What is a career?

Forty years ago, when my parents were starting work, a career meant staying in one particular industry and working your way up.

Staying in one industry is less popular these days – but working your way up is a powerful idea, and the word ‘career’ still implies a gradual progression through the ranks towards senior management.

I think that implication is problematic.

The things we associate with increasing seniority – increasing earnings, influence, and status – are certainly desirable.

But the assumption that one should strive to increase one’s seniority is worth questioning.

That assumption is important because it is implicit in much career advice, in the decisions that lots of people make about their current and future jobs, and in many of the anxieties that beset us at work.

Are the rewards of increasing seniority really so desirable that one’s entire working life should be structured around pursuing them?

Maybe – it depends on your personal priorities.

But more importantly, are the rewards of increasing seniority really so desirable that everyone’s entire working life should be defined in relation to pursuing them?

Certainly not. Seniority is not the only pursuit.

My personal priorities (at present) have led me to this as the definition of my desired career: getting paid to do interesting things.

I wonder how – or whether – that will manifest itself next time I change jobs?

2 Thoughts on “What is a career?

  1. “…Getting paid to do interesting things.” That should be my motto. Or, perhaps it should be “Not getting paid enough to do interesting things.”

    I mention this because, for the first time in many years, I’m beginning a job search. My main problem is that my career has been characterized by a progression of positions that were interesting to me.

    The problem I’m encountering is that my particular skillset isn’t easy to explain to a hiring manager. It’s not so black and white. Most of them want to see that you did ‘x’ for ‘y’, over a period of ‘z’, and they want you to talk about your achievements in this light. Stratifying you in this way helps them to evaluate your fitness for a particular purpose – just like you were a cog in a wheel.

    How often do you meet an interviewer who wants to analyze your background, read between the lines, and discover who you truly are?

    It seems that to get a good job today you must package and brand yourself. You must appeal to the interviewer first as a solid, shiny, new cog that fits into the wheel. Then you must show that the company cannot do without your particular brand of cog.

    Personally, I’m not a big fan of this sort of job search. I prefer “getting paid to do interesting things”. So, I’ve spent the last 11 years doing interesting things: helping small companies position, market and sell their new technologies – as a contractor – a sort of highly leveraged GM for small businesses. Finally I opened, and 2 years later, closed my own technology company.

    How do I spin that into ‘fitness for a particular purpose’? How do I best brand myself? After all, I am capable of doing many things – which is the fundamental component of a ‘Start-Up Guy’ – like myself.

    I could be a ‘Seasoned Biz Dev’ guy, a ‘Partnership and Alliances Dude’, a ‘Subject Matter Expert & Product Evangelist’, a Sr. Product Manager, Product Marketing Manager, Major Accounts Manager, Channel Sales Manager, or even Director, VP, or combination of the above. Or, I could focus my brand on a particular technology.

    I guess the main problem with being a bold, enthusiastic, risk-taker who challenges the norm and aggressively does what interests himself: at the end of the day, what most hirers want is something that is clearly and simply packaged & branded, and slides perfectly into the wheel.

    • Interesting. A nice problem to have!
      Short answer: find something interesting to do, then brand yourself in a way that the recruiter can understand.
      Long answer: coming up in Jan in a post I’m writing called ’21st-century job-hunting’…

What do you think?

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