The Inner Game of Career Development


Today’s increasingly complex and uncertain business environment is forcing disruption within all dimensions of an organization, from technology to turnover, production to people, sales to sourcing—and even career development.

What in the past was a predictable process of advancing from one role to the next throughout one’s time with an employer has changed beyond recognition. Flatter hierarchies, constant change, trimmed ranks, less mobility, the introduction of artificial intelligence (AI), and the rise of the gig economy all contribute to an employment landscape that requires a very different navigational approach. Traditional long-term, lock-step career planning is giving way to more fluidity, flexibility, and responsiveness. And many successful professionals are replacing old “cast in concrete” career action plans with something more valuable and appropriate today: career agility plans.

Agility in any arena requires access to high-quality information. You can be ready to zig or zag at the appropriate moment only to the extent that you have the data needed to do so. And when it comes to career development, this information is available via two key sources: looking inward and looking outward. These two views make up the inner and outer game of career development today.

For millennia, we’ve been advised to “know thyself.” But what does that mean in today’s time-starved world when every moment is spoken for? When productivity and efficiency have become hallmarks of success? When information and media intrude upon even our quietest moments? How many of us can honestly say we know ourselves? And yet, until we can, we are actively hampering our ability to drive our careers in directions that will be most satisfying.

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Agile career development is firmly rooted in an intimate and evolving understanding of who we really are today—not the last time we checked in with ourselves. Agility comes from a place of complete clarity about not just our talents, but those super powers that define our unique value proposition. It’s also based on a clear-eyed view of what we’re absolutely not good at—which either dictates what we won’t do or drives development.

But the ability to navigate one’s career with agility demands more than appreciating strengths and weaknesses. Increasingly it also requires a deep appreciation for interests, preferences, and values. The challenge is that this inner game (with the exception of values) is in flux and will change over time; so, it can’t be “one and done.” Agile career navigators develop a lifelong habit of managing their inner games through:

  • Reflection—Although thinking is highly undervalued in today’s action-oriented world, it’s essential to staying abreast of who we’re becoming and how we’re changing day by day. Taking time to routinely journal (even for three minutes daily) offers a discipline for checking in.
  • Observation—We get so swept up in work that we rarely step back to watch what we’re doing, experience how we’re feeling, and evaluate what contributes to (or detracts from) our flow state. Hitting the mental pause button once or twice each day can provide valuable data about what you love, what nourishes you, and more—information that easily gets buried in the barrage of daily tasks and busyness.
  • Input—Reflection and observation offer profound insights and inform the inner game of career development. But, let’s face it: Each of us is just one limited and biased data point. Feedback from others can illuminate what we don’t see, validate what we do or “right-size” our views, and point out those times when we’re legends only in our own minds.

The inner game of career development boils down to an ongoing conversation with ourselves—a conversation that offers an ever-changing understanding of ourselves, our gifts, and what we most want to do and experience in the workplace. And this deep repository of information is the foundation of agile career development.

In our next installment, we’ll explore the other side of this coin: the outer game of career development. And we’ll see how you can bring these two games together to ensure the most brilliant and resilient career possible.

In the meantime, explore this list of thought-provoking questions to discover more about yourself and start your new cadence of daily reflection:

  1. Describe your best day ever at work. What made it so?
  2. What unique value do you bring to others and/or your work (in five words or less)?
  3. When was the last time you tried something new? What was it and how did it go?
  4. What do you love doing more than anything else?
  5. What are two or three things worth fighting for?
  6. Under what circumstances are you most productive?
  7. What do you appreciate most about yourself? What don’t you appreciate?
  8. What was the last accomplishment you celebrated?
  9. What does happiness mean to you?
  10. How are you holding yourself back?
  11. How have you changed over the past three years? How would you like to evolve over the next three?
  12. What’s one thing you know or can do better than anyone else?
  13. When was the last time you stepped out of your comfort zone? What did you discover?
  14. What qualities and abilities do you admire in others?
  15. What gives your life significance or meaning?

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