Planning a career path can be a tricky game. Some people have it all figured out. They know exactly what they’re doing and where they’re going – especially when it comes to planning their career. As the Onion reminds us, there are plenty of 20- and 30-somethings out there who are achieving life milestones all the time and with no end in sight. So obnoxious, right? What about the rest of us?
I hate to break it to you, but if you want to achieve those life milestones–getting a promotion, getting married, having a baby–you need to work for them and you need to plan for them, especially when they relate to your career. Things can fall into your lap, but, more often than not, they require work on your part. As Sheryl Sandberg highlights in her new book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, promotions are not granted to us like tiaras. They are not daintily placed on our heads while we lean back and take it all in. On the converse, we must lean in and work our way towards those goals, even when it means facing unknown territory.
One of the things that is on my mind more often than not is my career. What have I done? Where am I going? What can I do better? Where do I want to go? I’m not going to pretend that I have it all figured out. I’m not sure if anyone has it all figured out. What I do know is that I have a drive to succeed and to lead. However, sometimes, I feel like I’m staring off into a great unknown. While that’s a little scary, that’s also part of the adventure.
To help you (and, to be honest, myself), I’ve identified four strategies for planning a career path: some gathered from experience and some gathered from Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (really, you must read it!).
1. Look inward
Envision your perfect day. If you’re like me, your perfect day changes every day. While this may make it tricky to pin down exactly what your perfect day is, it’s good to know that you like variety. This exercise may help you uncover things that you want to do that you didn’t even realize. Or, it may help you think outside of the box about what career you can or want to pursue.
Identify what you are good at. Do you know any special software? Are you good at solving complex problems? Knowing what you’re good at is key to planning your career.
Identify your personality type. If you take a personality test like the Myer-Briggs (or even Myer-Briggs’ cousin, the Jung Typology Test) you can identify your personality traits and use those to understand what you may like or excel in from a career-perspective. If you find that you trend towards introverted, that may make you rethink the career in Sales that you are currently pursuing.
Identify the things that you currently do that you like to do and the things that you currently do that you do not like to do. We’re not all going to love everything we do every minute of our workdays. While there will always be things we would rather not do, we can make an effort to minimize those things in our day. While it may not seem obvious at first, there is a lot of merit in working in a job that is not a good fit – sometimes identifying what you don’t like is just as important as identifying what you do like to do. Both types of information can help you better choose your next opportunity.
2. Research your options
Explore a variety of career paths. Just because you are in one particular track now doesn’t mean you will be forever. And it certainly doesn’t mean you need to stay there. Conduct as much research as you can on your different career options. If you’re looking to switch careers, how does that relate to your previous experience? If you’re exploring a couple of different paths in the same field, what are the differences?
Search for job descriptions. You don’t need to be actively looking for a new job to search for jobs. I find that it’s helpful to constantly have a pulse on what employers are looking for and what skills are needed for different levels. Doing this kind of research can help you identify the types of things that you will need to do in order to move to the next level.
Look for articles and presentations about your chosen career. There are a lot of people out there who are talking about career paths in every different field. Look at industry publications and search for career-related articles. Go to Slideshare and look for presentation by people in your field. There is a lot to be learned from the people who have “been there and done that.”
3. Identify your goals
Create an 18-month plan. In Lean In, Sheryl Sandburg suggests creating two goals for your career. The first is an 18-month plan. Citing that a year isn’t long enough and 2 years is too long, the purpose of this goal is to help you identify that tactical things that you can do now to move forward.
Identify a lofty goal. The second goal you should make, according to Sandburg, is a lofty goal. A lofty goal can change, but it should be lofty. Perhaps you want to be at the top of your field. Maybe you want to have a good balance between work and life. Maybe you want to live somewhere specific. Your lofty goal can be anything, as long as it’s a stretch goal that’s fairly big picture. Find the balance between being specific in your lofty goal, but not so specific as to limit yourself or your thinking.
Lather, rinse, and repeat often. Take the time periodically to review your progress on your goals. Revise them if your priorities or circumstances have changed. Create a new goal after achieving one. Keep doing this, and keep doing it often.
4. Create a plan and start achieving
Identify the next level up and the skills and experience you need to get there. You’ve already done some research of different job descriptions and your different career options. Now it’s time to start identifying how you are going to get there. Map out your current skills and the skills needed for your next step. Then identify what you need to do to get there.
Start achieving. A plan can only take you so far. At some point, you need to stop planning and start doing. Start doing the things that you outlined in your plan. If you’re scared or nervous, start small. Make the effort to speak up in a meeting. Pursue opportunities with gusto. Lean in to your career, instead of leaning back and expecting things to fall in place. Your success will depend on a lot of outside factors, such as timing, luck, and mentorship, but you have a lot of agency in your own success.
Explore the jungle gym. A great metaphor that Sheryl Sandberg uses is that a career is like a jungle gym, not a ladder. I think this is a great way to explain the concept, as the days of up and down a distinct path are long gone. We can be creative about the way we move our way through our career, which may be up, sideways, across or even down. It also allows for the idea of completely shifting careers entirely, something that I’ve already done, and recognizes that there often is no correct path or even an end point.