I’m a Career Coach. In fact, I lead the team of Career Coaches here at Ama La Vida. And so pretty much all day every day I’m talking, reading and thinking about people’s careers. Because of this position, lots of folks ask me what “secrets” I know that the general public doesn’t. What are the secrets to a great resume, a killer interview, a stunning application? These are things we help people with every single day at ALV, but they aren’t what’s “missing” for most people.
I’m going to share with you the real secret right now. This is the big thing that almost everyone I’ve talked to was missing: Most people don’t have careers at all. They have a series of jobs.
Are you nodding yet? Because even without explaining it further, you get what I’m talking about. Let’s start solving this problem.
A ‘Series of Jobs’ Versus a Career
If you ask a young person at the beginning of their professional journey what their “career plan” is, most will either answer with what they want to be (i.e. “I want to be a graphic artist”) or they’ll tell you what company they want to work for (“I want to work at Google”). If pressed, they might admit that their goals will take a few steps to reach, but that’s it.
That’s not a plan at all. It’s a single milestone, one point in time, completely stripped of context. And it won’t turn into a great career, even if you reach it. Which brings us to Lesson #1 of how to manage a successful career: A Career is Neither a Job nor a Series of Jobs; a Career is a Decision-Making Framework.
A Decision-Making Framework
If you’re like most people, your career is probably going to span several decades at least, and the average person changes that career 5-7 times. You’re going to work for a large portion of your adult life. During that time, virtually everything will change. The world, the industry you’re in, the circumstances of your own life, internal motivations, technology, all of it. Therefore, it’s probably not a great bet that a single job will remain the correct and best place for you throughout your entire career.
Plenty of people can accept that this might happen, but almost no one does what the best professionals do, which is plan for it and even actively seek it out.
As a result, most people’s careers are just a series of rugs being pulled out from under them. Even if they get good at “job hunting,” they’re always doing it on the back foot, responding to either the recent or impending loss of a job.
Treating a career as separate and distinct from the jobs you hold is the key to meaningful work that serves your life, rather than a life spent chasing work.
Imagine that you’re building a house for yourself. The house is your goal – that’s your life. In order to build the house, you’ll have to spend time at different stores getting different materials. But you won’t spend all your time in any one store. And being in the store isn’t the goal nor the purpose. The purpose is to build the house you want – the life you want – and those stores are only helpful to you to the extent that they give you what your house needs at the time.
In this analogy your career is your car and your map or GPS – the methods you use to get from store to store and bring the materials back to your house.
Now, don’t think you can boil “career management” down to just “you should job-hop more.” That’s not the advice at all. It means, at its core, that you need to look at every job you have as giving you something beyond a paycheck – and that the list of those things are your shopping list for life. Which brings me to Lesson #2 of how to manage a successful career: Your Career Serves Your Life, Not the Other Way Around.
A Career that Serves Your Life
People frequently pick a single metric and try to maximize that metric, never deviating from that goal their entire careers. For some, the metric is “money,” and they seek to maximize the salary to the exclusion of everything else. For some people, it’s “social status.” For others, it’s “ease of work.”
Sometimes, people do change that metric, but usually only after an uncomfortable realization. They might chase money in the beginning of their career. Then they might decide that they instead want to maximize on “mission” after burning out. But they’re still being reactive.
A well-managed career plans for things in advance through intentionality. By being intentional about what mix of goals and outcomes will serve you throughout your life. Planning in advance to chase skill acquisition and learning opportunities early in your career, followed by shifting a focus to developing your professional reputation, followed by using the foundation you’ve built to command a higher salary and other perks. That’s the start of career management.
After that, you can dive deeper into each phase and examine what those opportunities might look like – and always think first about what you want your life to look like!
A person who wants a quiet life in the country has different career needs than someone who wants to be a part of the jet set, but both of those people need a career that serves that purpose. And neither will be served by a simplistic framework that says “I’ll just always take the highest-paying job from among those offered to me at the time.” Which brings me to Lesson #3 of how to how to manage a successful career: Career Management is a Process that Lasts as Long as Your Career.
Career Management means planning for change. It means being proactive, not just during the times when job hunting is inevitable. Most people go through cycles. There is intense personal branding and bursts of industry analysis while they’re unemployed or soon to be, leading to landing a great job – for the moment – followed by months or years of complacency where they perform their job well, but do nothing to advance or even think about their actual careers.
Then suddenly you’re unemployed again, but you’re not any further along in your career. Some metrics might be marginally better, but the job isn’t materially better than your last one… which you vainly hoped would be your last one, just as you’ve hoped at every job you’ve had.
In a well-managed career, you don’t ever think you’re in your last job. You know, with confidence, that you’re in the right place for this stage of your life. And you know, with confidence, that when you leave it will be on your own terms for your own reasons, and you’ll do it with your head held high and all your bridges unburned. You won’t get fired nor will you quit – you’ll graduate.
This means, of course, that unlike with job hunting, you’re never “done” with career management. Professional athletes don’t reach the major leagues and then think they can be done caring about their athletic development. They don’t stop working with their coaches and trainers and agents just because they’ve been signed to a franchise. Instead, they recognize that in order to get the career performance they truly want, they have to think about that just as much as they focus on their actual athletic performance.
There’s the core concept, in a nutshell. Job performance and career performance aren’t the same thing, but they’re equally important and are tied together. It would be difficult to manage a successful career as a writer if you were terrible at writing. But even if you’re a fantastic writer, you’ll never reach your full potential if you don’t care about the decision-making framework that supports using the skill.
Learning how to manage a successful career isn’t something you have to do every single day. You don’t have to dedicate two hours every morning to reading industry trends, doing performative personal marketing, or engaging in forced, artificial “networking.” But a few times a month, sticking your head up and looking around, discussing your journey and putting the decisions you’re making day-to-day into the broader context of an evolving plan? That’s good career management. Don’t hesitate to reach out, we’re here if you need help!