This recent graduate has already experienced significant change and career uncertainty and wants to know how to “accomplish great things” amidst so much change:
I am just a few years into my career and have already seen tons of change in multiple industries that will only continue. And industry landscapes aren’t the only things that are uncertain – I’ve worked in several different fields over the past 5 years and sometimes feel like my future itself is uncertain. How will my industry change due to economic and political events? How will my passions change? How will my interests change? How can I accomplish great things even though I’m not necessarily on the straight and narrow?
Kudos to this young professional for just being aware that change is a constant. Yes, industries will change, passions and interests will change, and I will add another wildcard — how opportunities become available at unpredictable times, more slowly or quickly than you might feel prepared for. A strong, lasting career requires flexibility and adaptability.
Since you don’t know fully what you want or what you are capable of and when those wants and abilities inevitably change over time, the only sure bet for a strong, lasting career is to prepare to survive and thrive amidst the unknown. Here are five guidelines for how to build career longevity now when so many factors will change over time:
Control what you can control
The economy goes up and down, even sure-bet companies run into trouble, and other people’s careers are out of your hands, so you don’t know for long who your colleagues, boss, or senior leaders will be. However, you control your own life. You control whether you show up on time and give productive, focused effort. You control what you eat, how much you sleep and how you take care of yourself. You control how much you spend and whether you build a lifestyle that makes you more or less dependent on your current job.
Whatever career path you choose (and this includes stepping away from a traditional career by taking a leave or starting a business!), take responsibility for what you contribute to that path. If something isn’t right (e.g., you’re not fulfilled at your job, you feel undervalued, you’re in a general funk), focus on the things in your control first. Get into the habit now of getting and keeping your life and scope of work in order. This will give you a strong foundation to withstand external difficulties and be part of the solution.
Manage resources wisely
Time, money, and energy are personal resources available to all of us. Everyone has the same amount of time, but we all know people who are more productive than others. Money is not distributed evenly but we all know people who manage to stay out of credit card debt (or not), who are diligent savers (or profligate spenders), and who spend on things they really want (or fritter money away). The ones with good money outcomes aren’t necessarily the ones who have the most money to start, but they practice good money management. Similarly, energy level varies among people, and it’s not easily attributable to any one thing –health, happiness, career choice, or something else. However, we recognize if someone gives off positive energy or negative energy.
Whatever your career situation right now, you have time, money and energy available to you. Learn how to manage your time wisely and spend it on your most important goals and priorities. Develop good money habits so you spend consciously on things that match your values and still have extra money to invest, so money can work for you and you are never overly dependent on your current job. Mind your energy level so that you match your activities when you can be most productive (e.g., I’m a morning person so I do my most mentally taxing jobs early in the day) and so that you emanate positive energy to other people.
Do complete work
Whatever your specific industry or role is, the most valuable workers do complete work. You can count on them. If they agree to do something, they will get the job done. If there is a problem, they will uncover it, come up with solutions, and ask for help if it is beyond their capabilities. If they recognize an opportunity to improve themselves or the situation for someone else, they will offer ideas and help. Are you a valuable worker?
As your career changes, expectations change. When you start managing people, you have the challenge of doing your day-to-day job and managing your team. When you run an entire department for a company or run your own business, you have your day-to-day, management and responsibility for the budget and the health of that business. As your scope of responsibility grows, it will get more challenging to do complete work. However, the diligence, integrity, and commitment to doing complete work is something you can adopt from day one and strengthen over time.
Learn how to get along
Regardless of how talented you are solo, you will need other people. You need someone more senior than you to hire or promote you. You need team members to collaborate with you because many meaningful projects span different departments, even geographies and you can’t be in two places at once. If you aspire to lead, you need people who will follow.
Even before you are in charge of anyone but yourself, you can build a network of supporters and fans. By doing complete work (see above!) you can be the person that others want to work with and that companies want to hire. By keeping in touch with people you already know and get to know over time, you expose yourself to a varied group and are not pigeonholed in any one industry, role, or body of knowledge. We all don’t know what the future holds, but if you have other people supporting and helping you, then you’ll have more information and be better positioned than the ones trying to do it all themselves.
As you develop the skills, knowledge, and good habits that serve you now, recognize that what works today won’t necessarily work tomorrow. Your life may be running just fine now, but then you throw a new relationship, an expanding family, a health issue into the mix, and you need to readjust. Doing complete work is an evergreen good habit, but what it takes to do complete work will change. People will come in and out of your life, so your network is never static and always needs tending .
I could say, “Stay vigilant!” Things will change, and you have to watch out. However, “Stay curious” captures a more positive spirit of the same idea. Vigilance connotes defensiveness and fearfulness. Curiosity connotes openness and wonder. Stay open to new ideas. Be willing to learn new skills and expertise and to welcome new people into your network. Keep improving, and watch out for complacency.
However your career unfolds, recognize that there are many different ways to reach career fulfillment and life satisfaction. Twenty five years after my own career started, I can see a direct path from my early jobs to now, but I also can see different ways I could have reached this same end level of satisfaction. The best way to ensure career longevity from the start is stay flexible and adaptable, using the above five ideas as a guide.