The nature of our careers has changed. We can now expect to have as many as four different types of career in our working lives, and retirement is becoming less relevant as people choose to (and in many cases will need to) work for longer.
The complexity of the working world means that the jobs of today are an unhelpful predictor of the employment opportunities that will be available in the future. Careers are now characterised by change, flux and ambiguity. Everyone’s career is “squiggly” rather than straightforward: the idea of a linear career “ladder” is long gone. We need to reframe how we approach our working lives, unlearning the assumptions about progress, success and development that we’re used to and relearning new ways of thinking and behaving.
From plans to possibilities
Creating a career plan was once a smart way to progress. You could look upwards in an organisation and map out your route to the top, step by step on the organisational chart. But career plans are only useful if jobs and organisational structures remain stable over time. Instead of career plans, explore multiple career possibilities. This means accepting and embracing that there is more than one way to achieve the things that matter to you in your career.
It’s not about jumping around jobs in a haphazard fashion, but being open-minded to options and considering each job possibility through the lens of “What will I learn?” versus “What will I earn?” Herminia Ibarra, a professor at London Business School, describes this as moving from anchoring your identity from only one future to becoming comfortable with a number of future selves. In a piece for Harvard Business Review, she writes: “Many different and desirable versions of our future self are possible. Learning, not performance is the outcome.”
From weaknesses to strengths
In the context of multiple jobs and careers, your individual strengths can become the consistent thread that creates career continuity. Reputations are built on doing a few things brilliantly and consistently, and, as business writer Seth Godin reminds us in a post on his blog, “Your reputation has as much impact on your life as what you actually do.”
Your super strengths are the things you are known and recommended for. They don’t happen by accident. Effort and energy are required to choose the strengths you are going to over-invest in, and you need to know when and how to use your strengths in a way that is relevant to your current situation. If your super strength is developing people, that will look and feel very different leading a team of 50 in a FTSE 100 company versus leading a team of five in a fast-growing startup.
From know-it-all to learn-it-all
Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindsets suggests that when we believe in our ability to continually improve we will achieve more individually and collectively. The emphasis is now on each of us to curate our own curriculum for learning and to learn in a way that works for us. Too often, learning is still equated with “going on a course”. In a world of podcasts, videos and Instagram Stories, the places where we go to learn has extended far beyond the classroom.
How we learn is also becoming more flexible with live and on-demand learning mixing in a way that reflects media consumption in other aspects of life. You can watch research professor and author Brené Brown talking about vulnerability on Netflix or use an app like Headspace to focus on mindfulness. The democratisation of development offers more people the opportunity to access high quality, personalised and flexible learning. The one thing we can predict about squiggly careers is that learning is now the job.
How to prepare for a squiggly career
Accelerate your adaptability
Identify a minimum of four career possibilities for your future. For each, ask: What do I need to learn and who could help me?
Nurture your network
Start with what you can give, rather than what you are hoping to gain. Networks are not people knowing people, but people helping people.
Reset your resilience
Learn to bounce-forward rather than bounce-back. Regularly reflect on “very small successes” – write one down at the end of every day.
Curate your curriculum
Make a career learning plan that reflects what you want to learn and how you learn best. If you can, share this with your manager.
The most curious people are often the best problem solvers and the top performers. Make random acts of curiosity part of your day-to-day work.
Helen Tupper & Sarah Ellis are co-authors of The Squiggly Career
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