Back in elementary school, we were all exposed to historical timelines to help visualize key moments and events in history. Unfortunately, these tools gave us the false impression that time was linear and ran in a logical sequence of days, months, and years.
A similar phenomenon happens when we talk about our careers. Too often, we look at our career development as a succession of events and experiences that occur over time. Ideally, these experiences become the building blocks for a career that continues to grow, expand, and flourish.
Unfortunately, careers or life don’t work that way.
In reality, our career development looks less like a ladder, a set of stairs, or even a progressing timeline. It actually looks more like a line that’s been jumbled, knotted, and bent every which-way. The fact is that as we move through our careers, there are things we can control and things that just happen.
So, experts may continue to describe career development as a metered progression, but we know better. If you’ve been in the workforce for more than a few years then you already know that your momentum is not always a forward progression. Lay-offs, market fluctuations, and job reassignments are some of the unknown forces that compel us to change the trajectory of our careers. That means we sometimes move forward, backward, or even laterally over the course of our professional lives.
In comedian Steve Martin’s autobiography, Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life, he references the great impact Johnny Carson had on his career. Martin was a regular guest and fill-in host for Carson on The Tonight Show. This became a great launching pad for Martin’s career. One evening, Martin shared stories of his past career as a magician and musician at Knott’s Berry Farm theme park in Buena Park, Calif. During the commercial break, Carson leaned over to Martin and said, “You’ll use everything.”
Martin had no idea what Carson was talking about. It wasn’t until years later that he figured out what Carson meant. Over the course of developing and refining his comedy act, Martin integrated magic tricks, balloon animals, prop comedy, and even banjo playing. Carson was right — he was using everything.
Our careers are less of a timeline and more of an evolution, during which we will use everything — the experiences that were planned and those that occurred beyond our control. Success comes when we’re able to gather all of these experiences and apply them to our growing cache of knowledge and expertise.
They say what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. I don’t know about that, but it sure can help with a career metamorphosis that is in a constant state of change.