Have you noticed that “what do you want to be when you grow up” is no longer just a question for pre-schoolers? Plenty of twenty-something’s (myself included) are asking themselves the same question on an almost-annual basis.
I’m not exactly panicking about it. It’s become so much more acceptable nowadays to not know what your career is going to look like in 5 or 10 years time. Not only that, but slipping into a cookie cutter career is now (in some circles) considered mainstream and suitably unimpressive. Instead, we are encouraged to think outside the box, make our own rules and define our own version of career success.
Is it just me or does that sound like a lot of pressure? Social expectations are definitely not as limiting as they once were – yes, women have more choices than teacher, secretary or nurse – but sometimes it feels like we’ve gone so far the other way. Today, there is an abundance of opportunity and choices for twenty-something’s that, instead of inspiring and encouraging us, often leaves us paralysed with fear. They call this, the paradox of choice.
My first instinct, in the face of this fear, has typically been avoidance- mainly in the form of procrastination. Why not stay put until I know for certain what my next move should be? It seemed like a good idea at the time but – edging closer to my thirties (eek!) – it felt like it was time to start moving.
“You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.
I think what Martin Luther King Jr. is getting at here is have faith in the big picture – it’s ok not to know the final destination. I’m certainly not professing to have it all figured out (far from it), but these are the 5 things I’ve learned so far on my metaphorical career staircase:
- Take yourself off auto pilot
This is a biggie. I went straight from high school to law school, applied for vacation work and then graduate positions – not necessarily because I really wanted to, but because that’s what you did. Before you know it, it’s seven years later and you can’t remember actually making the decisions that got you where you are. I’m not saying that I wouldn’t have necessarily made those same decisions if I wasn’t on autopilot – they would have been just that, my decisions. There are so many books directly and indirectly related to this topic – about living in the present moment (see The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle) and owning your story (I love Daring Greatly by Brene Brown).
- Put one foot in front of the other
It’s simple, keep moving – preferably, in a forward direction but a sideways shuffle or occasional cha cha is fine too. I think the danger is in waiting where you are for the perfect next step to crystallise – it rarely does and the road to success is more often a zig zag than a straight line anyway. There will be times where you are gallantly striding ahead and others where you’re crawling or stopping for a breather – as long as you’re not standing there indecisively (or worse, curled in the foetal position) for too long.
- Little changes add up
Change does not always have to be big and dramatic. I know No. #1 sounds like you have to be actively making conscious decisions about your life all the time. But that’s not necessarily true, desirable or sustainable. Those decisions and choices can be changing jobs or industries, moving cities or going back to study – but they can also be as simple as getting a LinkedIn account, doing some research, reading new books or joining a committee or club. Sometimes, you do just need to be patient and lay the groundwork. I admit, I struggle with this – it’s an unfortunate but (let’s admit) one of the slightly admirable Gen Y traits.
- Who you know, beats what you know
This doesn’t mean that you have to be spending all your spare time schmoozing with canapé and business card in hand. For me, the best opportunities or ideas have more often come from speaking to friends of friends, neighbours, unknown co-workers or even strangers (contrary to what your Mum has taught you). Meg Jay describes this in her TED talk (“Why 30 is not the new 20”) as using your “weak ties”. As an introvert, this is a challenge for me but it’s one of those things that gets easier the more you do it.
- Mistakes are not the worst thing that can happen
A few years ago, I had the clichéd realisation that the biggest mistake you can make is being afraid to make one. There were a few big decisions to be made – moving house, ending a relationship and quitting my job – that left me terrified of making the “wrong” decision. What if I chose the wrong house/boyfriend/job and regretted it? The “what ifs” will drive you crazy and do not necessarily help you make the “right” decision. Never ask a lawyer what’s the worst that can happen. Guaranteed, we’ve already thought (a lot!) about it, weighing up the risks against the likelihood of success or failure. But one day someone said to me – there are very few things in life that cannot be undone or fixed, particularly in the career stakes. It was like I saw the light. Knowing what I know now – I’d rather go down failing spectacularly than not try at all (any other perfectionist-type-A-personality will agree, that is a huge breakthrough!). Sure, there’s a time for being cautious and I’m not saying you should skip the pros/cons list or SWOT analysis (or whatever your equivalent decision making process is – let’s save the story of the Clinkers for another time). Just don’t be afraid of the mistakes because, in my experience, they’re either brilliant moves in hindsight or totally fixable anyway.
All this might seem like clichéd common sense – and you’re probably right. I’m sure the list of lessons will dramatically increase over the next few years too. I’m in that place at the moment between cookie cutter lawyer and my more innovative future-self. I can’t tell you what my job title will be or even the industry, but I know it will be some magic fusion of the things that really interest and motivate me – writing, communication, law, change management, organisational behaviour, coaching, personal growth and travel. My career path is going to look more like a scatter diagram than a line graph and I’ve made peace with that. For the first time in a long time, I’m excited to see where the staircase will lead. In the meantime, I’m going to enjoy the view one step at a time.