“Before making any significant career decision, picture yourself forty years from now. Do you like what you see?”
This is what my colleague’s father had told her, words she still remembered. What stayed with me however, was the sheer absurdity of this unimaginable length of forty years. When you are where I am now, in my early twenties, that’s almost a whole lifetime. But here’s the thing that I did realise. If one does try to picture oneself forty years from now, that picture is often an unfiltered culmination of all of one’s ambitions and fantasies.
While forty years is far too long to chalk out a plan, it is enough to take account of our dreams – regardless of how far-reaching they might be.
Given today’s context however, where job switches, career pivots and sabbaticals are becoming more commonplace, what does a career path truly entail, and how far does it wander from mainstream definitions of career success?
If we are to believe the conventional definition of career success, our career paths would probably reach a full stop after a horrible job , a wrong course or just a bad stint in general. But here is the thing –your careers are so much more than just a job, or a degree, or a designation. While all of these can have a definite end point, your career doesn’t.
The mainstream definition of career does disservice to a whole lot of people hustling on their own individual career journeys.
Think about someone who has been a solopreneur their whole life. Or a homemaker who juggles between handling the household finances and helping the children with their studies. The homemaker probably has more experience in finances and investments than a fresher starting out into the field.
Owing to the mainstream idea of career success, however, these aforementioned cases would perhaps not qualify as ‘career paths’, even though they should.
Your career is a journey. Something that is not particularly defined by job or qualification milestones, but the learnings, experiences and relationships through it. Your career is a culmination of all the skills that you have acquired through your lifetime, and it has as much, if not more, to do with who you are as an individual, as it does with your qualifications and professional achievements.
It’s About The Learnings You Receive Along The Way
Three months into my first job, my boss told me that her decision to hire me had practically nothing to do with my qualifications (because I didn’t have many tbh), and everything to do with my personality.
Similarly, when she is on the lookout for a job or project, even a remote one, she always requests for a face-to-face interview with her potential employer first. Her belief is that professional skills can be taught –but what one brings to the table in terms of their personality, their life learnings and experiences is something that cannot be quantified.
This is why your career has more to do with all your learnings in life –not just your professional lessons.
For instance, I graduated from college having learnt a full-fledged three-credit course in Digital Marketing. And while my resume presented me as a qualified digital marketer, it was only after having spent a significant time on the job that I could live up to that qualification on paper, pragmatically too.
While that is just an instance of a professional skill, have you ever stopped to think about all those learnings that one can’t put down on a piece of paper?
Think about all those interactions with annoying coworkers you’d rather repress and forget. Didn’t you find a way to deal with them? And won’t that learning be helpful later? Similarly, think about that one really frantic boss you had. Didn’t you find a way to get through to them? Calming down the boss, or ‘upward management’ as they say in corporate lingo, must indeed be a significant part of any senior management’s job description.
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It’s About The Relationships You Build Along The Way
The relationships we build at work can last us a lifetime. These relationships, when they are supportive and nurturing, can sustain our career paths, beyond just the jobs we hold, or let go of.
“Some of the people in my closest circles, are people who I first met through work. These are the people I go to when I am struggling, looking for a new opportunity, or basically just need an ear, because not only do they understand my field, we have also been through so many experiences together, all nighters, gruelling deadlines, crazy bosses.”, says a co-worker.
If work farewell emails were any barometer, it is amply clear that we are not remembered by our job descriptions, but by shared experiences, memories and relationships. “You did a great job at that one project in Q4”, said no farewell email ever, even though traditional ideas of success would have us believe otherwise.
A holistic idea of career success accounts for interpersonal relationships. We are conditioned to view our professional success by evaluating it through our job level, our promotions or our designation. Let’s expand our resumes to include the feeling of having succeeded, not just the act of success.
It’s About The Life Goals That You Prioritise Along The Way
Once upon a time, there was only one way to look at a career path. You joined an organisation, most likely at a junior level, and then, through your performance, promotions, well timed jumps and other opportunities, you made it to the higher ranks, which were almost always managerial.
If you did not follow the path that was laid out before you, for whatever reason, you could not have your happily ever after. This was especially true for women, who had to drop out of the workforce very often, whether by choice or otherwise.
However, when we change the way we look at career success, we no longer have to take the road always taken. Depending on what you prioritise at a point of time, your career path can look and feel completely different. The definition of success, then, becomes more individual.
A friend of mine prioritised creative learning over career growth. This meant that she focused more on opportunities where she could have creative freedom and learn, even if it wasn’t the job where she would grow up the ranks. Another prioritised her health at a time when she was doing very well, but suffering from frequent migraines.
From writing a book, to bringing up a child, to learning a new skill, career paths are a reflection of what we choose and prioritise, and each choice is valid, with something to offer to the ever evolving versions of ourselves.
It’s About The Growth That You Experience Along The way
Think about who you were before you entered into this inescapable rut of hustling from Monday to Friday. Chances are, you have seen yourself change and grow, not just in your job, but as a person too.
On paper, I have professional growth and upskilling to show for my career so far. But thinking about it, that’s not all the growth that I have embarked on.
The mainstream definition would have you believe that your personal growth is not particularly a part of your career growth. But your career has everything to do with who you are as a person.
Personally, being on the clock in an organised (well almost) workspace has taught me to deal with people better. It has taught me to take care of myself better. In my (relatively young) career I have learnt the importance of feeling motivated and having the will to get up and head to work every morning.
This can most certainly sound like a cliché, but here’s what I think –clichés are clichés for a reason. They may be repeated generation after generation for dramatic effect but it’s because they never stop being relevant.
We are so attuned to think of careers in a boxed, back-to-back format, in the ‘what’s next’ approach that we leave no room for non-linear patterns of success and growth. Let’s think of our career paths as a road that runs parallel to our life’s journey, sometimes intertwining, sometimes separating. That’s when we will realise that it not just about how well we do and what we achieve, but about who we are and who we are becoming.
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