A career, by definition, is something that develops over an extended period of time. In other words, a successful career is not born — it is made. Whatever you hope your career will become doesn’t just spring into existence on day one of your first job. Nor will it be baked by the time you reach midlife. A career is an ongoing process.
The reality: If you’re at the start of your career (or even if you’re somewhere in the middle), many things need to play out between “the now” and “the not-yet” (whatever you want to accomplish). With this in mind, how can you define a professional path you’ll eventually be proud to look back upon?
Dream Big, But…
I’d like to offer 5 strategies for managing your professional progress. But first, allow me to suggest an overarching mindset worth embracing from the outset:
Dream big, but plan for measured growth.
The best time to think expansively about your vision of a successful career is at the start. Go ahead. Embrace awe-inspiring ambitions, ginormous goals, outsized objectives, and infinite intentions. The career image you put in your mind can become a reality — if you truly want it to be and you work your butt off to get there.
But don’t expect it to happen overnight. Instead, take the advice offered by tech entrepreneurs, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier, in their book Rework. They say, “Trade the dream of overnight success for slow, measured growth.” Those who do so make their way over time through the twisting, winding road that takes them from the now to the not-yet.
5 Keys for Building a Successful Career
To help you move through the various stages of professional growth and achievement, consider the following five suggestions.
1. Map Out Your Area of Exploration
It’s never too soon to think carefully about your interests, desires, dreams, hobbies, talents, education, and experiences. Use them to outline a map that sets a general direction toward the “X-marks-the-spot” of your professional objectives.
Taking time to invest in this step is more than worth your effort, because it helps you define relevant territory. This sets the stage for you to focus where you’re most likely to unearth valuable career treasures throughout your journey.
2. Bring a Shovel
A unique, rewarding, and personal(ized) career awaits you. But finding it requires the willingness and ability to dig. This is why you’ll need a shovel.
The treasures of a dream job and a golden career are seldom found strewn about above ground, in plain sight. You won’t find them on a shelf like items at a grocery store. Instead, you’ll need to look below the surface for what you’re seeking.
So, how can you get below the surface? Don’t settle for a superficial approach to getting the career you really want. Dig deeper. Career archeologists — those who relish a rewarding professional path — often demonstrate their dedication in visible ways. You’ll find dirt under their fingernails, a sweaty brow, dusty boots, and other signs that tell you they aren’t afraid to plow through promising employment opportunities in their chosen field. They are committed to the task, and they stay with it until they find what they really want. It’s an example worth emulating.
3. Be Prepared to Modify Your Course
The initial sketch work for a career map seldom reflects the final results. But what’s true of all career mapmakers? They use as much of the pencil’s eraser as the lead itself. (Or even more!)
So take a tip from those who’ve gone before you. When mapping the professional territory you want to explore, resist the temptation to define its boundaries in permanent ink. Why? Because at some point, adjustments are likely to be necessary.
Some people think bolder lines make better, more accurate maps. But this kind of map-making confidence doesn’t allow for numerous twists, turns, and what-nots that can happen on any given day at work and in life.
What’s more, when you draw stark, vivid lines on paper and in your mind, they’re harder to erase. After 30 years of helping people develop their careers, I’ve learned that change always plays a role. So start by recognizing that change is part of the process, and as your career evolves, remain open to adjusting the map.
4. Expect Obstacles
Excavation work is not without challenges. Archeologists encounter geological difficulties, engineering issues, political red tape, structural problems, and more. All these issues make discoveries more difficult. The same is true with uncovering a successful career.
At each stage, you will face problems that threaten to prevent progress on your path of discovery. Instead of being distraught and distracted by these issues, consider them a confirmation that you are onto something worthwhile. You are heading in the right direction and getting closer to your discovery. If you embrace these challenges with enthusiasm, resourcefulness, and resilience, they are likely to teach you the most valuable lessons of your career.
5. Remember Time is on Your Side
One of life’s greatest blessings is time. Most of us assume we have more of it than we do, and many of us waste more of it than we should.
When it comes to your career, don’t waste time. On the other hand, don’t rush things, either. If you’re anything like me when I started my career, you’ll want to get where you think you are going as soon as possible. (Becoming an overnight success always sounds good.) But like most things that improve with time, successful careers typically develop less rapidly.
Whether you know it or not, time is on your side. There are countless examples that underscore this point. For instance, think about Walt Disney. It took decades of persistent effort for his dreams to become a reality. And J.K. Rowlings’ Harry Potter series was published years after the story idea first came to her while she was riding on a train.
It’s not uncommon for careers to feel delayed, slowed, or even asleep. But time, courage, and consistent effort can clear the rubble-strewn roads that lead to whatever accomplishments you want to achieve. Keep showing up.
Secret to a Successful Career: Slow and Steady
Do not confuse a slower pace with failure. It’s tempting to become impatient or discouraged. I haven’t met anyone who wouldn’t prefer a simple, speedy route to becoming an overnight success — especially compared with the lackluster look of a laborer, working their tail off to get where they want to be. But slower, more measured movements are not inactivity. Keep pushing forward and keep learning and adjusting as you go.
Right now, if you’re in the middle of the muddle of all this career development stuff, here’s my parting recommendation: Let time work its magic. Don’t assume the fast track is your best bet. Refuse to skip over incremental steps and hard work. And don’t dismiss the tedious tasks that will clear the way for you to find a successful career. I guarantee you’ll look back and appreciate the journey as much as the destination.