury of not needing to worry about it…to a point.

My mom has always been a great example of this to me. She was an editor for decades before she recently retired. While working at the local newspaper for years she was always the assistant editor, the perennial #2. In that job, she was left to actually edit. Her series of bosses all had to run the paper and didn’t do nearly as much editing. Some might view her as the perennial bridesmaid, but my Mom was happier editing than managing others. (Note: she was offered the editor job every time an editor resigned and always declined). Fast forward to the last ~15 years of her career. She worked as a well paid writer/editor for a large investment fund. She compiled their quarterly and annual reports to investors as well as other communications. She was a valued employee, earned good money, had great benefits, enjoyed her work and generally worked a 45 hour week. That doesn’t sound too bad, does it? Point being that for many, other considerations dominate steady promotion and greater managerial and financial responsibility.

Take-away: Take ownership of your career in the context of success criteria YOU define.


March 11, 2007

Dreams are important. To state this is to simultaneously “master the obvious” and state a truth that eludes a lot of us.

No Regrets

I recently faced the passing of a close relative. One result of the personal crisis has been several searching conversations with close friends and family. One conversation yielded the insight that there are two things you really don’t want to be thinking when lying under the (literal or metaphorical) bus that just hit you. The first is “gee, I really wish that I had done x”. This is the focus of this post. I’ll write on the second one (“gee, I really wish that I had taken care of X”) at a later date.

A body of emerging research strongly suggests that those of us privileged enough to be worried about career navel gazing are not deeply satisfied by money past a certain level of income. Being happy is largely a function of the personal relationships you have, community engagement, family connections etc. Similarly, within the constraints of your career, research suggests that higher levels of personal autonomy and sense of control equate to higher satisfaction and better help.

Being unhappy is, well…unpleasant. It would seem like a thing to avoid if possible. That being said, we are all bound up in external definitions of success and other considerations that compete with “following our hearts.”

The Challenge

Here’s my challenge to you; define success for yourself. Go through the exercise of writing down what a successful life looks like. It is important to be honest with yourself. Putting something in print in front of your face (or whatever method works best for you) requires you to actually articulate ideas coherently. My next challenge is to find a trusted friend or mentor and share these ideas with them to get feedback. (This begins to delve into an entire area on building and activating a network, a topic for much discussion at a later date). Do not have this be someone tied to your immediate job etc. Use your judgment to find a good friend who knows you fairly well, but can be dispassionate about the topic (ie: not someone whom your decision directly affects). I find the mere act of having this discussion helps clarify thinking and may lead to some conclusions. Some things sound crazy out loud while others get you more excited. The conversation sparks other ideas etc. It will also help identify issues with your hopes and dreams.

Here’s the next challenge, if you really think something is interesting and what you’d like to do then pursue it. Regrets are terrible things and can ruin you. “Gee, I really wish I’d done…” is a terrible thing to be carrying for years. A personal example for me was going to history graduate school. I’ve always had an interest in teaching and in history. Seems like a PhD would be a good idea. So I enrolled in a doctorate program after undergrad. What did I learn? I don’t want to be a history professor.

Thought going in: teach, mentor, debate, active exchange of ideas. Reality (for me): waayyyy too much time alone in the stacks doing research, very difficult job market, low pay, no reward for teaching etc. For me, this was a tremendously liberating experience. I KNOW I wouldn’t have been happy on that path and so I changed course and have been very happy (and better compensated) in my career choices since then. People ask me if I would have done it differently to get a few more years work experience earlier, gotten into a different MBA program etc. My answer is “Are you kidding me?” I had a great time, learned a lot and moved on. I had a great experience. I definitely do not sit around angst ridden over some idealized (and ultimately fictional) life as a history professor.

Don’t expect “perfection”

I am not a believer in self-help industry guidance with lots of exclamation points about getting “EVERYTHING!!!” and being “THE BEST!!!” etc. A friend of mine points out that by definition “it’s an average world.” My point here is not to say settle for mediocrity. Rather, it’s to encourage you to define your own set of success criteria and measure yourself. Don’t get caught up in who’s o the covers of magazines living a fabulous life.

You WILL ultimately be happier w/ something you love. You may not, however, get “everything you want”. Only a precious few get to be happy at work, have healthy family lives and be wealthy. If you do, good for you. For most of us there are choices about priorities to be made. Not making these choices will definitely lead to less than satisfying outcomes. Things to balance include family, friends, faith, work, health, interest etc. The list goes on.

My encouragement to you: Think about your goals holistically, not artificially separating work and personal. Having done that, be brave and explore your interests actively. Sitting on the couch dreaming won’t get you anywhere. Commit to a plan and put some effort into it. If you get yourself that far you will better understand the implications of your dreams across all your life goals. Then you can really understand what you want.

Some call it experience, others wisdom. Either way, it mostly comes from doing. (Aside – A friend often comments that “the devil is smarter for his age than from being the devil.”)

Take away: Spend the time to know what you REALLY want and take action.