Career paths (I)

One of the many things I love about the company I work for is the bunch of volunteering opportunities available to us. For a few years now I've been collaborating with Junior Achievement, an international institution who establishes links between students in primary and post-primary education and professionals from the corporate world.

The idea is for us volunteers to visit primary and secondary schools and deliver training sessions and other events to the kids, not only to bring them new knowledge (though that's part of it, especially in areas like economics, business, science, technology, engineering and maths), but mainly to be a role model for them; that way, they can see that staying in the education system pays off, as it gives them more chances to find a good job.

In previous years, I've done training sessions on science, technology and the like, but my task for this week was something very different: delivering a talk about my professional career to a secondary school class, in order to inspire them at this crucial moment when they're starting to decide what to do with their life.

My professional career.

Twenty years, more or less, since I started to work.

To be honest, at the beginning I didn't have a clear idea of what I could say that they would find inspiring, or at least somewhat helpful... How could I become a useful example for them? What did I learn in all these years that's worth telling? What would have helped me to hear when I was their age? I slowly started to dig deeper and deeper, and a common thread started emerging; an idea, a message that I would also like to share with you.

Diagram displaying a straight arrow from "start" to "end" with the label "How life is supposed to go", followed by another arrow full of twists, turns and loops between "start" and "end", and the label "How life actually goes"

This diagram is a great illustration of "how life is supposed to go" (a perfect straight line from the starting point to the end) versus "how life actually goes" (an extremely whacky and bendy line, full of twists, turns and even loops, from the starting point to the end).

This is as true for professional careers as it is for anything else in life: I realized this first hand as I was preparing my presentation, and I noticed I had drawn my trajectory as a perfect arrow from left to right, with significant milestones at regular intervals, when in reality there were a good few twists and turns, many of them unexpected, coming from outside, but also a few that I decided to initiate myself, from the inside.

Luckily, my presentation also had to include a section on "successes and failures", so that's where I took the opportunity to explain a few of those twists and turns along the years, which, depending on how you look at them, can be considered failures, in the sense that things didn't turn out how I expected them to.

And I said "depending on how you look at them" because this black and white thinking that states that things are either a success or a failure doesn't seem accurate to me; I prefer looking at it this way:

Two drawings: on the left hand side, over the label "What people think", a road forks into "Success" as the wide shiny road straight ahead and "Failure" as a narrow winding road to the side, blocked by an orange cone and a FAIL sign. On the right hand side, the "road to success" combines a few different road branches that twist, loop and end in FAIL with one that continues ahead, with another couple of FAILs along the way, and the shiny success at the end

This other diagram shows us "what most people think", which is that success and failure are mutually exclusive, and that failure derails you from the path of success, versus "what successful people know", which is that what we call failure is nothing more than feedback indicating which way not to go, so that we can try different routes and end up finding the right way, the way of success.

And this is something I would have greatly benefited from if I had heard it twenty years ago: that it's OK to make mistakes (at work and in life), that getting it wrong every now and then is completely normal, and it's even necessary, because it allows us to learn and make progress in life, figuring out our own path.

How about you? What do you think about these two diagrams?

  • If you've been in the workforce for a few years already, are these hypotheses true in your case as well? What would be the shape of your professional career, if you were to draw it? What twists, turns or blockers have you found along the way?
  • And if you've only recently joined the workforce, or haven't joined yet, how does it feel when you hear your professional career will probably be this chaotic? What do you think could help you to prepare a little better?

Next week I'll tell you something else that came to my mind when preparing for the talk: a way to think about your professional career that I hope will provide you with some fresh ideas and practical tools.

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